Sam Burnham, Curator
The Camp Fire in California is now reportedly the costliest fire in that state’s history. One story that stands out from this tragedy is the town of Paradise. I really didn’t understand the scope of it until I heard a radio interview with Loren Lighthall, principal of Paradise High School. Lighthall says his family has lost everything, including their home.
From what I’ve gathered, Paradise was much like the towns we celebrate at ABG. It was a small town in a rural area about three and a half hours north of Sacramento. I say was because the town isn’t there anymore. When NPR’s Lulu Garcia-Navarro asked Lighthall about the reported 85% of homes destroyed by the fire, he said that assessment was most likely low. He knew of very few homes that had not been destroyed.
That was shocking.
But he wasn’t finished. He shared what he had heard from local authorities and also seen with his own eyes. Paradise was gone. Garcia-Navarro asked what he was going to do and he didn’t know. While the school buildings survived the fire, the town it serves is gone. There’s nowhere to live or work. He is unsure if there will ever again be students to attend the school.
It's saddening to ponder the fate of dead towns. We’ve come across more abandoned, ruined, or demolished towns than we can remember. But most of those were lost over a span of years. People woke up one morning in Paradise and it was gone that night. The Camp Fire claimed about 6700 structures in Paradise. So far the fire has taken 29 lives*.
Its easy to sit looking from far away and point to land management, development in interface areas, and other factors that contribute to wildfires. But the losses are too human to trivialize with politics. The death and destruction are staggering. There’s a loss of dignity that goes with leaving one’s hometown on these terms. Leaving for better opportunities is one thing. Leaving because there’s no reason to stay is another altogether. But that’s a decision many Paradise residents now face.
I’m not sure what the future holds for this small town. I'm not sure what I’d do in their place. Say a prayer or two for these folks. They certainly need it.
*A friend in California messaged to say the death toll has risen to 42 and is expected to rise. 3 firefighters have been injured and at least 228 people are missing.
Historian, self-proclaimed gentleman, agrarian-at-heart, & curator extraordinaire