Smoke lingered over Skyway as Patti Lloyd drove up the now infamous road that winds through the Sierra Nevada foothills into the town of Paradise.
It’s an all too familiar sight in this part of northern California, where nearly two years ago the state’s deadliest fire killed 85 residents and destroyed much of the suburban town of 27,000 and neighboring communities.
This time the smoke stems from the west zone of the North Complex fire, a massive 252,313 acre-blaze that started in Plumas county last month and exploded into Butte county this week, racing through the foothills, leveling the hamlet of Berry Creek and killing at least nine people.
Lloyd was carrying boxes towards her newly built home in town, having lost the old one in the 2018 inferno. “It’s scary,” she said. “It triggers a lot of feelings from before. I feel bad for the people going through it now because I know what it feels like.”
Part of Paradise was under an evacuation warning earlier this week, though the order has since been lifted. The dark skies, crowded roads and thick blanket of smoke, however, brought back painful memories for a community still fighting to rebuild. On Friday, smoke was draped over the town like fog, and ash piled up on sidewalks blew through the air.
The fires have made Lloyd, who is an artist, question whether she wants to return to an area that will likely always be at risk for wildfires. But for now, Lloyd says, she and her boyfriend intend to. They have a beautiful new home waiting, with a studio where Lloyd can make her art. The trees are gone, but their garden of roses and lavender survived, and Lloyd looks forward to returning and being among friends.
“Everyone who went through that fire is bonded now,” she said.
Iris Natividad, who lost her partner, Andrew Downer, home and dog two years ago, plans to rebuild in a lot along the eastern edge of the town. When the evacuation warning went into effect Tuesday, she was among those who who left.
“It was just way too much chaos. Skyway was just backed up just like it was in the Camp fire. Everyone was panicking.”
The experience made her second-guess her plans to rebuild, particularly because her future home could be among the first hit if a blaze like the Camp fire were to happen again. For now, she remains steadfast. Fires are burning all across the west, she argued. “You can’t run from it. This is climate change. This is what our life is now.”
“Paradise is my home,” she added. “I’m not going to live in fear. I’m going to rebuild and do what I can to protect myself and stay proactive and learn what I can to live in a fire zone.”
The vast majority of Paradise’s former residents have settled in other Butte county towns, while an estimated 3,000 residents have returned to the town itself. The people who have chosen to live and work on the Ridge share a sense of resolve to make it a beautiful place to live again.
“If you don’t dream it, it won’t happen,” said Bill Hartley, who is in the process of rebuilding his home, and involved with many of the revitalization efforts. Despite the heavy smoke outside, the mood was positive at Nic’s in Paradise as Hartley ate lunch on Friday afternoon and ran into friends and colleagues.
“Wherever you go, you have to start over new,” Hartley said. “Here we get to start over with friends.”
It was a sentiment echoed by Nicki Jones, 75, who opened Nic’s just last year.
Jones, whose new home is expected to be move-in ready next month, said that despite the threat of fire, she doesn’t want to live anywhere else. The business was doing well, she said, though the Covid-19 pandemic had brought new challenges.
“I love what I do and I love my town,” she said. “That keeps me going.”
Up the road at the antique store Treasures from Paradise, customers streamed in throughout the afternoon, though the store technically wasn’t open. Barbara and Rick Manson had planned to keep the shop closed on Friday to clean up the thick ash that had piled up outside and along the porch, but customers kept coming in, looking for a slice of normalcy amid another disaster. The Mansons couldn’t turn them away.
“A lot of people are hurting. I think people thought the fires were behind us,” said Barbara Manson. The couple opened the new location in 2019 after losing their store of 18 years in the Camp fire.
“We’re gonna be here as long as the place doesn’t burn down around us,” she added as a handful of customers walked around the store, admiring the small bits of antiques and inspecting the Paradise themed-goods, T-shirts and metal signs.
“It’s not gonna burn here again,” her husband, Rick, said. “It can’t.”
Still, they took their important paperwork out of the store, and Rick wetted the grass outside. Just in case.