Halloween in the mountain community known as Paradise, California, was much like Halloween in any other small town. Children dressed up in hand made and store bought costumes, going in groups from door to door, shyly holding out their bags and mumbling a quick thank you (if they remember!) before dashing to the next home.
Just a week later, on November 8, life was forever changed. The worst fires this nation has ever seen, roared to life, eradicating an entire town. In a matter of hours and days, 13,972 homes and businesses would be gone. Aerial photos showed a vast grey mass of desolation, with nothing but flattened homes and foundations and chimneys standing sentinel.
Saturday 15th December was the first day that residents who lost their homes in the fire, were allowed back into the area. My friend Michael asked me if I would go with him to search through the ashes of his home to see if there was anything salvageable. Of course I agreed. I realized just how emotional this experience must be for those who have lost absolutely everything, including their home. All the memories, valuables and personal items gone. Sadly, in Michael’s case, gone also were his three cats.
It was a very dull, gloomy, heavily overcast day with lingering fog. We drove up the long road towards the town at first seeing nothing but charred trees. Then came the burned out cars abandoned by the side of the road. It was a chilling reminder that not everyone was able to escape. One woman lost her eighty year old aunt who was found beside her car, unable to escape the flames. The cars had large orange crosses on them to indicate to volunteers that the car had been checked for human remains.
We arrived at a police check point. My friend’s ID verified that he was a resident and we moved forward onto the second checkpoint. Here we were handed two large plastic bags containing a white suit with hood, mask and bootees. We were entering an area where there were toxic chemicals on the ground and contaminated ash.
Me in protective gear ready to search…
Then we saw the homes, or what was left of them. Behind melted plastic fences and charred iron gates, was twisted metal from awnings and garden umbrellas, collapsed roofs, jagged stucco walls, chimneys, and so much rubble and ash. We were quiet, shaking heads in disbelief at such total destruction. Amidst this stark grey scene, there was one house, intact, with rocking chair still on the porch and geranium baskets hanging. The opening scene of the original film “Wizard of Oz” flashed into my mind, when the black and white film suddenly changed to color. It only served to highlight the horror all around.
We arrived at his home or what was left of it. As we pulled up, he murmured rather quietly, “Holy Shit.” What else could you say when your life for the last seventeen years now lay flattened to the ground. We got out of the car, donned the protective garb, pulled on heavy gloves and grabbed a plastic bag hoping there would be treasures to retrieve. I suppose a sense of humor helps at this point and I was relieved that he picked up the mailbox lying on the ground and wondered aloud if perhaps he had mail?
We walked onto his front lawn to see what had once been his home, now collapsed and nothing but a huge pile of wires, pipes, metal, glass, ash and more ash. My friend was a bit of a collector, to put it mildly, and so there was a lot of stuff for that fire to burn up. “Where is my Tiffany lamp” he asked and tried to work out where that would have been. The house was so badly destroyed it was hard to navigate the rooms. The brick fireplace was the only real indicator as to where we were standing at any one time. “Ah, here it is” he said as he lifted up the burnt and twisted base of his lamp.
A stone lion was still guarding the fireplace, but now the face was broken and the body turned black. There were vases, a lot of vases, buried in the ashes, broken and fused with other items. Out back, bicycle frames, exercise equipment, electric tools, tennis racquets – everything burned but for the metal. His guest house was gone. The barn that was filled with years of collecting furniture, papers, jewelry, camera equipment, tools etc. now nothing but a concrete perimeter foundation filled with piles of ash, soggy from the rains that followed the fire.
His car parked in the driveway was nothing but a shell with the big orange X on its hood.
We left sooner than I had expected. There really was nothing to save. Except for one terracota Della Robia face lying on the ground near the back steps. It went by itself, into one of the plastic bags. That was it.
Across the street his neighbor and family, also dressed like snowmen in their white suits, were sifting through the remains of their home. It had been a two story house with lovely grounds and a pool. They had two daughters and a son living just a few blocks away. Except for one daughter whose home was spared, both the other two homes are also gone. What an incredible misfortune to hit this family.
Everyone has a story. Karen the neighbor told how her daughter with a six month old and two year old heard about the fire around 7.30 that morning but did not realize how quickly the fire would be upon them. When she saw flames she grabbed the kids and rushed over to the elementary school to collect her four year old. Imagine the frustration when the school would not allow her son Luke to come out to her and so she had to unstrap the two youngsters from their car seats, carry the baby and toddler into school to get Luke and back into the car. With the fire moving so fast, they only just managed to get out of town. Meanwhile, the brother who has a severe hearing problem, was asleep in his home and knew nothing of what was going on. His sister physically went to his home to get him out. He in turn went next door to get the elderly couple out of their house and made sure they drove away before he himself escaped to safety.
So many near escapes. My friend Michael believes he would have died in the fire had he not decided, on a whim, to go meet his friends for coffee at the local donut shop. It was 7.30 in the morning. As he left his home, he saw smoke across the street and assumed it was just someone burning leaves. During the last major fire in Paradise, he refused evacuation and stayed in the home and it was his good fortune that the fires stopped before reaching his property. Had he stayed home before leaving for work as usual around nine o’clock he would still have been in the home, refusing to leave, fighting to protect his property. Fate intervened and he was directed along with others, to an evacuation center in Chico.
There is nothing left of the downtown. Will people rebuild? Some may but the community is shattered. There is currently no safe water, septic systems are impaired, no power, and no neighbors. The church is gone as is the school and stores are burned to the ground. Paradise is prone to fires and there is little doubt there will be more fires in the future. Many people will relocate and others will think twice before building and risk losing a home for the second time. My friend Michael will not return. He will sell the land and start life anew someplace else. It is not easy at seventy years of age to start all over again, but happily I think he sees this as an opportunity to move closer to the ocean, away from trees that can burn, and experience a less cluttered life. His Paradise is lost, but paradise is a state of mind and I believe he will find it again.