My childhood was carefree. Our house had a huge yard full of large, swaying trees and bushes that formed den-like caves with their branches. I spent hours making up stories in my caves. I made pine needle nests under the oaks, my sister and I cut lilac blooms from the bush nestled right against our red house and sold them to neighbors in front of the long line of mailboxes.
I grew up in Paradise.
But my experience and memories in the small town are vastly different to how my young niece and nephew, 8 and 6 years old, will grow to remember it.
Thursday, Nov. 8 my mom told me my sister got the orders to evacuate. She was in zone 6, one of the early areas to receive the notice before the whole town was quickly prompted to pack up only what was important and leave.
“It’s so dark,” my sister said on the phone. I had never heard the tone in her voice before. She was scared. She was stuck in gridlock traffic and she could hear explosions. But she is one of the lucky ones. She, her husband, kids and in-laws all made it out.
The Camp Fire, burning so fast and so hot, blocked any daylight and had fleeing residents cloaked in darkness as they escaped. I prayed at my desk until I knew they were all safe and relief came like a wave when she called. They were out.
The days following, details of the extent of the destruction seeped out. At least 64 deaths. At least 10,000 structures totaled or damaged.
The place of my childhood is essentially wiped off the map — but I am so grateful, so unbelievably grateful, my family is out and for the fire and law enforcement crews who so bravely protect lives and homes while endangering their own lives.
These fires are all too common in California now. Simultaneous with the Camp Fire, the Hill and Woolsey fires in Ventura County claimed at least 370 homes and killed at least two.
Back in August, the Whaleback Fire threatened the town of Spalding, pushing for the evacuation of all residents for nearly a week.
In July and August, the Carr Fire ravaged parts of Redding and nearby areas, damaging 1,600 structures and killing seven.
Last October, the Tubbs Fire damaged about 5,600 structures and killed 22 before containment.
After the Whaleback Fire, Chris Baker, the fire instructor at Lassen Community College and the Volunteer Advocate for Region IX of Everyone Goes Home, a firefighter life safety initiative program, said this fire pattern — the late season, the crazy fast, unpredictable movements — were the “new normal.”
A terrifying thought — but following these catastrophic events there has become another “normal:” Communities are coming together in droves to support the affected.
Numerous organizations, citizens and businesses here in Lassen County rallied behind our Butte County neighbors, sending truckload after truckload of clothing, supplies, food and water to Butte. Something my sister is grateful for.
When she and her family are able to return to their home, it will be vastly different with her entire block wiped out by the blaze. Schools gone, grocery stores leveled; but they will rebuild.
She and her husband want to continue living in the place they love. The want their kids to share in their happy Paradise memories, not remember the devastation.
Paradise is their home, whether they have walls standing or not.