PARADISE — As Patty Van Bibber, owner of Paradise mainstay Barney O’Rourke’s, evacuated her town on Nov. 8, 2018, she knew she was going to have to start again.
“There was no doubt in my mind,” Van Bibber said. “We were driving past and the building was on fire and I said, ‘Well, we needed a new building.'”
Barney’s reopened roughly a year ago, but the process wasn’t without its own set of complications.
“First of all we had to get our houses, we had to have a place to live,” Van Bibber said. “So my kids’ houses, everybody’s houses burned down. So if we were actually going to stay we all had to rebuild our houses and that took a while. And then getting all the permits and all the hoops and then we started rebuilding.”
When it happened, rebuilding was not an immediate priority for most.
Survival was paramount to those evacuating, then came figuring out longevity in a time when no one could even return home and most wouldn’t have a home to return to.
The return of the town of Paradise and surrounding communities after the Camp Fire was not fast. It couldn’t be. With 153,335 acres burned and 18,800 structures destroyed, questions of hazardous remains held off the public and local government from picking up the pieces and when people could finally return, even more questions arose on how to move forward, some wondering if it were even possible.
As residents who lived in the burn scar figured out their next steps, the town government did so as well. If the town was going to return, it first needed a fresher start. Burned vehicles were removed from roadways and hazardous trees were removed from the public right of way.
In the months following the reopening, projects began to arise and funding began to take shape. Roads were in desperate need of repair after the excessive amount of use they faced during the evacuation. Many of those who received insurance money decided to rebuild on their old lots and over the next five years, homes began to pop back up little by little.
Once the town of Paradise decided to move forward in rebuilding the community, it created the Department of Recovery and Economic Development and placed Colette Curtis in the role of director. Needless to say, the department keeps busy.
“(We oversee) recovery projects like the siren towers and mitigation projects,” Curtis said. “We oversee economic development, which really at this point is economic recovery and that’s why we think those two things really go together. Communications and emergency operations management. So all of those things other than recovery existed before the fire, but they were just in different places.”
A large part of Curtis and her team’s work comes down to communicating with the public on new policies and programs. Curtis noted that public workers such as herself had to completely rewrite the playbook on how to work with residents after the Camp Fire.
“Many of us lost our homes,” Curtis said. “My home survived, luckily, but probably 90% of the people who work (for the town of Paradise) lost their homes. And just like everyone else we were doing our best coming into work and trying to do everything we could do. I think what was hard was working with the residents and all of us trying to figure out how to do our jobs.”
With the decision to rebuild from the ground up came a series of learning curves and letting go of what was previously the normal day-to-day workload. Curtis recalled that the stress of the fire and all of the events post-fire led to anger and frustration over the complications that come with rebuilding.
“What we found is to actually be effective in doing that work with our community, we first had to be humans together,” Curtis said. “We had to listen, and really listen. We had to ask, ‘What’s going on?’ And the first thing we would do was listen to what happened to them on the day of the fire and then we would share what happened to us on the day of the fire and suddenly, you’re two humans that went through something catastrophic together and you’re working on a problem together.”
Five years have gone by since the Camp Fire and in that time, the town has noticeably regrown. Homes and apartment buildings are returning and creating neighborhoods. Parks are once again being used and events like Gold Nugget Days and Johnny Appleseed Days are drawing in crowds and are packed with vendors.
Within that five years, according to the town’s data, 3,018 applications have been submitted for building a new home. Of those applications, 2,800 have been approved and 2,143 are complete with certificates of occupancy.
Additionally, in terms of multi-family housing such as apartments and duplexes, 777 applications have been entered with 591 units approved and 424 occupied. In this circumstance, a unit would be one of many within a singular building such as one apartment.
Curtis said the first permit was issued in March 2019, offering a small peek into the timeline of the overall rebuild. She also noted that about 1,200 homes survived the fire.
The 2010 census showed that the town had a population of 26,218. Ten years later and two years after the Camp Fire, that number had dropped to 4,764.
The current trajectory based on the growth Paradise has seen in the past five years is trending upward.
“The Department of Finance noted that Paradise is the fastest growing city in the state of California for the past two years,” Curtis said. “Of course, we’re regrowing so it’s a little bit different than most cities. Still, we feel pretty good about that.”
In January 2023, the town’s population was at 9,142. Curtis was confident that in the next report, it will likely break 10,000.
Of course, the fire expanded far beyond Paradise and into neighboring communities like Magalia and Concow. Butte County Public Information Officer Miranda McAfee-Bowersox said 57 rebuilds have come to completion in Concow with 270 in Magalia.
After the fire, organizations both locally and beyond were quick to step in and find funding and aid to fill the gaps left by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
During the early stages of the rebuild process, Habitat for Humanity adopted a bold goal within Butte County.
“That was a really big thing that happened for us in the past five years was building our capacity to have a deeper impact in the community and to be focused on the burn scar,” said Habitat for Humanity’s Butte County Executive Director Nicole Bateman. “We had been building one to two houses before the fire and our goal now is to build 10 houses a year. Last year we built seven and this year we built eight so we’re well on our way to 10.”
In total, Habitat has built 17 houses since the fire with 11 in Paradise and six in Chico. Of those, 11 were built for Camp Fire survivors.
For its goal of building 10 homes in 2024, the organization had to bolster its staff and obtain lots to build on.
“We’ve been building up our staffing so we can actually make it happen,” Bateman said. “The biggest thing is our construction team. We have two full-time construction people and an operations manager. That was a really big lift for us. We spent quite a bit of time doing strategic planning with our board. It took a couple of years to actually get up to Paradise but we finally have the capacity to do 10 next year, and we’re really excited about it.”
The organization has also brought on a full-time homeowner support worker who works directly with clients.
For the lots, the North Valley Community Foundation provided grant funding and additional donors have pitched in to offset the construction costs and subsequently keep the prices of the houses down. In addition to lots purchased, 15 people have donated their lots to Habitat.
Habitat’s program is income-based. For example, a family of four making between $50,000 and $65,000 would qualify. The applicants put in 250 hours of work on building the house with help from community members and are able to get a home at a lower cost with an affordable mortgage.
“We need more people who are thinking about becoming homeowners, and we know that if they can get a home they can afford, it really is life-changing,” Bateman said. “It brings back stability to their lives and helps them get back into the community again.”
Kelsi Dancer, a homeowner through Habitat, said having a house has helped her family persevere.
“Since the Camp Fire, we have had little to no stability. We lost a stable home, friends and our entire way of life was disrupted,” Dancer said. “Owning a Habitat home will allow us to regain that stability, with more disposable income and the knowledge that this is our forever home.”
Another organization is the Tiny Pine Foundation which works to build tiny homes for victims of wildfires.
The town of Paradise has offered up its own programs as well, such as one that removes standing business signs on burnt properties for free.
Those who have been living in Paradise or have recently visited have likely noticed the influx of new stores, both local and corporate. The shopping center on Clark Road that once housed K-Mart still stands and has attracted Tractor Supply, Big Lots, Ross and more. It’s also home to Save Mart, one of the town’s few grocery stores still in business.
For the county’s jurisdiction, there has been little commercial activity in the burn scar.
“The Concow fire station rebuild is currently underway, however, there have been no other permits for new businesses or rebuilding of any commercial structures in the unincorporated Camp Fire burn scar,” McAfee Bowersox said.
And it hasn’t been easy in town limits. Curtis explained that businesses are a bit more complex than homes in terms of rebuilding as many of the stores did not burn and remain standing — and many of them remain empty.
“We have a lot of vacant commercial buildings,” Curtis said. “And so for businesses that didn’t burn down, instead of rebuilding, they mostly just rented or bought other standing buildings.”
In lower Paradise, Van Bibber said Barney O’Rourke’s is thriving. Other small business owners are adapting as they return to the ridge.
New business owner Jenny Jones opted to open her business in a plaza on the north end of the Skyway. What started as a photo studio over time morphed into a pet supply shop and doubles as a delivery location for FedEx.
“We opened a photography studio and gift shop here in December, and it really wasn’t what was needed,” Jones said. “So we started getting feedback from everybody and there was still a need for other pet supplies.”
Jones said getting the business license was the easy part, but making the expansion to FedEx came with some curveballs.
“FedEx declined me the first time,” Jones said. “They said that ground wouldn’t pick up here but express would. That was on a Friday, so the next Monday I told them I’m not taking no for an answer. I called back and got a yes.”
Ultimately, Jones said she was happy to pivot to pet supplies.
“I love having the pet supply shop because you get to meet so many animal lovers,” Jones said. “And there are so many people here with passion. Paradise is an excellent small town. Everybody helps each other out, and they’re wonderful.”
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