Paradise reclaimed: After climate-driven fires, finding a way to return home

PARADISE — When Hope Bolin heard she had to evacuate her home, she saw it as an inconvenience. She had

PARADISE — When Hope Bolin heard she had to evacuate her home, she saw it as an inconvenience. She had too much to do that day. The fire was in Pulga, still 10 miles off. She walked back to her bedroom, washed her face and brushed her teeth.

Then, with shocking speed, the sky became black.

Soon after, immobile in gridlocked traffic with her young sons, Bolin feared they wouldn’t make it out of Paradise alive. Houses along the road were ablaze. Combusting gas tanks shook their vehicle with each explosion.

Bolin contemplated off-roading her 4Runner, plowing through fences to another road or down into a canyon. Maybe getting out of the vehicle and running. At one point, she found herself scanning the inside of her car for an object to knock her boys unconscious; she didn’t want them to suffer if the fire became inescapable.

Eventually, they sheltered in a parking lot where the flames couldn’t reach them. That evening in nearby Chico, Bolin sat on the curb outside her brother-in-law’s house, traumatized, unable to stop shaking. “I was like, ‘I’m never going back there again,’ ” she remembers thinking.

That was Nov. 8, 2018. Eventually, she did return. Bolin and her husband rebuilt their home on the same plot of land in Paradise. They could have moved somewhere safer using insurance money, but that wasn’t enough to buy another home in California. And, said Bolin, “When it’s all said and done, this is my home.”

In the Camp Fire, even now California’s deadliest and most destructive wildfire, 85 people died and 90% of the structures in Paradise burned down, ravaging a town already struggling economically. Three years later, the population, formerly some 26,000, now hovers around 6,000. The town is a checkerboard of vacant lots, piles of debris, rebuilt homes, and trailers where homes once stood. Flammable vegetation is already growing back among the stumps.

Yet many residents, like Bolin, are bound to the place. Researchers and local nonprofit leaders say people — Indigenous communities, multigenerational farmers, people in search of affordability, among others — don’t want to let places like Paradise go, despite the risk.

Against this backdrop, in an unassuming yet radical experiment, the Paradise Recreation and Park District is buying up private lots ringing the community to form a buffer. The hope is that it will better protect the town from the next big fire.

From her rebuilt home, Bolin now has a view of the canyon through which the fire tore into Paradise. Her home, like tens of millions more from California to Argentina to France, sits in what is known as the wildland urban interface, or “WUI,” a swath of land where human development and wilderness commingle, and where 69% of wildfire-destroyed buildings in the United States are. Convincing people not to live there, some researchers say, is the most fail-safe way to save lives.

But it’s not that simple. As more places around the world face climate risks, there will be fewer safe and affordable places to live. That’s especially true in California, a state deep in a housing crisis. As outsiders increasingly question the logic of rebuilding in dangerous places like Paradise, could re-imagining where and how people live on the landscape help protect communities?

The Paradise ridge, long a seasonal home to the Maidu Tribes, started attracting gold prospectors in the mid-19th century. Upon arriving, they transformed the landscape as they — like others in settlements throughout the Sierra Nevada mountains — forged trails. Decades later, these trails served as blueprints for modern roads, retaining their “one way in, one way out” gesture — or, in the presence of fire, said Dan Efseaff, district manager of park district, “one way in, and no way out.”

The layout of the roads, unchanged since the earliest days, reflected the hands-off attitude that attracted many inhabitants to Paradise. But in 2018, that proved fatal when overlaid with Paradise’s particular fire risk: situated atop steep hillsides overgrown with vegetation, and subjected to increasingly strengthening wind patterns in a changing climate. As the fire overtook the town with unexpected speed, many people trapped on its roads perished.

Efseaff understood this confluence of hazards, and wondered if better planning could work with nature to give fire “a little bit of elbow room,” much like how wetlands can absorb waves and water during storms.

He realized “home-hardening” — steps like installing ember-resistant vents and noncombustible siding — wasn’t enough. He had seen homes employing fire-safe building codes catch fire, then act as fuel for the next home. This happened in Paradise. Research, too, supports that housing arrangement tends to be one of the top predictors of whether a structure burns.

Through collaboration already underway with the Northern California Indian Development Council, the vegetation could be restored to its pre-colonial state.

On a recent morning, Efseaff surveyed the canyon along the eastern edge of Paradise — the same canyon behind Bolin’s home. He stood on a lot empty but for a small putting green and a wrought-iron fence, all that remains of the property’s burned-down home. “This is the area that we identified,” Efseaff said. “We want to contact the landowners along this edge.”

The idea is to persuade them to sell their homes to the park district at market value. The district has received funds from several sources, including the Nature Conservancy, the Sierra Nevada Conservancy and the North Valley Community Foundation to help make that possible. One incentive for homeowners, aside from a way out if they want it, is that the cost of insuring homes in fire-prone areas is on the rise.

Not everyone in Paradise knows about the plan yet; the park district is just beginning its targeted outreach. Some people have already cashed out, however, tired of living under the constant threat of fire evacuations.

For the plan to have an effect, it needs about 1,000 strategic acres along this hazardous rim; since the fire, the park district has already added about 300 acres throughout the district, with 500 more in process. It’s likely that in the next five years, Efseaff said, “We may not have the buffer, but we’ll have a string of pearls.”

That string of pearls could significantly change an approaching fire’s behavior along the town’s perimeter, reducing flame heights and intensity. The buffer won’t prevent fire, nor is it meant to, given that prescribed burns will help manage certain forested areas. And it likely won’t stop wind-driven fires, like the Camp Fire, that can blow embers for miles. But, said Jim Broshears, Paradise’s emergency operations coordinator and former fire chief, “If you can bring the fire to the ground, firefighters have a much better chance of being able to protect structures or establish control lines.”

If successful, the model could help people across the state stay in their communities.

Bolin said she was unfamiliar with the park district plan, but supports making Paradise safer. She remains fearful, she said, and barely sleeps on windy nights. But she also struggles to imagine long-term plans when she wishes first for an emergency alarm system, or road repairs so she’s not constantly triggered when driving over rough asphalt patches where cars burned — a fate almost her own.

Yet having experienced what she did, she has also gained a certain equanimity. During last summer’s fire evacuations, she said she was unfazed by the risk of losing her home again, adding: “We’ve rebuilt our life once, we could do it again.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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