Growing up in Stockton, I remember sitting in the back seat of my parents’ Buick chugging along Highway 99 in fog so thick you could barely see the taillights of the car ahead. Nearly 35 years later, my trip up the old 99 to Chico looks the same as back then, yet sadly this shroud is not fog but smoke from the devastating Camp Fire — the scattered microscopic remnants of the town of Paradise and surrounding communities that became hell on earth on Nov. 8.
Heading north from Sacramento, I drive through the communities of Yuba City, Gridley and Live Oak, where church marquees proclaiming support for Butte County residents and handmade signs thanking firefighters are ubiquitous. The smoke in the air is thick and I am thankful that I remembered to grab an N95 mask before leaving the office the day before.
It is driving through these small towns when I notice a completely crowded parking lot at a roadside motel, and then another and another and another. Normally, you wouldn’t expect to see more than a few cars at any one of these so early on a Friday morning in November, but today they are unseasonably busy — rooms filled with survivors of the deadliest fire in California history.
About 10 miles south of Chico is when I get a glimpse of the blaze’s wrath. It burned all the way up to the shoulder on the east side of Highway 99 for vast swaths of the remaining drive — just black, charred earth as far as you can see, draped in smoky haze like an apocalyptic landscape. I can almost feel the flames licking the passenger side of the car as they raged hungrily in every direction. There are three areas where the fire jumped the four-lane highway and roared westward but firefighters corralled it. The scorched land lies raw and exposed, like scars that haven’t yet started to heal, telling a story that has no happy ending.
I am on my way into the heart of this disaster to attend a reunion of students from a Paradise school destroyed by the fire. Three teachers from Children’s Community Charter School are meeting with their first through third grade students at the Chico Library to have a makeshift class for a few hours, to help give a sense of normalcy to the kids. One of the teachers has already been having class in her kitchen for 10 of the students for about a week. It is an amazing story of community and caring and coming together, and I am excited to be there.
I don’t know why I get off the freeway two exits early at the Skyway, but I just keep following the signs that point to Paradise, which sits 10 miles east of Chico. I don’t get too far before a large sign orders me to turn around. Maybe because I’m confused but probably more because I’m curious, I push on toward Paradise and see at the next intersection (Skyway and Honey Run Road) a checkpoint where I would be forced to go back, as well as a small driveway to the left with a big easel and a public information map of the fire. I pull in and park. It is as close as non-emergency personnel can get to Paradise right now.
I exit my car and am struck by the quiet heaviness. The acrid smell of fire permeates the air and stings my nose through the mask. My eyes burn and water, and I resist the urge to rub them. The air is brown and still. Though it is 10 a.m., it feels like dusk and is much colder than it seems like it should be. There are no birds in the air and the lifeless stillness is broken only by the sound of emergency vehicles and PG&E trucks rolling down Skyway. The Camp Fire was stopped by firefighters not far from where I stand — less than a quarter-mile — as it made a run down Paradise Ridge toward Chico. It is a surreal moment in a place once so full of life, then chaos and now so much silence.
“It’s like a family at our school and it really shows at a time a like this.” – Laura Sutherland-Mangold
The former residents of Paradise have scattered around Butte County and beyond, many of them in Chico. I see a field full of tents just off the highway where many evacuees are temporarily calling home. A lot of questions remain about the future of Paradise, but one thing is certain: The people who evacuated their homes need support and a lot of it. Many of them lost everything and are now forced to sleep in hotel rooms, their vehicles and outdoors in the brisk November night breathing hazardous air, while waiting for insurance companies and FEMA to figure out what happens next. Even a week later, many of them still look shell-shocked, like they’re stuck in a bad dream. I can’t even imagine what they must be going through. Their homes, schools, markets, hospital, doctor’s offices, everything gone.
At the library, excited kids run up to teachers Annie Finney, Sheri Eichar and Brittany Bentz, giving long hugs before turning to find their friends. Tired parents share emotional moments and updates with the three educators. A man hands Finney a thick stack of gift cards intended for the families of her students. “Who do I tell them it’s from?” she asks. “Just tell them it’s from somebody who cares,” he replies. The teachers distribute the cards as parents arrive, each time eliciting gratitude-filled tears. The three educators have been angels to these families, providing rooms full of relief items, thousands of dollars in gift cards for food and other items, and now, giving their kids a piece of familiarity with school at the library.
The children’s section of the Chico Library has probably never been this lively, but nobody minds. Truth be told, the laughter and excitement of children is much-needed as this community mourns. Parents swap tales while their kids play and laugh and write about what they are thankful for. Laura Sutherland-Mangold, whose daughter Machara attends the school, says it means everything just to see the kids smile.
“The teachers love our kids so much to give them a chance to see each other and provide a piece of normalcy,” she said. “It’s like a family at our school and it really shows at a time a like this.”
While any support for the Paradise community is much appreciated, the best way to help is to keep donations to gift cards and cash. There are already plenty of supplies and clothing on hand, and even if there weren’t, most evacuees don’t yet have anywhere to put any new things. The luggage that Eichar received from an Oregon donor and distributed to families earlier this morning spurred happy tears — a suitcase means not having to keep everything they own in a plastic garbage bag.
“I can’t believe I’m crying about a suitcase, but it means so much,” says parent Jamie Ryder.
As the children gather and happily listen to Finney read a Thanksgiving story, it feels like a classroom. For the moment, I forget we’re in a library and about the fire and the devastation, and I see only school in session. The kids raise their hands to ask questions. The educators teach and the students learn. And it evokes the question of what makes a school: Is it the physical building where desks and books are kept or is it a community of students and educators committed to supporting and inspiring each other?
As Paradise and other local school districts figure out how to move forward after the fire, many of these communities will be broken apart as students are sent to schools throughout the area. Finney said she’s ready to fight for their community and vows that they will stay together as a school. Time will tell if they are successful in keeping their special family united. After seeing the beauty of what these folks mean to each other, I hope so.
“Hold on to the momentum of wanting to give until these people have homes in six months — they’re going to need your donations then. This will be a long process.” – Brittany Bentz
I bid farewell to Annie, Sheri and Brittany, careful not to step on their capes as I thank them for inviting me to be a part of their experience. Though we just met, I share a hug with each like we are now family, the sights and sounds of the day to be forever etched into my mind and heart. I stop in the library lobby to put on my mask before venturing back out into the soupy air and begin chatting with a woman who notices I am with CTA. She asks if I am going to a press conference in the afternoon where county school officials are planning to talk about their plan for the thousands of students who attended schools in Paradise and surrounding areas. Some problems have no easy answers.
“Our Chico schools are already crowded,” she says. “I don’t know what they’re going to do with all the extra students.”
Onto Highway 99 and away from Chico and Paradise. Away from the fire and smoke, and away from the images of inspiring educators committed to their community and students who just want to be kids again. The immediate future for Paradise and the people who call it home is uncertain. With the death toll rising every day, more than 1,000 residents potentially missing and a massive search of the destruction underway, it is still unknown when people will be allowed back to see if anything survived the firestorm. And even once they can go home, reports are there’s nothing left to return to in Paradise. I wonder what will happen to the town’s 26,000 people, and I’m reminded of Bentz’s words just a few hours earlier.
“Hold on to the momentum of wanting to give until these people have homes in six months — they’re going to need your donations then,” she said. “This will be a long process.”
How You Can Help
Click here for ways you can help with recovery efforts in Paradise and other areas ravaged by wildfires.
From the California Dept. of Forestry:
Photos and video by Julian Peeples.
Paradise Educators In Their Own Words
What does it mean to see your students and bring them together for school today?