Reclaiming Paradise

by Brian CruzLeer en español

Early on the morning of November 8, 2018, a Northern California sky turned black as the earth below raged with the most destructive and deadliest wildfire in the state’s history.

The Camp Fire, which left almost nothing of the city of Paradise, took 17 agonizing days for first responders to finally extinguish. Fueled by high winds and tall trees that lit up like torches, the fires raced across the land, incinerating over 150,000 acres, destroying 18,804 structures, and claiming the lives of 85 people.1 In the aftermath, more than 50,000 survivors were left homeless.

The sense of loss and desolation was palpable in this once thriving and picturesque community, the beautiful hillsides now charred. Stores, schools and homes were little more than piles of burnt rubble.

Although the flames were out, the nightmare was far from over for survivors, who faced an emerging tragedy as temporary shelters quickly filled to capacity. Those left were forced to stay in their vehicles or on the streets. In November and at nearly 2,000 feet above sea level, temperatures at night could reach near freezing for the survivors left homeless.

Only days after the Camp Fire began, a team from BCFS Health and Human Services’ Immediate Disaster Case Management (IDCM) arrived on the scene to help Californians who had lost nearly everything. IDCM connects survivors of disaster to emergency responders who help survivors develop a disaster recovery plan. This partnership provides survivors with a single point of contact on the front lines with them to facilitate access to necessary yet hard-to-find resources, helping them achieve recovery one step at a time.

I was among the team of IDCM responders that drove into the town of Paradise after the Camp Fire’s destruction. As we entered the city that day, a large wooden sign on the side of the road read, “PARADISE STRONG… Beauty Will Rise Out of the Ashes.” It was a clear indication of this community’s strong will to rise from the ashes and never give up.

This is where I met Kamora,2 a survivor who arrived at the local Disaster Recovery Center3 in a rush. She only had five minutes to speak with a case manager because her husband was about to be released from an emergency clinic, where he was being treated for wounds he suffered in the fire. In a panic, Kamora explained that she and her husband needed help finding shelter. The couple had been sleeping in a small, borrowed car. Like many residents of Paradise, Kamora had no other options and no place to call home. We were able to build a plan for Kamora’s recovery starting that day and put critical steps in place so that she and her husband could begin to rebuild.

The following day when I spoke with Kamora, she recalled the tragic morning that altered her reality and became a dividing line that would now always be in her life: before the fire and after.

“I went to sleep in Paradise and woke up in hell,” Kamora said as she started to cry. She turned to her husband briefly, then back to me. “You know, people keep saying, ‘You have to get back on your feet.’ But how? How do I do that?”

As she held her head down, I tried to respond in a way that let her focus on her recovery. “We can start with a recovery plan,” I said, “and together we will work hard to seek out the resources.”  She could never return to her former life, but what Kamora and survivors like her often cannot see themselves, so close after tragedy, is that a new life is waiting for them if and when they are willing to claim it.

Kamora looked up and said one small but hopeful word: “OK.”

Days later, IDCM was able to award Kamora and her husband with a trailer home. It was a significant step on their journey – one of many. IDCM worked in Paradise for nearly three months, helping people like Kamora connect with the resources they need to rebuild their lives. The goal is to make a difference, one survivor at a time, wherever we are needed most.

As the IDCM team departed Paradise, it was clear the sign that welcomed us months before was placed there by a community that kept its promise. The people of Paradise are strong. With time, they will recover and their beauty will rise from the ashes of tragedy.

1 Statistics from the California Department of Forestry & Fire Protection

2 Names have been changed to preserve anonymity.

3 Butte County’s Disaster Recovery Center was a temporary space set up after the Camp Fire, where resources and deployable personnel were gathered to more effectively help the people of Paradise recover.