Merced County Times Newspaper
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Paradise Revisited: Nine Months After The Fire

Remnants of the worst fire in California history remain in Paradise.
Remnants of the worst fire in California history remain in Paradise.

We just returned from three days in Paradise, California. The town was like something out of a World War II movie which had been bombed and was under reconstruction. Our connection is that our son and his family had their home in the middle of Paradise, and it was one of the few properties which was not burned to the ground.

The reason it survived the fire was because our son was so insistent on cutting down the trees which surrounded his house. His efforts to convince his neighbors to do the same fell on deaf ears. All of their houses burned. Most will never return.

The reconstruction of Paradise is proceeding at full speed. More than 500 dump trucks along with backhoes, are busy removing debris left from the fire. An average of 100 lots are being cleaned every week under the efforts of the state and federal government.

A golf course which was ready to go under, was converted into a demolition yard for equipment and housing. Men and women have come in from all over the country to work six days a week in Paradise.

The main two roads leading up the hill to the mountain town, are clotted with traffic from the trucks starting in the early morning. Chain saws can be heard at daybreak and don’t stop until dark.

There is now, power, water, phone service and Internet in the town, but the other services are few and food is more expensive. A town where there was once 27,000 people, now has 1,300.

Until recently there was a curfew and theft was at a peak. A story in the Chico weekly news magazine told of a family who had their travel trailer stolen. Other people can be seen at night looking for treasures which they can steal. Police are on full alert.

Gas was overpriced but now has become more reasonable as competing stations open up. There is a pharmacy and food market, a dozen restaurants including a pizza parlor, a Thai restaurant, a country style one and a Mexican food place.

Billboards along the road praise the efforts of the town, its people and the first responders. Paradise may have lost everything in the fire but it did not lose its heart.

It was the worse fire in the history of California, taking the lives of 83 people. Alongside the road are vehicles with white “X’s” on them. We were told that these had been checked and did not have any bodies in them.

Many other vehicles had turned into ovens as people could not get out of them while trying to escape the blaze. There were people who refused to leave Paradise thinking their house could somehow be saved.

Few were savable. The winds which propelled the blaze were over 40 mph, and the fire sprinted up to the town which locals called the “Ridge.”

Our son, working for CalFire, was at a command post in Magalia trying to mobilize the fire crew that was stationed there. This was while his own house in Paradise had the blaze all around it. He was told by several that his house was gone. It came very close.

His fishing boat near the side of the house went up in flames. The roof showed embers had burned the shingles in places and the paint was scorched, but the house suffered relatively little interior damage and the insurance company “Farmers” has been very helpful in making a settlement.

Some other insurance companies have been forced out of business because of this and other fires in California. FEMA has come to the aid of the town and filled in where other coverage was not sufficient to make the repairs.

For our son and his family, the question is one of whether he would have been better off had the fire burned down his house too. He could of used the money to buy another home in a different area.

He and his wife feel fortunate in being able to return to the place where they raised their children. The high school was not burned in the fire and graduation was held there. The cemetery next to it was not burned, perhaps because the grass was wet and mowed, and there was no undergrowth when the fire came through.

Stone or brick fireplaces stand as sentries on each side of most roads. Tents and trailers are scattered throughout the town as evidence that the town is not dead and coming back to life.

Paradise will take years to come back to what it once was. The new people coming to town will probably not even know what the fire was like. Home building lots are cheap, $25,000 to $35,000. With the price of finding a home in California, these will not last long.

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