‘We’re going to stay.’ Paradise couple on living in a ‘twisted, burnt shell’ of community
Phil and Michelle John know they have it better than most.
Their house was among the 11 percent in Paradise that survived the Camp Fire, and they moved home in early April. Their street is largely intact, and many of their neighbors have returned. Even their cat is recovering, having miraculously turned up, half starved and reeking of smoke, a couple of weeks after the fire.
On the other hand: They’ve lost much of their social circle. Their Friday night routine — burgers with friends at Barney’s or some other beloved restaurant — has ended. John, their friend from Rotary, has moved to the Bay Area. Sandy, their Realtor friend, relocated to Lake Tahoe. Their golfing buddies have scattered down the hill, to Chico. While some of the old gang will likely return, hardly a day goes by when they don’t learn of someone listing their house for sale.
They miss the trees that made Paradise so beautiful. A drive around town is now a trip through hell, on roads clogged with trucks hauling away the wreckage of burned buildings and car skeletons. Paradise — their Paradise — has been wounded.
“My home is an oasis in a bad video game,” Phil John, 66, said, relaxing with Michelle in their living room. “When I’m out in the car ... I expect a zombie to walk out any minute.”
He paused for a moment and added: “I’m not back home. I’m sorry I say that. People get mad at me — people who’ve lost their homes — when I say that. I’d give up all my stuff in a second, I’d give up my home in a second, if everybody else had their stuff. I’m hurt by what’s happened to my friends. I’m hurt by what’s happened to my community.”
This is life in Paradise, six months after the worst wildfire in California history destroyed most of this town of 26,000 and killed 85 people. The Johns are among the few thousand who’ve returned to Paradise, and the neighboring communities of Magalia and Concow, trying to re-create what they once had in a place they no longer recognize.
It hasn’t been easy. Returnees must cope with inconveniences large and small. The simplest errands turn into lengthy chores, as dump trucks and demolition crews snarl traffic. Everyone in Paradise uses bottled water; they can’t drink out of the tap because the town’s plumbing system has turned into a “toxic cocktail” contaminated with benzene.
Almost all of the area’s schools have temporarily moved to Chico and Oroville. The town’s hospital is closed until 2020 at the earliest. The burn zone boasts two open supermarkets and four restaurants.
As workers in white hazmat suits continue to sift through the toxic rubble, reminders of the tragedy are everywhere. Every evening, after the cleanup crews return to their motels in Chico and Oroville, the people who live here look out at the ruins — and ponder the emptiness.
“Inside my house, it’s no different, until I look out my window,” said Paradise resident Peggy Mattier, who moved back home in March. “When I look out a window I’m like, oh yeah ... there’s nobody around.”
Some are coping better than others. Mattier is happy to be back home. The Johns plan to relocate eventually, out of sadness and a desire to be closer to their grandchildren in Reno.
Kathi and Alan Hiatt have already had enough. They’ve listed their home, amid the scorched Magalia pines, and plan to move to Texas.
It’s been an accumulation of things. Kathi Hiatt’s hairstylist, Debbie’s Place, burned down. Colyer Veterinary, where they took their four dogs, burned down. Their church, Paradise United Methodist, didn’t burn but has closed anyway, at least for the time being. The Paradise Cinema 7 movie theater is closed, “and we don’t even have a hamburger stand,” Alan Hiatt said.
Every trip for groceries, to the hardware store, to the post office is a reminder that 85 of their neighbors burned to death the morning of Nov. 8.
“You can’t go forward because it’s in your face; it’s in your face every day,” Kathi Hiatt said. She compared the situation to having a loved one die and someone “put the coffin in your living room.”
Before the fire, she’d look out her living room window each morning to see foxes and deer. Now she sees porta-potties and abandoned refrigerators and giant stacks of logs. One morning in January, she looked outside and burst into tears.
She told Alan, “I can’t live here anymore.”
That was that. The decision to relocate, after 18 years in Magalia, was heartbreaking but irrevocable. Kathi, 70, said she realized it will take years before the area is rebuilt.
“This isn’t going to happen in our lifetime,” she said.
They aren’t the only ones giving up. For-sale signs are sprouting all over Paradise and the surrounding area. Some people are leaving because they’re afraid fire will strike again, said the Hiatts’ real estate agent, Johnny Klinger. Others are “fed up with California” or simply too overwhelmed to stay, he said.
At the same time, he said the market is hot because of the demand for housing, and prices have jumped smartly. But not everyone has benefited. The Hiatts have had to drop their asking price.
“We’re in the devastated area — that’s a hard sell,” Kathi Hiatt said.
With so many people dispersed, some believe Paradise won’t recoup its lost population for years, despite town leaders’ pledge to rebuild.
New Orleans is still 20 percent less populous than before Hurricane Katrina. Sonoma County suffered a population loss of 2,200 in the year after the 2017 wine country fires. Of the 3,000 homes that burned in Santa Rosa, only 275 have been rebuilt and another 1,188 are under construction.
In Paradise — a poorer community than Santa Rosa — reconstruction will likely be slow. Although locals are excited that a new home on the east side of town has already been framed, it’s clear that construction on a mass scale won’t start anytime soon. Out of more than 10,000 contaminated lots, only 304 have been scrubbed clean of toxins and readied for rebuilding. The work will continue through early 2020, said Cal Recycle spokesman Lance Klug.
Like many residents, Stewart Nugent, 68, who stayed behind and saved his home and his neighbors’ during the fire, is under no illusions: Paradise won’t return to normal for years.
“It would be nice to go on vacation for about five years and come back and see how it’s doing,” he said while cleaning up a shed in his yard that was destroyed after a worker cut down a burned tree and it accidentally fell on it. “See what they’ve got. See if they’ve got the Jack In The Box opened back up.”
Nicki Jones has already opened her store back up. The owner of Bobbi’s Boutique women’s clothing, Jones watched her old shop burn down and promptly bought a vacant building across the street. Her grand opening in early April was a cause for celebration.
Shoppers have been streaming in from Chico and elsewhere “to support our town,” Jones said. She plans to open a restaurant this summer in the other half of her building.
“I move forward; that’s my way of coping,” she said.
But Jones, as big a cheerleader as Paradise has, isn’t oblivious to the challenges her adopted hometown faces in the coming years.
“It’ll be a smaller town,” she said quietly before turning to help a customer. “A different town.”
Hoedowns and safety vests
The last weekend of April was festive. Defying expectations, the community staged its 61st annual Gold Nugget Days, complete with a hoedown, “donkey derby” and other cherished activities.
Things were different, of course: The parade was downsized, the crowds were smaller, the Gold Nugget Queen pageant was canceled and the whole event was shortened from four days to two. Still, people seemed pleased and “we did as many of the normal events as we could,” said one of the lead organizers, Jerre Bates.
Among those in attendance was Michelle John. She’s superintendent of the Paradise Unified School District, and she was staffing a booth to spread some good news: At least two of the district’s schools, having been relocated to Chico and Oroville, will probably reopen in Paradise this fall. “I wanted people to know we’re coming back,” she said.
Many of the desks will be empty, though. The district has lost half of its 3,400 students already. John figures more will leave this fall as more families permanently settle in their new surroundings and transfer their kids out of the Paradise district.
Roughly 1,350 homes in Paradise survived the Camp Fire, while 10,450 burned down. Paradise Mayor Jody Jones — whose own house burned down, forcing her to live temporarily in Chico — said about 3,000 people have moved back home, an estimate “based on who’s connected to water and who’s getting garbage service.” That’s a little more than 10 percent of the pre-fire population.
There are nearly as many temporary workers around as permanent residents. Approximately 2,900 workers descend on the Paradise area on any given day, removing debris, controlling traffic, sweeping the streets, and hauling away dead or dying trees, according to estimates by the state Office of Emergency Services, Cal Recycle and PG&E.
During the daylight hours, the streets are constantly rumbling with dump trucks, logging trucks, excavators and other heavy equipment, sparking occasional complaints about reckless driving. “I want them to slow down,” Phil John said.
In some ways the workers have taken over the town. Head into Starbucks or Save Mart, and you’ll bump into someone wearing an orange safety vest. The joke around Paradise is that there’s no need for alarm clocks anymore; the chainsaws start up early enough to wake anyone.
“Chainsaws and the beeping of heavy equipment, that backing-up sound,” said Mattier with a laugh. “It’s the new normal.”
Utility poles, spare fences are plastered with posters advertising law firms, demolition companies, insurance adjusters and others who have swooped in since the Camp Fire. There’s no shortage of signs promising cash for real estate — offers that aren’t always greeted warmly around here.
“The sad thing to see is people coming around with the fliers: ‘Can we buy your lots? Can we buy your homes?’ ” said Deborah Van Gundy, who sees herself as part of the recovery.
She and her husband Michael manage Needful Things Antiques & Collectibles in Paradise, which reopened a few weeks ago. It’s struggling to draw business but the couple is “going to ride it out,” Michael Van Gundy said. “We’re going to make a stand.” That extends to their personal lives: the Van Gundys lost their home to the fire but just made a down payment on the house in Magalia they’ve been renting.
Needful Things was among the earliest businesses to reopen. It’s been joined by several drug stores, gas stations, auto-parts and auto-repair shops and cell-phone dealers. The Ace Hardware store advertises “Redhot Buys.” Steve’s Music, the guitar shop on Skyway, is up and running part time. Several banks are back, including U.S. Bank, which brought in a mobile branch on wheels to replace a permanent office damaged in the fire.
Food trucks dominate the culinary scene. Three restaurants have reopened in Magalia, but there’s only one place in Paradise available for a sit-down meal: Sophia’s Thai Cuisine on the town’s main drag, Skyway. A giant water tank sits in the parking lot and owner Lok Keobouahom keeps his tiny restaurant open til 9 p.m., no matter how empty it is.
“Just being here, that’s my first priority,” he said. “Just being here for the town .... When people come in, they smile.”
Lunchtime is busy with cleanup crews. Dinnertime is slow, except for Fridays and Saturdays when folks stream in from outside of Paradise. The water tank gets refilled once a week.
The Keobouahoms’ home, about 40 minutes away, survived the fire, but they moved into a rental in Paradise to be closer to the restaurant. That brought other complications: Their twin 10-year-old daughters have to be driven to school in Chico — 30 minutes each way — and they have no friends nearby when they return home.
The girls want to move. Their dad explains to them why they have to stay.
“I’m glad I’m still here for the community, but sometimes I feel sad for my kids,” he said. “I try to tell them that ... we cannot just abandon town, abandon where you live.”
Home at last
Once they learned their home was standing, Abigail Lopez and her boyfriend Donovan Frary figured they’d be able to move back in a few days.
Instead, they spent months haggling with their insurance company over the damage caused by the acrid smoke that engulfed their home. They bounced from one cheap motel to the next.
Once the evacuation order was lifted in December, and they were allowed back in Paradise, they realized just how bad off the house was. They discovered their home was unlivable. Everything — clothes, books, food, bedding — was rank with the smell of the Camp Fire.
Each visit just reinforced the hurdles they were facing.
“All you want to do all the time is go home,” said Lopez, 32. “Then you go back to your house, and you want to leave.”
They knew how lucky they were — their neighbor, Nugent, put out the embers that threatened both of their houses. Still, “there are times we kind of wish it all burned,” Lopez said.
Finally, on the last weekend of April, they moved back. But the journey hardly feels complete.
Their floors have to be replaced, and there are panes of glass that cracked from the heat of the fire. They hired a company to install a large water tank behind their house, but can’t connect it until the plumbing has been tested for benzene. That means no running water; Lopez and Frary have to haul water in buckets to flush the toilet.
The benzene problem is affecting everyone’s homecoming in Paradise. Tap water delivered by the Paradise Irrigation District has been declared undrinkable because the pipes are riddled with the chemical compound, which has been linked to higher risks of cancer. It could take two years to fully correct the problem.
The running water isn’t completely useless; you can bathe in it as long as you don’t run it too hot. So the residents make do.
“I wake up and I shower, very quickly and in tepid water,” Mattier said. “I make my cup of coffee with my bottled water.”
Other housekeeping issues confront Camp Fire returnees, usually the minute they set foot in the door. Their food spoiled so badly when the power went out, they’ve had to replace their refrigerators. The smoky smells have proven resistant against even the most thorough and professional housecleaning. Rugs, pillows and linens have been tossed.
Settling in isn’t always easy. The first nights back home — in darkened, largely empty neighborhoods — can bring a mixture of excitement and fear.
Mattier, 55, was by herself, the first person to return to her Paradise street. She had a shotgun — a homecoming gift from her sister and brother-in-law, who would move in with her two weeks later — and she was happy that she never had to take it out of the closet.
“It was unnerving,” she said, referring to those days and nights alone.
Alan Hiatt remembered getting disoriented walking around Magalia at night, seeing a light on inside someone’s house and then realizing the house was empty — it was just a timer light to keep looters away.
And when the mail began to arrive at 9:30 a.m., instead of the usual 3 p.m.? “Just a little reminder that everybody’s gone,” Hiatt said.
‘Survival house guilt’
Lorraine MacDonald was shopping in Bobbi’s Boutique in Paradise recently when a delicate subject came up: How do you tell someone your house didn’t burn down?
The answer: very carefully.
MacDonald said she’s learned to speak in “hushed tones” when revealing to people whose homes were destroyed that her home, in the South Pines area of Magalia, made it.
“When you have everything and you’re trying to talk to somebody who’s lost everything, it’s hard,” she said. “Even if they say they’re happy for you, it’s still hard.”
The strained feelings extend even to family. Her daughter-in-law Lisa confessed to feelings of jealousy because MacDonald still has baby pictures of her son. All of Lisa’s “sentimental stuff” was lost when their home burned down, she said.
“It’s nothing but raw emotions up here,” MacDonald said.
The story repeats itself, in varying ways, throughout the Camp Fire burn zone.
Michelle John said it doesn’t feel right to go golfing anymore. She thinks she should be spending her spare time “helping the community” — or at least doing more cleanup at their house. It’s a side effect of being back in a nice home while knowing others are scrambling for permanent shelter.
“There is survival house guilt,” she said.
Peggy Mattier feels it, too. Sometimes she feels blue about conditions in Paradise but “I feel more guilty than disillusioned,” she said.
Mattier, who works at home handling medical records for Sutter Health, deals with it by plunging into the life of the community. A transplant from the Bay Area, she’s attended town hall meetings on Paradise’s reconstruction plans, and goes bowling occasionally in Chico.
“I’m still here and living in my house, happily settling back in,” she said. “For whatever reason, I’m blessed. My house was saved. I don’t know why, but I’m here.”