Today, November 8, marks the five-year anniversary of the devastating Camp Fire, which claimed 85 lives, destroyed some 11,000 homes, and nearly wiped an entire community off the map.
Early on the morning of November 8, 2018, a faulty electric transmission line sparked a fire in the vicinity of Camp Creek Road, giving the name to a fire that would become the deadliest and most destructive fire in California history — occurring just a year after another set of devastating fires burned through Sonoma and Napa counties.
Driven by intense Diablo winds, the fire rapidly spread through the areas of Paradise and Concow, in some cases trapping residents in their cars as they tried to flee. Others burned in their homes, unaware until too late that the fire was bearing down.
Gwen Nordgren, president of the Paradise Lutheran Church council, was one of the lucky ones who was able to escape, and she has been telling the story for the last five years of how she picked up a young woman along the road who was trying to escape on foot.
"Have you lived a good life?" Nordgren asked the young woman, as she recounts to the Associated Press. The woman said she had, and Nordgren replied, "So have I. We're going to say the Our Father and we're going to drive like hell."
The Camp Fire ended up burning 153,000 acres, most within the first four hours of the blaze. San Franciscans will recall the blanket of heavy, acrid smoke that descended over our region from the fire and stayed here for several days, making it toxic to open a window or walk outside.
Today's population in Paradise is estimated to be 10,000 people, down from the 26,000 who lived there before the fire — many of them lower-income retirees. The AP reports that only six of the 36 mobile-home parks that had been there have been rebuilt and repopulated, and around 2,500 homes have been rebuilt in total — with about 700 under construction.
Some former residents say they suffered too much trauma ever to return to the area. Shari Bernacette tells the AP that she is too haunted by the image of an older couple, one pushing the other in a wheelchair, whom she saw get consumed by flames. She and her husband have relocated to Arizona where she says she's "surrounded by cactus and rocks," and, "There is nothing that can light up."
Paradise Mayor Greg Bolin tells the AP, "[It's] amazing, in five years, how well people are doing." And he touts how PG&E plans to have all power lines in the are put underground by 2025 — part of the utility's ongoing, and somewhat controversial, plan to put 10,000 miles of lines underground, following the company's wildfire-lawsuit-related bankruptcy.
The commemorations will live annually on as this community tries to reimagine itself and move on from a massive shared tragedy.
On the first anniversary, back in 2019, the Sacramento Bee spoke to one former resident, Bunny Ketterman, who relocated to Sacramento but came back to Paradise to visit the site of her burned home and perform a little ritual.
"Fuck you, universe. Thank you, universe. I love you, universe," Ketterman said.
Today, the town is hosting a commemoration that will feature 85 seconds of silence, in remembrance of the victims. The event will also include the burying of a time capsule that they will dig up in 20 years, on the commemoration of the 25th anniversary.
Over the weekend, residents of Paradise came together to plant daffodil bulbs next to a playground — a symbol of resilience and the town flower, which will emerge in the spring.