Paradise, California, One Year After the Camp Fire

PARADISE, Calif. — Paradise is a town of negative space, a looking glass projecting what was and what will be.

A year ago this week, the Camp Fire reduced the majority of the town to rubble in a few short hours. It spurred the greatest debris cleanup in California since the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. It’s still going on today, contractor pickups plastered with various acronyms prowling the town; crews still restoring power and cable, ensuring there’s clean water, hauling debris, and otherwise trying to lay the foundation for a future Paradise that may bear little resemblance to the one that vanished a year ago.

Paradise is a microcosm of the wider West. The landscape has become more flammable due to climate change and human development, and now we bear the burden of the consequences. For other towns, for millions of people, it’s meant rolling blackouts to stave off power grid-sparked fires. And for California’s government, it’s meant turning to prison labor to battle increasingly intense blazes. These are on-the-fly experiments for living in a present no longer at equilibrium with the past or future as the climate crisis worsens. Paradise, though, is perhaps the biggest experiment in what a community can look like against this shifting baseline.

There are still people living here. Food trucks have sprung up where restaurants stood, and some stores like the CVS are open downtown. (If you grab a burrito at the temporary taco truck next door, you can even use their restroom). Yet just 10 percent of Paradise’s residents have returned in the wake of the fire, largely due to the fact that there’s simply nowhere to live.

It is this void of civilization that creates the feeling of negative space. Paradise isn’t a ghost town akin to the bygone Wild West or Chernobyl. There are still people here, to be sure. But there’s an odd feeling of abandonment that’s hard to shake when staring across an empty baseball diamond, a few singed trees marking the outfield where the fire blazed through town. Or when looking at entire neighborhoods scraped down to the soil, bisected by an arrow-straight road. There are also hundreds of flame-scarred trees marked for final destruction, enrobed in flagging tape, waiting to be cut down and hauled away.

Quiet memories still dot the landscape, statues, crosses, signs. Their exact meaning is unknowable to an outsider beyond the fact that they simply survived the most destructive fire in California’s history. But to the people that may someday return to Paradise, they contain multitudes.

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