For the 36,000 people living in and around Paradise, in the US state of California, the Camp Fire is a definitive moment that cleaved life into a before period and an after one.
In just a few short days in November 2018, the most destructive fire in California’s history turned green forests into barren landscapes of charred toothpicks and levelled large portions of Paradise and the surrounding communities. The flames caused $16.5 billion in damage, killed 85 people, and destroyed 18,804 structures according to state records.
Nearly a year later, recovery is still ongoing for the thousands of people who lost their loved ones, homes, and in some cases, everything. Some are still sifting through the rubble of their houses, trying to find keepsakes. Others have had the rubble cleared from their land and are trying to decide whether to rebuild or move somewhere safer. Still others sometimes wake up from dreams of flames. More than 90 per cent of Paradise’s 26,800 residents have yet to return, meaning true recovery – a return to what once was – may never happen.
“I think I will always kind of be searching for Paradise in a way,” Kristina Peregoy, a Paradise resident who was still sifting through her family’s property as of September, told us. “Even though it’s right here in front of my eyes, it’s just not how I remembered it. But I think home is mainly people. I think Paradise people and our community will take Paradise with them wherever they go.”
The impacts of the Camp Fire have reverberated well beyond the 153,336 acres it burned through. PG&E, the electric utility that’s equipment sparked the fire amid hot, dry conditions, filed for bankruptcy. And in an effort to shield itself from more liability, it took drastic steps earlier this month to cut power for up to 700,000 customers during a period of extreme fire danger. The company’s CEO said this is what the next decade could look like.
From 1990 to 2010, 13.4 million new homes were built at the wildland-urban interface across the US, a location where cities and town meld with the forest. It’s also where wildfires pose the greatest risks and has put millions of people square in harm’s way as forests become more flammable due to rising temperatures and more erratic weather driven by carbon pollution. The shape that recovery ultimately ends up taking in Paradise and the surrounding communities could serve as an example – or a warning – to the millions of others living in increasingly dangerous forests.