Five Years On: California’s Wildfire Survivors Embark on Diverse Recovery Journeys

by Joshua Brown
Wildfire Recovery

On the harrowing day when the town of Paradise was engulfed in flames, Gwen Nordgren made a brief halt to save a young woman who was fleeing the disaster on foot.

It was November 8, 2018, and the daytime sky had turned pitch black. With fires raging on either side, Nordgren extended a hand to the woman.

“Have you had a fulfilling life?” she inquired. The young woman affirmed.

The daunting challenge of rebuilding Paradise, California, looms, compounded by the skyrocketing costs of home insurance.

Nordgren, serving as the president of the Paradise Lutheran Church council, confidently replied, “So have I. Let us recite the Lord’s Prayer and then drive out of here with urgency.”

In the half-decade since that catastrophic fire — the most lethal and destructive in California’s records — claimed nearly all of a serene Sierra Nevada community, Nordgren’s story, among thousands, has been recounted time and again.

Standing before Paradise Lutheran Church, Nordgren reflects on the church’s leadership role, five years subsequent to the fire, captured on October 26, 2023, in Paradise, California. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)

Half a decade later, some individuals, like Nordgren, are openly recounting their experiences and confronting their post-traumatic stress sufficiently to contribute to the rebirth of Paradise. Meanwhile, survivors like Shari Bernacette are besieged by the memories of the inferno, such as witnessing a couple engulfed by the flames, with one trying to save the other in a wheelchair.

“We hardly get a good night’s sleep; we’re restless,” shared Bernacette, who, along with her spouse, relocated to Yuma, Arizona, seeking refuge from potential future fires. Their new home is a secondhand RV, funded by their insurance settlement. “Our surroundings are now desert, with cacti and stone — a stark contrast to our previous home amid the trees, a setting we will forever avoid.”

For those who returned to Paradise, life is a process of adaptation. The town retains its name but the atmosphere has transformed. Once obscured by dense foliage, the community is now bathed in sunlight on clear days, revealing stunning vistas of the surrounding canyons, although the resident count has dwindled to under 10,000, from a pre-fire population of 26,000.

The Camp Fire obliterated some 11,000 homes, which constituted roughly 90% of the town’s buildings. As of now, 2,500 homes have been rebuilt, with around 700 under construction at any given moment, many on their original sites. However, merely six out of the 36 mobile home parks that predominantly housed the elderly and those with limited incomes have been reinstated.

Donna Hooton and her husband, who lost their home in one such mobile home park, now reside an hour’s drive away, unable to afford a return to Paradise. Their current home is a modest, aged mobile home.

Visuals depict the emptiness of the Ridgewood Mobile Home Park, contrasted with the desolation following the Camp Fire, and the recovery efforts as of October 25, 2023, in Paradise, California. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)

“Our desire to return home remains unfulfilled as ‘home’ no longer exists,” expressed Hooton.

Mayor Greg Bolin of Paradise envisions a fully rejuvenated town by 2026, with buried power lines by 2025 and refurbished public roads. Bolin, owner of Trilogy Construction Inc., a key local building firm, anticipates the town’s rebirth, despite occasional smoke that triggers collective memories of that dreadful day. This was exemplified last month when Derrick Harlan, who runs a fire hazard reduction business, was permitted to burn debris in Paradise. The resulting smoke led to panicked calls to the authorities, underscoring the community’s ongoing trauma.

Wildfires, a perennial aspect of Californian life, have intensified due to climate change, leading to hotter and drier summers. Seven of the state’s most destructive fires have occurred in the last decade. The Camp Fire signified a watershed moment, altering public safety measures, insurance policies, and utility management, highlighted by PG&E’s bankruptcy and a guilty plea to 84 counts of manslaughter, along with infrastructure upgrades like the installation of warning sirens and development of additional evacuation routes.

Yet, as Paradise began to regain a sense of safety, a similar catastrophe struck Maui, Hawaii, reminding survivors like April Kelly, who lost both her past and present homes to fire, of their enduring vulnerability.

The community’s resilience is mirrored in local endeavors such as Judy Clemens finding solace in the reopened local theater and Pastor Samuel Walker reconciling with his faith after grappling with guilt and loss.

As Paradise rebuilds, new homes dot the landscape, businesses make a return, and the community plans for future enhancements, embodying an unwavering human spirit that thrives amidst adversity.

The report outlines the disparate journeys of the Paradise residents and the town’s ongoing reconstruction efforts. It is presented as a narrative encompassing human resilience and the profound changes endured by a community in the face of natural calamity. The article maintains an informative stance, aimed at readers who value deep human interest stories alongside economic and environmental developments.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Paradise Wildfire Recovery

What was the scale of the Paradise Wildfire?

The Paradise Wildfire was a devastating event, becoming one of the deadliest and most destructive wildfires in California history, incinerating much of the town of Paradise.

How is the recovery process from the Paradise Wildfire progressing?

Recovery efforts have been ongoing, involving debris removal, rebuilding infrastructure, and providing aid to those affected. The community is gradually rebuilding with a focus on improved safety and sustainability.

What steps are being taken to improve environmental resilience after the Paradise Wildfire?

To enhance environmental resilience, initiatives include planting fire-resistant vegetation, improving emergency response plans, and revising building codes to better withstand future wildfires.

How has the Paradise Wildfire affected the local community and economy?

The impact on the local community and economy has been profound, with many residents displaced and local businesses disrupted. Recovery includes financial assistance, mental health support, and community rebuilding programs.

What can other regions learn from the Paradise Wildfire disaster?

Other regions can learn about the importance of proactive fire prevention measures, the effectiveness of community preparedness plans, and the need for resilient infrastructure to mitigate the effects of such disasters.

More about Paradise Wildfire Recovery

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Tom B. November 7, 2023 - 9:25 am

climate change is no joke, wildfires like this gonna become more common we need to prep better, not just rebuild after the fact.

Sandra L November 7, 2023 - 8:17 pm

Wow, the economic stats after the wildfire are just staggering. makes you think about the real cost of these disasters.

JerryT November 8, 2023 - 6:11 am

gotta give credit to the resilience of these folks, still remember seeing the news about the fire. it’s a long road to recovery.

Mike D. November 8, 2023 - 8:19 am

the efforts in Paradise show a real community spirit, but theres more to be done! rebuilding takes time and money, it’s never easy.

Anna K. November 8, 2023 - 9:20 am

read about the recovery initiatives, it’s good progress but wondering how much is it gonna cost in the end, and who’s footing the bill?


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