PARADISE — As Jen Goodlin tends the snapdragons and squash in her fertile garden, she is surrounded by a town that is a charred skeleton of its former self.
It is also a blank slate, offering a fresh start to a young and energetic generation of newcomers — who vow to build a new Paradise, a smarter community that will never burn again.
“We get to watch it transform,” said Goodlin, 41, who left the comfort of suburban Colorado Springs with her husband and four children to move back home to Paradise.
“We have come so far,” she said. “And we still have so much to do.”
Five years ago, all seemed lost. On the morning of Nov. 8, 2018, the entire town of Paradise was quickly engulfed in flames as residents frantically rushed to escape the Camp Fire, the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California history.
From the moment high winds broke a worn and aged C-hook on a PG&E transmission tower, causing a 115-kilovolt line to drop onto dry brush and ignite and quickly spread, Paradise became a global symbol of risk, tragedy and negligence.
When the fire was finally contained 18 days later, 85 people had died, about 11,000 homes were destroyed and 153,336 acres were burned, shattering lives and livelihoods. An astonishing 90% of Paradise’s housing was gone. Much of the nearby rural communities of Concow, Butte Creek Canyon and Magalia also were lost.
As climate change has intensified the ferocity of California’s wildfires, many looked to Paradise and asked: Is it time to retreat, not rebuild, from areas that are especially flammable?
Instead, Paradise is changing its strategy. It will rebuild differently, safely. Atop a windswept ridge between two wild canyons, the town is preparing for a hotter, drier climate an inspiration for other California towns at risk of nature’s whims and man’s mistakes.
Its people are changing, too.
A year after the fire, Paradise was such a forbidding hellscape, and residents’ plans for recovery were so tangled in red tape, that the town’s population had dropped from 26,423 before the blaze to just 4,590. Now the town has 9,142 people, about one-third of its former population. If the pace continues, the town expects to fully recover within 20 years.
Two-thirds of this year’s arrivals are new residents, up from one-third in 2019, according to the Paradise Ridge Chamber of Commerce and CSU Chico research. Some hail from crowded California cities; others are out-of-staters, seeking an affordable California dream. On average, they tend to be young. They come full of hope and free of trauma.
“We had never heard of the fire,” said 28-year-old Taylor Tanner, who moved to Magalia in 2021 with her husband Kristofer and two young sons from west Texas.
“Since when does a town get to be completely brand new, in this day and age? Built from the ground up, to be whatever we want it to be?” she said.
This year, more than 400 ballplayers joined the town’s Little League, up from 145 after the fire. The new “Moms Of the Ridge” social group, founded by three young parents two years ago, has 1,300 members. While overall school enrollment remains far below pre-fire levels, the elementary school is bursting at the seams. To prevent crowding, administrators are considering moving older students to the junior high campus.
“Our new families want to get involved in the community,” said Little League president Liz Brewster, who led the post-fire effort to replace burned backstops, bleachers, equipment sheds, fences and fields. “And that’s creating more of a family environment than what we had before the fire.”
Popular stores like Ross, Big Lots and Tractor Supply have opened, buoyed by an economy that until recently was reliant on federal and state grants, donations, insurance payouts and PG&E legal settlements.
But the empty lots and desolate roads are ghostly reminders of neighbors who will never come back.
About 30% of the town is rebuilt. Heartbreak, rising construction costs, insufficient insurance coverage and meager PG&E payouts have kept many people from returning — especially retirees of modest income.
Without forests, the town feels hotter, say residents. Winds feel fiercer. Dead and dying trees still stand in some yards, too expensive to cut. Private roads are rutted and potholed, damaged by cleanup crews. RVs dot the landscape, protected by chain-link fences and barking dogs.
The only hospital in town has permanently closed, leaving residents with no emergency care. The beloved Paradise Cinema 7 is gone, after a long legal battle with its insurer. Gas stations, McDonalds, Burger King and many modest mom-and-pop stores have vanished. The historic Gold Nugget Museum, still waiting for its PG&E settlement check, is storing precious artifacts in cargo containers until it can renovate an old auto transmission shop.
“You can tell, almost by looking at someone, whether they were here,” said survivor Joan Ellison, 68, who is living in a Chico apartment while slowly rebuilding her home. “Because we know something that no one else knows.”
“Our pine trees interlock roots to be stable. They’re upheld by each other. And that’s what we’re doing,” she said.
The first goal was cleaning up the community cutting trees, fixing the water supply, removing toxic debris and dragging away an estimated 20,000 charred husks of cars, some of them deathtraps. At a former Bank of America, the Building Resiliency Center opened to provide one-stop shopping for all construction information. Nine different low-cost floor plans, free and pre-approved by the city, are offered by the Rebuild Paradise Foundation.
The early arrivals were overwhelmingly long-time residents, not newcomers, according to research by CSU Chico geographers Jacquelyn Chase and Peter Hansen. The first two homes were completed in July 2019, nine months after the fire.
Of those who returned promptly, almost all were well-insured. The modest 1960s-era house owned by town councilman and former Mayor Steve “Woody” Culleton, covered by Allstate, had terrible insulation, electric baseboard heat and the dense shade of 16 pine trees. His replacement home, built to modern standards, is larger and more elegant, with solar panels, a sunny porch and a vegetable garden.
Others, like Ellison, said they felt too numb to think straight. Once they got on their feet, things were complicated and expensive.
“After the fire, there was a mad rush for people to try to rebuild or get out or sell and everything. Everything was just flipping sideways and spinning everywhere,” said Ellison.
Recovery was slowed by protracted insurance negotiations. Then COVID hit, and with it supply chain delays in getting even the most basic building materials. PG&E payouts were too little, too late, averaging only 60% of what most residents anticipated. There was competition for contractors. Prices skyrocketed.
“I had everything ready. Everything was approved. I was ready to go,” recalled Ellison. “But costs had tripled. It was horrible. I couldn’t build.” Now, with the help of a nonprofit foundation, she’s finally back on track.
Developers began showing up about a year or two after the fire, buying unwanted parcels for $20,000 to $60,000 each. Because homes are on septic systems, no large subdivisions are planned.
The new Paradise will likely have more apartments, because there is public and private funding for affordable multifamily housing units. About 180 permits have been issued for multihousing projects representing hundreds of units. One project, Paradise Community Village, serves only low-income families.
Almost all of the town’s 32 mobile home parks remain unbuilt. Because they are privately owned businesses, there’s little government aid, said Colette Curtis, the town’s director of Recovery and Economic Development. Most were not adequately insured to rebuild their roads, septic tanks and other infrastructure, she added.
In the surrounding neighborhoods, lots will likely be larger, as residents buy empty adjacent parcels. With lower density, evacuation should be safer, said Goodlin, whose family lived in a trailer until builders finished their custom-built home with an interior sprinkler system, fire-resistant construction and a vast perimeter of defensible space.
New homes are more spacious, on average, than those in old Paradise. Before the fire, 12% of homes had one bedroom; now only 3.6% do. Nearly 70% of new construction features three or more bedrooms. This includes many mobile and modular homes, which represent one-third of all new permit applications.
Downtown will be smaller and more walkable, with new sidewalks, lighting and landscaping, said Mark Thorp of the Paradise Chamber of Commerce.
Many businesses have been waiting for residents to return before committing, he said.
“We’ve had to put a lot of emphasis on the residential sector in order to get the numbers up to sustain businesses,” he said. “Now, they’re seeing the market. It’s a good feeling to say ‘Let’s get back on this horse.’ It’s a rejuvenating purpose.”
To fortify itself against future disasters, the town has launched 37 projects, such as:
- An emergency notification system. Twenty-one sirens atop steel towers, disguised as Douglas fir trees, emit one minute of loud “Hi-Lo” warning sounds followed by evacuation instructions. The system can be controlled manually, over the internet or by satellite. Power is hard-wired underground, but each siren also has a solar panel. Many have cameras.
- Widened evacuation routes. One of the major corridors, Pentz Road, is getting a $73 million widening, with a new two-way left turn lane and bike path, which can double as an evacuation route. Skyway, another artery, will be widened to increase its capacity.
- Underground utilities. So far, PG&E, Comcast and AT&T have jointly trenched more than 80 miles, reducing the risk of wildfire ignition, Public Safety Power Shutoffs, and boosting evacuation safety.
- Linked road segments. In a $200 million project, the town aims to connect three of the town’s longest dead-end roads, where people were trapped and died, to a major corridor.
- Toughened residential building codes. During the fire, homes that were built to tough “Wildland Urban Interface” standards were more likely to survive, so that’s the new code. To be extra safe, some homes have steel frames or insulated concrete.
- Fuel breaks. The town hopes to buy some properties on its eastern edge by the Feather River canyon to create buffer zones of low vegetation, which could also be used for hiking trails.
But the dream isn’t just to survive — it’s to thrive, say civic leaders.
A vast fiber optic network could bring high-speed internet to town, and a sewer project will send wastewater from downtown businesses to Chico’s treatment plant, eliminating the old septic systems that have limited growth.
“It would be ‘backward thinking’ of us to do a replacement of our old 1940s, ’50s and ’60s infrastructure,” said Thorp. “We’re in the 21st century.”
Goodlin, who grew up in Paradise, rushed from Colorado after the fire to say goodbye to a town that had surely died. But when she saw it stir to life, her heart softened. Her husband Brett, a CPA, supported the decision to move.
“It’s hard. We feel like pioneers,” said Goodlin, who now leads the Rebuild Paradise Foundation. “We could see the opportunity for a different life for our kids. There’s a realness to living here. We thought: ‘This is where we belong.’ “
Her yard has chickens, nectarines, apples, coyotes and an occasional mountain lion. Her children attend a state-of-the-art high school, with a modern library and science buildings, a new 1,500-seat gymnasium, six new tennis courts and a softball complex.
She is proud that a once-devastated community has become a giant workshop to test solutions to a hotter, drier future.
“At first, people asked: ‘Can this town recover? Should we just leave it? This is too much,’ ” she said.
“Then enough people said, ‘No, we can do it. It’s going to be super hard. But we’ll take it one step at a time.’”
Source: Orange County Register