As Paradise Rebuilds, It’s Also Preparing for the Next Fire

The California town is working to become a fire-adapted community

By Colleen Hagerty

May 5, 2021


Photos by Colleen Hagerty

If you were to drive into the town of Paradise, California, this spring, you’d be treated to a riot of daffodils. The yellow blooms line Skyway Road, the main artery into town, and the curving side streets. They’re a constant in a place that otherwise offers stark contrasts: the ongoing whir of construction and the stillness of vacant lots; freshly painted houses standing amid charred trees.  

Last November, the Paradise Town Council voted unanimously to make daffodils the official town flower, noting that they symbolize rebirth. That same month marked the two-year anniversary of the Camp Fire, a record-breaking blaze that destroyed the majority of the town’s buildings. Thousands were evacuated from the greater Butte County area where Paradise is located; dozens lost their lives. 

The National Institute of Standards and Technology recently published an exhaustive timeline reconstructing how conditions came together to create a fire that quickly overwhelmed the town. According to the report, Paradise was well prepared for a fire, with officials having taken proactive measures like clearing flammable growth away from critical infrastructure and establishing an emergency evacuation plan. But these steps weren’t enough to protect it from the inferno that surged through that November morning, fueled by powerful winds and the tinder-dry terrain. 

Standing in front of twisted buildings and piles of debris, officials and residents alike pledged to rebuild in those early days after the fire. Now, those promises are being realized as new businesses sprout up on the Skyway and the outlines of homes are etched into the skyline. Locals have big dreams for this new version of Paradise, but they all hinge on a key question: What happens the next time a megafire ignites nearby? With climate change increasing the length, frequency, and intensity of wildfires, the recovery is also a reckoning as the town works to adapt to a new reality.

As of late April, officials had issued nearly 1,500 building permits in Paradise, including more than 750 homes. On some streets, you can now find what Katie Simmons calls a “little slice of neighborhood,” meaning multiple houses in a row. Simmons, who serves as the town’s disaster recovery director, has a few in particular she likes to visit—Valley View Drive, Merrill Road, Circlewood Drive.  

“That's where, I think, you can really get a sense of how the town is coming back,” she says.

Simmons is tasked with implementing the Long-Term Community Recovery Plan adopted in 2019. A broad coalition contributed to the document, including an urban design firm that assisted in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, community organizations, businesses, officials, and residents. It offers a comprehensive blueprint of Paradise’s short- and long-term goals, everything from improving the emergency notification system to establishing a resiliency research center.

Currently, the town is in the first of three project tiers laid out in the plan. This stage focuses on removing threats to the immediate safety of residents, such as taking down the more than 37,000 fire-damaged trees in the area.  

“Paradise was very wooded, very forested before the fire, and so we're dealing with dead and dying trees that are threatening structures and that are hazardous fuels for fire season,” Simmons explains.

This one project offers a window into the extensive coordination the recovery process requires. To address the tree issue, the town worked with the Federal Emergency Management Association (FEMA) and California Governor's Office of Emergency Services (Cal OES) to devise what Paradise Mayor Steve Crowder called a “first of its kind” program. Funded by FEMA and executed by state agencies with the support of town officials, they’ve been able to remove more than half of the hazardous trees. Simmons says this sort of multiagency arrangement has been typical of the town’s large-scale projects, many of which have relied on grants from multiple sources. Other first-tier projects in the works include undergrounding utilities, designing and installing siren towers that can provide emergency warnings, adopting new building codes, and supporting residents as they attempt to meet the new standards of rebuilding. 

Simmons says determining those building standards was another balancing act for officials, who had to weigh the safety incentives with the costs they would incur on fire survivors. Some pricier proposals, such as mandatory sprinkler systems, were scrapped amid protests about the price tag. Still, prices on new homes have spiked—as Mayor Crowder told the Chico Enterprise-Record, “Before the fire, you could build a home in Paradise for about $150 a foot. And we went almost overnight to $250 a foot.” 

The new codes certainly factor into this increase, with residents now responsible for having their homes built with select materials, installing non-combustible gutters, and establishing what’s called “defensible space” between their building and anything flammable, such as fencing or landscaping. But the disaster itself also drove up area prices, creating a run on housing in an already tight market. According to Zillow data analyzed one year after the fire, rent and home values in Camp Fire–impacted counties outpaced other areas in Northern California by 13 to 18 percent. 

Those who are rebuilding in Paradise today are reportedly building bigger houses than before, costing hundreds of thousands of dollars. Meanwhile, many other residents remain in trailers on their property. In one contentious exchange during the town council’s April meeting, Vice Mayor Jody Jones spoke of complaints she received from residents who have “poured everything” into rebuilding and felt like they were stuck in a “campground with people who are making no progress.” Councilmember Steve "Woody" Culleton defended those who have yet to rebuild, acknowledging that many residents are still waiting on settlement funds from Pacific Gas & Electric, the utility that pled guilty for starting the Camp Fire, to move forward. 

“I chose to come back and rebuild and stay here and live the rest of my life in this town and die here because of the community here,” Culleton added. “And the community that I know in Paradise is not one that says, ‘Get out.’”

A number of government and nonprofit grant and loan programs are available for residents lacking the funds to rebuild, including some run by locals who understand the process firsthand. Charles Brooks, who lost his home of 15 years in the Camp Fire, started Rebuild Paradise in the weeks following the fire. The organization offers a mix of financial and technical support, grants for low-income and middle-class survivors, and resources like an online library of residential floor plans designed to meet state and local building codes. 

“It provides a huge cost savings and also a huge mental lift to people, because they don't have to spend months over the little details of designing a home and finding an architect and paying money and then coming up with an idea,” Brooks says of the database.

“You can't bury your head in the sand and say this is never going to happen again.”

As Brooks sees it, these changes to the town are necessary for keeping himself and his future neighbors safe. In other words, it’s the cost of living in a fire-prone area like Paradise. 

“What I do has a direct effect on the people who live next door to me,” he says. “If people aren't willing to own up that responsibility, then it's up to the jurisdiction to force people's hands. And I'm OK with that as a resident. You can't bury your head in the sand and say this is never going to happen again.”

For those who can’t afford to return or just don’t want to, the Paradise Recreation and Park District (PRPD) is exploring another option: offering buyouts of their properties that could be used to build a greenbelt around the town. This swath of undeveloped space would serve as a fuel break, which proponents believe could reduce the town’s wildfire risk.  

“Our topography kind of lends itself well to laying out a reasonable buffer around the community,” explains Dan Efseaff, a restoration ecologist and the PRPD’s district manager, alluding to Paradise’s unique location between two canyons.  

The PRPD has issued a report analyzing potential applications of this idea, and Efseaff says they have received interest and support from the Nature Conservancy and Cal OES to further explore it. At the same time, the PRPD is moving forward with another grant from the state to build a 15-mile loop trail with offshoots that will connect the community with other recreation areas. On a smaller scale, he hopes this can achieve some of the goals of the larger greenbelt initiative by improving vegetation management and potentially providing an additional evacuation route for residents. Of course, it will also create another public green space for locals to enjoy, which he believes can attract new people to Paradise as well as helping residents who lived through the fire reconnect with nature. 

The latter point is what drives the work Janeva Sorenson does with the Camp Fire Restoration Project. The grassroots group hosted ecosystem restoration camps before the pandemic to teach locals new skills while tending to burned land. With the onset of the pandemic, they switched to holding monthly workshops and giving away native trees and plants, which are better adapted to surviving fire. The goal is to create a sustainable foundation not only for those who move back to Paradise now, but also for the generations that follow them.  

“There was trauma with the relationship with our environment, and so incorporating that into part of our healing I think is really critical,” Sorenson says. “The reality is we live in a fire ecology, and this is going to be in our history and in our future.”

Locals know what most people have in mind when they think of Paradise: TV shots of burned-out buildings and smoke-darkened skies. For some, it’s become a bit of a sore point. With so many initiatives underway, residents aspire to become a different kind of example—that of a community figuring out how to live with fire. 

In the days since the daffodils started blooming, goats sometimes dot the landscape, brought in by a local nonprofit to graze on new growth and reduce wildfire fuel. The Butte Prescribed Burn Association hosted its first prescribed burn, torching about seven acres on a ranch right outside the Camp Fire’s footprint. And a group of volunteers received a long-anticipated building permit to finally begin rebuilding the “Welcome to Paradise” sign.