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5 years after California’s deadliest wildfire, survivors forge different paths toward recovery

By Adam Beam and Olga Rodriguez

PARADISE, Calif. - On the day Paradise burned, Gwen Nordgren stopped her car just long enough to rescue a young woman escaping by foot.

By that time on Nov. 8, 2018, the sky was black even though the sun had been up for hours. Both sides of the street were on fire as Nordgren grabbed the woman’s hand.

"Have you lived a good life?" she asked. The woman said she had.

"So have I," said Nordgren, the president of the Paradise Lutheran Church council. "We’re going to say the Our Father and we’re going to drive like hell."

Nordgren has told that story countless times in the five years since the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California’s history nearly erased a quiet community in the Sierra Nevada foothills. There are thousands more stories like it, each one providing a frame for one of the worst wildfires in U.S. history.

Five years later, some — like Nordgren — are sharing their stories freely and managing their post-traumatic stress enough to return to Paradise to help make something new. Others, like Shari Bernacette, are still haunted by their memories — including witnessing the flames consume a fleeing couple, one pushing the other in a wheelchair.

"We still can’t sleep well. We toss and turn all night," said Bernacette, who moved with her husband to Yuma, Arizona, to escape the risk of future wildfires. The couple lives in a used RV purchased with their insurance money. "We are in the desert surrounded by cactus and rocks. There is nothing that can light up. We will never live amongst the trees again."

For people who returned to Paradise, life is about adjusting. It’s the same place, but doesn’t feel the same. Paradise was once so thick with trees it was hard to tell the town was perched on a ridge. Now, the shadows are gone as sunlight bathes the town on clear days, offering impressive views of the canyons.

Today’s population of just under 10,000 is less than half the 26,000 who lived there before the blaze.

The Camp Fire destroyed about 11,000 homes, which amounted to about 90% of the town’s structures. So far 2,500 homes have been rebuilt. About 700 are under construction at any one time, many on original lots. But just six of the town’s 36 mobile home parks that served mostly low-income and older residents have reopened.

Donna Hooton and her husband lived in one of the mobile home parks destroyed by the fire. The Hootons live off of Social Security and said they can’t afford to move to Paradise. They now live an hour away, in a small, decades-old mobile home.

"We wish we could go home but home is not there anymore," Hooton said.

Paradise Mayor Greg Bolin says that by 2025 all of the town’s overhead power lines will be buried underground. By 2026, he says all public roads will be repaved.

"I can see what it’s going to look like. I know how nice it is going to be when it’s done," said Bolin, who also owns Trilogy Construction Inc., one of the town’s main construction companies.

For the most part, Bolin said it is "amazing, in five years, how well people are doing." But then a whiff of smoke will linger in the air, and it instantly brings residents back to that terrible day. It happened just last month, when Derrick Harlan — a 34-year-old Paradise resident whose business reduces fire hazards — got a permit to burn some debris piles in Paradise.

When neighbors saw smoke from the debris fire though, they called the police. The next day, the fire department showed up.

"That’s where the trauma and the PTSD comes in," Harlan said.

Wildfires have always been a part of life in California, but they are getting more severe as climate change has caused hotter, drier summers. Seven of the state’s top 10 most destructive fires happened in the past decade. Before the Camp Fire killed 85 people, the state’s deadliest was a 1933 blaze that killed 29. More recently, a 2017 fire shocked the state as it ripped through suburban neighborhoods in California wine country, killing 22.

But the Camp Fire, the official name of the Paradise fire, marked a turning point.

Now, utility companies routinely shut off power for millions of people during wind storms in an effort to prevent fires from starting. Major property insurance companies have raised homeowners’ rates to exponential highs or dropped coverage for many in wildfire-prone areas. Other providers have simply stopped writing new policies altogether. PG&E pleaded guilty to 84 counts of manslaughter, filed for bankruptcy and announced plans to bury 10,000 miles of power lines. The town has installed warning sirens and is working to create more evacuation routes.

But just when it seemed safe to think that what happened in Paradise was a once-in-a-lifetime fire, it happened again — this time thousands of miles away in Maui, Hawaii. It meant April Kelly, who grew up in Paradise and lived in Maui for 16 years, lost both of her hometowns.

"I can’t believe I’m going through this a second time," she said.

Finding ways to cope with that grief has become a shared part of life in Paradise. The local theater saved Judy Clemens, giving her a space to channel her passion for live performance after the blaze. The Theatre on the Ridge opened to host its first show on Valentine’s Day in 2019.

"If the theater had gone, too, I really would have been lost," Clemens said.

For Samuel Walker, making peace with the fire meant making peace with God. The pastor of the First Baptist Church of Paradise was wracked with guilt over the death of Bob Quinn, a church member who Walker likened to a second father. On the day of the fire, Walker drove by the street where Quinn lived and for a moment, thought about checking on him. Instead, he rescued his parents, who would not have been able to escape the fire on their own.

Walker learned of Quinn’s death three days after the fire, while he was in Fresno with his family. Thieves had just broken into Walker’s car and stolen the only things his wife and daughter had saved from their house — including photos, an iPad and a knitting machine.

He was angry about his situation, everything that had happened and all of the people who had died or been hurt. For a pastor, being mad at God is a bigger problem than most.

"How am I going to minister to a congregation with all of these people with all of their issues, if I’m still trying to get through mine?" Walker asked.

He finally found peace after a trip to the hospital, of all places. Walker injured his arm after a fall while taking out the trash. In the hospital, he immediately thought of a Bible verse from the New Testament that says: "The Lord disciplines everyone he loves."

"It was almost kind of a healing point ... to say, ‘OK Lord, I’m going to let this go. I’m going to stop being angry and get back to what you have me here to do,’" Walker said.

Businesses are returning to Paradise, with recent openings of a Big Lots and Ross Dress for Less sending ripples of excitement through town. Town leaders plan to begin installing a sewer system next summer for the business district, which would allow more restaurants to operate.

That will help Nicki Jones’ restaurant, a deli and wine bar called Nic’s. Jones first came to Paradise 25 years ago. She called it a "fluke," a place to retire with her husband. The town quickly became much more than that. She opened two businesses: a candle shop and a women’s clothing store. Both burned in the fire, along with her home.

After the fire, there was no time for rest or reflection. She had a community to rebuild. With a background in accounting she knew what to do. She started by calling her insurance companies. Within 30 days of the fire, she was able to buy a building. Within a year, she opened a restaurant called Nic’s, what she said is the first new business to open in Paradise after the fire.

"Everybody reacts to whatever tragedy there is — and we all have them — but my way has always been to jump in. How can I fix it?" she said. "I wanted a place where everybody could come and feel comfortable and feel normal."

The best time to go to Nic’s is for "Wine room Wednesdays," when lots of locals stop by for a drink and a hug. That sometimes includes Adam Thompson, who is not from Paradise. After the pandemic, Thompson and his family were looking for a quiet community in the foothills to raise their family. In 2021, they moved to Magalia, just outside of Paradise.

If the town is to grow, it needs new people. But newcomers face a daunting question: How do you assimilate into a community defined by a shared tragedy?

Thompson said his family was quickly accepted. His kids are enrolled in a local school. They play Little League baseball and perform in the local theater.

"There’s a humility and a resilience here that I don’t think would be in a town like this had they not gone through the fire," he said. "I’ve never once felt excluded up here. I’ve never felt judged. I’ve only felt love and welcome from literally every single person I’ve met."

April Kelly, who hails from Paradise and Maui, is now the general manager at Nic’s. She is on the board of directors for a parent support group called Mom’s on the Ridge. Samuel Walker is still the pastor of Paradise Baptist Church, now living with his family in nearby Magalia.

Before the fire, Paradise was viewed as a retirement community with mostly older residents. But that’s changing. The Paradise Little League has had so much interest it’s warned parents that kids may be turned away next year.

The town’s rebirth has amazed Don Criswell, a Paradise native who moved back to the area in 1998. Wildfires burned his property in 2008 and again in 2018. Both times he stayed to fight the fires himself.

The Paradise of his memory has been erased. Personal landmarks — the house he grew up in, his elementary school — are gone. Most of his childhood friends and neighbors have since moved away.

But he hasn’t gone anywhere. Instead, he has planted trees and a garden. He donates vegetables to a free community lunch put on by his church. He even plays the piano for people who come to eat.

"I’m so sorry that it (the fire) happened. There’s nothing I can do about that," he said. "I can try to make it a good, fun and beautiful place to live again. I think we’re doing that."

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