Paradise residents express frustration, hope in wake of wildfire
Special to the Sierra Sun
Editor’s Note: This is the second in a series of stories first published by the Appeal-Democrat in Marysville, updating readers on conditions in the community of Paradise, virtually wiped out last November by wildfire.
On any given day at the Yuba-Sutter Fairgrounds, near the livestock pens, there may be a few people gathered together talking about their plans for the day. But most of the time those calling the space home — Camp Fire evacuees — can be found inside their trailers.
Some trailers, provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, have steps lined with mementos from the homes lost in the devastating Camp Fire eight months ago; others are bare and indistinguishable save for a numbered sticker.
Evacuees have varying views of how the recovery process is going since the Nov. 8 wildfire tore through the communities of Paradise, Magalia, Pulga and Concow, but most say living an hour away from Chico – where most resources, and other evacuees are — is isolating.
Carrie Max, 56, is just coming out of a deep depression that felt as physical as it did emotional. She’s been up to visit her mother’s Paradise property probably a hundred times since the fire, getting sick nearly each time from the smoke and other health hazards (most recently, scratches from a rose bush she was pulling out became infected, presumably because the plants are contaminated).
She wasn’t in Butte County the day of the fire; she was with her daughter in the Bay Area, and her mother, who has dementia, was rescued from her assisted living home by an employee. When that woman’s car overheated on Skyway Road, a passerby in a truck stopped and hollered at the pair to get in. Max didn’t hear from her mother for two days. Even though the home she shared with her mother is gone, she feels guilty she wasn’t there to experience the horror her neighbors did.
“The same thing happened to all of us, but everyone’s story is different,” Max said Friday. “I’m just really dedicated to rebuilding there.”
Samad Najjar, 76, said it’s difficult to create a fellowship in the park, as FEMA doesn’t return correspondence asking permission for barbecues and picnic tables. Community dinners have slowed and strict rules and security concerns keep most people inside.
“We’re trying to create a community,” he said Thursday. “It’s a one-way communication. We’re stuck here not because we want to but because of circumstance.”
John Vega feels differently — he has nothing but nice things to say about FEMA and his time in the park, though he agrees the strict rules may keep people from reaching out and trying to help further.
“People have been generous and giving,” he said Thursday. “I have enjoyed their love.”
Max and Najjar agree that Yuba City, at least, has been welcoming, Najjar saying the community has really stepped up, and Max calling Yuba City “beautiful.”
Najjar spent many years aboard a ship while a U.S. Navy sailor. He called the FEMA trailer accommodations “adequate.” He sleeps diagonally on a queen-sized bed, despite measuring at 6-feet-4-inches tall. And his insurance is being billed $674 per month for Najjar to live in the 8-foot by 26-foot trailer. He paid $525 per month for the mortgage on his 1,600-foot home up on “the ridge” of Magalia – his share of the cost, when he split it with his late wife, was $260.
“This is the irony of the stupidity we’re facing,” Najjar said Thursday.
He said when he was offered the trailer in late December, he wasn’t told of the cost, or that he would be required to aggressively find a new home. He was told he had 18 months to get his plans in order. And he’s written to FEMA requesting a copy of his file, with no response.
He hopes to move to Hawaii – where he once lived – but on top of unexpected living costs, applications cost $35 each and ding against his credit each time it’s checked.
“I was told I can sit here and save money I would be spending elsewhere,” Najjar said. “I didn’t realize at the time (the paperwork) was a contract.”
His neighbor, a woman who lives behind him, is paying the same amount for a smaller trailer in the park and isn’t allowed to move into a larger trailer that is unoccupied. And those who are charged and miss payments may be evicted, he said.
When Max first moved into the trailer in January, she was told by her FEMA caseworker that she had 18 months to rest and save her money to figure out what comes next. But now, six months in, the pressure has risen and evacuees, once a month, must provide proof that they’re looking for somewhere else to live and for employment. But she didn’t have insurance, and rent in Chico and other Butte County communities have sky-rocketed since the disaster. She doesn’t have the money to move into an apartment while also trying to rebuild.
She has a trailer ready to park on the Paradise property. But just to get a temporary utility pole for electricity and phone (which Pacific Gas and Electric Co. doesn’t cover) costs $3,500, she said. It will cost $5,500 to get her well water system going (the quality was tested and is good), and another $3,500 to get the property lines reevaluated. She is a licensed flooring contractor, but doesn’t have the resources to get her business up and going again.
“Paradise just got $271 million — where’s that going?” she asked.
And Max is concerned that only those with great insurance and who are wealthier have input in the rebuilding process. She attends every council meeting and is happy to see that residents get a chance to put a green or red, yes or no, sticky note under poster boards with ideas and plans. But she knows many evacuees have left the area, or are unable to afford the drive up every other week, let alone eat some days.
Najjar learned that he lost his home while watching the news.
He’s a believer of constant progress and moving forward. Volunteers who went up to his Magalia property combed for anything salvageable, finding a coffee cup he used each morning on his porch with his cat. When he went to see his home after the fire, he left a pair of shoes behind.
“I thought, I’m not coming up here again,” he said.
He understands the sadness that comes with the loss of everything: photographs of his travels all over the world, mementos of his late wife. And though the weight of that hits at different times, he tries to stay strong and accept that he has no other choice but to move on.
“You lost yours, I lost mine and guess what? We’re all here together,” Najjar said.
Vega, who lived just outside of Paradise, stayed at his home until 11 a.m. His car was low on gas and had a weak battery. Embers rained down as he used a leaf blower to rid pine needles on his roof, and he finally decided that he too, should leave.
“I had high hopes I could save this place,” he said.
It took two weeks to find out the fate of his Arden Way home. He has remained thankful that he and his family made it out alive, and that he has options for where to go next. But returning to his property the first time after the fire was surreal.
“The first few times going back I was in shell shock because it feels like it didn’t happen to me,” Vega said.
Max laments the loss of the home where her children spent holidays and Johnny Appleseed and Gold Nugget days, adding to a large garden that an appraiser valued at $80,000 worth of plants and trees.
“My mom just made magic in that house,” Max said.
A man she met through mutual friends, Mike Cupp, has agreed to help restore Max’s mother’s 1929 Ford F-100, which was slightly burned in the fire. Though Cupp is an Oregon resident, he too has a connection to the Camp Fire – five of his wife’s relatives lost homes. He plans to restore the truck and adorn it with fire-related artifacts like burnt logs. He also hopes to showcase the truck at car shows all over the state, teaching people about what happened.
A Vietnam veteran, Cupp said he’s seen parallels of healing between his time in the military and post-fire.
“These people need to have their story told and not forgotten,” Cupp said in a phone interview Friday. “I saw people come together and strengthen each other.”
Despite the tragedy, Max said there are lessons to be learned. Now, she has a new way of looking at things — with nothing to lose, she’s confronted, asked and communicated in ways she never has before.
“Every time I went back (to Paradise) there used to be this big cry,” she said. “Now, I smile every time I get into town.”
In the eight months since California’s deadliest fire decimated Butte County communities, the Town of Paradise is making some progress on rebuilding.
As of this week, 6,429 properties have been cleared of debris, and 1,950 properties have been certified as clean, according to the Butte County Recovers website. There are 89 applications in the plan check phase, and 173 applications have been received. Butte County has overseen 73 building application permits, with 21 issued and one finalized within the burn area.
The Paradise Irrigation District has lifted its no-drink advisory on 41 properties so far. Paradise Unified School District is preparing for its move back to the ridge for the first day of school Aug. 15 by cleaning, painting and putting new furniture in classrooms. The Paradise Post Office at Clark Road re-opened in December.
There are around 200 businesses/organizations open. Many are at their same location including Adventist Health, Animal Hospital on the Ridge, local churches, real estate companies, Rite Aid Magalia, Save Mart in Paradise and Starbucks on Skyway Road. Readers can view a full list of businesses that have since closed, are opening soon, have re-opened at their same locations, re-opened at new locations, or have yet to be determined: https://tinyurl.com/yys6ck7f.
The government program is monitoring air quality at several areas in Paradise, Magalia and Oroville, according to Butte County Recovers. All areas in the recovery zone this week have been deemed “good,” while a construction zone at Neal Road is considered “moderate.”
Butte County and the town of Paradise host community meetings often; calendars for those can be viewed at: https://tinyurl.com/y2tj7qas.
The town has been hosting its annual Party in the Park and Marketplace each Wednesday since June 12 (it wraps up July 31). It hosts music, vendors and growers at Black Olive Drive, at its community park. The organizer of the event, Paradise Ridge Chamber of Commerce Director Monica Nolan, was commended at the Council meeting last week for its effect on the community.
“I also see community involvement, especially the first night sitting there, it was like any Party in the Park,” Councilman Steve Crowder said. “You don’t see the damage and destruction from there, everybody’s happy, people are driving from all over to get there, and it’s just giving us all a sense of normalcy.”
Rachel Rosenbaum is a reporter for the Marysville Appeal-Democrat. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.