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Fires in Paradise (and open thread)

[From Neo: I wrote this the other day and published it on my blog, and I thought I’d put it here too.]

Reading about the horribly destructive fires in Maui and the victims as well as survivors who endured so much has got me remembering. Maui – a place I’ve never been, although I’ve been to Oahu – is often thought of as a kind of Paradise.

And the place I’m remembering is another Paradise, which was just a town. Five years ago it was destroyed by fire, and all of Gerard’s readers know that he had lived there and escaped that morning. But I’ve never written about my own experiences in Paradise, before that fire and after.

Gerard moved there from Seattle in 2014 to help take care of his mother, who was still in pretty good shape despite being about to turn 100, but who needed more help than before. He’d had it with Seattle, and decided to return to the part of California in which he’d grown up. I helped him move.

Initially, he thought maybe he’d live in Chico, where his mom lived. But rentals there were more expensive than in Paradise, which was a smaller town about twenty minutes away. The road from Paradise to Chico is called Skyway, and it’s aptly named, passing by a lovely canyon for most of its route is it moves from the higher elevation – and slightly cooler clime – of Paradise down to the flat heat of Chico. The house he rented in Paradise had a relaxing yard and deck, three bedrooms and the usual comforts, and it suited him just fine.

I, on the other hand, probably would have preferred Chico. But I had to admit that the Skyway views were beautiful, as were the vistas from a park there. I spent somewhere between two months and four months living there each year during the four years Gerard rented that house, and so I got to know the town very well and found my own rhythms within it.

I wasn’t there for the fire. But on November 8, 2018, I got an uncharacteristically early call from Gerard. It was about 1 PM my time, 10 AM his time, and he started out by saying, “Well, I’ve moved in with my mother.”

I had no idea what was going on. It sounded like a joke, or maybe his mother had taken ill – but no. He explained that he’d woken up around 6:30 AM and it looked a bit hazy outside, and then he smelled the faint whiff of smoke. As someone who’d grown up in that area, he knew that he probably shouldn’t mess around. So he grabbed the cat, the cat carrier, his computer, his hard drive, and a few shirts, and drove down the Skyway. Just to be safe. He expected to return in a couple of days.

He had left before the road became a corridor between two walls of flame. You’ve probably seen the videos; people who left just a while later encountered a harrowing journey and some didn’t make it. But for Gerard, although there was a lot of traffic, it wasn’t yet too bad. And when he spoke to me, he had no idea the town was no more.

About an hour or so later my phone rang again. It was Gerard. This time he said, “It’s gone.”

“What’s gone?” I asked. “What are you talking about?”

“Paradise,” he said. “It’s completely destroyed. Everything. Gone.”

Then of course I followed the news and spoke to him daily, and I arrived there about three weeks later shortly after he’d managed to get a tiny apartment in the same apartment complex as his mother. The day I got there, there were two things in that apartment: a couch and a bed. Three things I guess, because to me Olive the cat was a new addition. For the next month or so, I went with Gerard as he outfitted both himself and the new apartment. There were large warehouse-type places with donated clothing and household goods, there were trips to Walmart and Costco and the Dollar Tree and many others. We kept meeting other people with carts piled high, full of basic goods like brooms and dustpans and pots and Comet and everything a person might need to completely outfit a new dwelling.

Slowly but surely, the apartment started filling up. Packages arrived daily from readers who sent all sorts of things: toys for Olive, books for Gerard. At the end of November, it was his mother’s 104th birthday, and I took a few photos. Here’s one:

A short while later, the authorities let the ex-residents of Paradise return to the town to look at their homes. Gerard already knew his was destroyed. We drove up the Skyway from Chico and stopped at a checkpoint where Gerard had to show his ID, and then they gave us two Hazmat suits. It was a strangely foggy day that lent an unreal quality to an already unreal scene, as though Paradise was a mirage that had emerged from some sort of time warp.

When we got to the town, I was surprised to see that, because many of the thick trees were now gone, the views were far more spectacular from many more places. Other than that, though, what we saw was grim even though we expected it. Here are a few of my photos. The first is the moment of our arrival at his house, which is directly in front of us:

It was almost completely reduced to ashes, except for a few metal things that were twisted but recognizable. Here’s Gerard’s ironing board, minus its padding and cover:

Here’s the Safeway where we used to shop. The carts are still all neatly lined up:

As we drove around, we saw many sights like this one: entrances made of fire-proof material such as brick, now leading to nowhere instead of their former homes:

Here’s Gerard talking to his neighbor; she’s in a Hazmat suit, but he never wore his. Those are her kids’ tricycles:

This is what the road back to Chico looked like:

And then, about a week later, I was walking near Gerard’s apartment and I felt a sinking feeling when I saw a neighbor of his mother’s running fast towards me. He asked me urgently which apartment Gerard lived in. Gerard’s mother had fallen and it turns out she’d sustained a concussion and went to a rehab facility for a few weeks. This was the beginning of a cascade of events that signaled the end for her; she died about six months later.

What a year.

Gerard returned to Paradise two more times after that with me, and I’m pretty sure those were the only two times he ever went back. The first time was for a benefit concert. The second was at my urging, perhaps a year later. I wanted to see what had been rebuilt, but he didn’t want to go. I decided to go myself and was okay with that, but he suddenly decided he’d go with me. He was very quiet on the trip, and on the way home he said, “That’s it. I’m not ever going back.”

And that was that.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • ghostsniper August 28, 2023, 8:21 AM

    Horrible tragedy.

  • John Venlet August 28, 2023, 12:46 PM

    Though what happened to Paradise is tragic, it was preventable with proper forestry management and electrical grid management. Same as for Lahaina.

    • ghostsniper August 28, 2023, 2:03 PM

      It all falls down.
      Stay out of the way.
      Carve your own little world, absent the insanity all around.

      • Snakepit Kansas September 6, 2023, 6:19 PM

        Hopefully you will have some good fields of fire also.

  • jd August 28, 2023, 12:51 PM

    Thanks, Neo.

  • Phil in Mount Dora August 28, 2023, 4:42 PM

    Thanks for the story and pictures, Neo. Astonishing how fast something that has been there forever, or at least what seems like forever, all of one’s life, can vanish so quickly and thoroughly, never to return.

  • DT August 28, 2023, 4:57 PM

    5 years already … time flies.

  • Nori August 28, 2023, 9:57 PM

    Dear Lord. Thank you Neo. Gerard speaks thru your soul. That 104 b/d photo is balm for unknown souls who loved him.
    “That’s it. I’m not ever going back.”
    Indeed,Mr V. No need,we will take it from here.
    Much love to you,and your beloved Neo.

  • azlibertarian August 29, 2023, 11:21 AM

    Beautifully written, Neo.

    I’m now retired, but in February, 2021 I was still flying and I wrote to Gerard about a movie I had seen on an airplane. I’m including it below….

    Oh my God, Gerard.

    My nom-de-internet is azlibertarian, and you may remember me as your resident airline pilot.

    The thing about the airlines is that we’re broke. We don’t have near enough passengers to justify the flights that we’re operating, and we’re subsisting on government handouts till the day when our passengers return (if ever). My airline is losing $10-15 million every day, and that’s an improvement from what it was last quarter. We face a dilemma: Entice our customers back while keeping our costs as low as possible.

    One of the ways that this manifests itself is in the movies we show. I fly internationally and on my breaks I will sometimes watch a movie. But when your airline is broke, they don’t change the movies all that often. I must have watched Ford vs Ferrari 6, maybe 8 times.

    I write this evening on my break as I’m again headed to Sydney. And what did I find tonight in the movie selections? A brand new selection of movies. And one of them jumped right out at me.

    Rebuilding Paradise.

    And my heart breaks all over again for what you and your town went through. Gerard, I don’t know you at all and yet I consider you to be an internet friend. I recommend that you not watch this movie…I have to believe that you’ve lived far more of this than a movie could ever add to.

    But I do recommend the movie for your readers. As you know more than any of us, it is a difficult story, but down in the middle of it there is hope.

    All the best,

    Your pal,

  • ghostsniper August 29, 2023, 2:39 PM

    “Nostalgia – its delicate, but potent. Teddy told me that in Greek nostalgia literally means “the pain from an old wound.” It’s a twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone. This device isn’t a spaceship, it’s a time machine. It goes backwards, and forwards… it takes us to a place where we ache to go again. It’s not called the wheel, it’s called the carousel. It let’s us travel the way a child travels – around and around, and back home again, to a place where we know are loved.”
    — Don Draper

  • John A. Fleming August 29, 2023, 3:29 PM

    Three moves equal a fire. The question has been asked and answered, the world ends in fire.

    Historical knowledge and civilization is limited by fire everywhere and for all time. The courthouse burns down with all the records. The town burns down. The invading army sacks and torches your town, bombs it to shitaree, pounds it all night with artillery. Teotihuacan was burned to the ground in ~600 AD and everyone left, with only the mute stones to tell the story. The Library of Alexandria suffered multiple fires throughout its history. Broomfield, CO burned down last year when a chinook mixed with a (definite cause still pending). You may think you live somewhere safe, but I can pretty much guarantee that sometime in the future your residence, your neighborhood, your town, is going to burn down. It’s only a matter of time.

  • Casey Klahn August 30, 2023, 4:02 PM

    Our former pastor and his family lost their small lake home in the Gray Fire last week. My HS classmate, one year ahead of me, lost her foundation for the house they were building in Medical Lake, WA. My artist friend, at whose studio I participate in life drawing events, was spared the fire in the same town. I was on pins and needles for days when our internet went out, and our daughter at university (she lives there summers) was in the path of the fire. It became a situation where, if an evacuation became prudent or necessary, the roads also became cut by fire and closed, and our route to her went from about 39 minutes’ drive, to several hours of detours in order to get to her.

    I had Maui on my mind (the mismanagement at the least) and Gerard’s experience of disaster in Paradise, CA. My take-aways from this include: keep your head, you’re on your own and any outside help you get is over and above what you can expect in these situations, prayer works and is required of you, be a Christian to everyone in your vicinity, demand civic and state leadership behave like leaders and tolerate nothing less from them. One state disaster agency here in Washington was cracking jokes and saying “we told you climate deniers…”

    Glad to read this article about Gerard, et al. Not glad, but it needs to be told if for no other reason than to keep me human.

  • tallowpot September 1, 2023, 7:06 AM

    Whether Thomas Wolfe or Ella Winter said it, it’s still true on many levels.
    “You can never go home again”

  • John the River September 2, 2023, 8:47 AM

    What a lousy day. Jimmy Buffet passed, 76 and ‘undisclosed illness’. Right.

    I remember that time when Gerard lost his home in Paradise very well. As a person that’s been chased out of my dwelling, twice (or three times if you count the old apartment we were evacuated from twice in one night) by an all-consuming fire I felt a shiver of bad memories.
    In the second incident, my original house was gutted when a mysterious fire started outside on the porch. The house could not be saved since when the town fire truck arrived they forgot to bring any water. It was during the summer and several grass fires had used up all but eight seconds of water on board. And the town fire hydrant turned out to have no water pressure. So that was that.
    I’ve also chased after fire. After arriving home from a trip I was showering when my wife came into the bathroom and declared, “The car is on fire and heading for the neighbors house…”.
    Stark naked and wet I raced outside and grabbed the hose to chase the burning car. As I slipped on the grass and slid under the back end of the car while spraying the car as best I could I yelled to the wife, “Call 911!!!”.
    Fortunately I got the fire out and a bathrobe on before the police and fire arrived.
    But a good selection of my neighbors did arrive to catch the show. One neighbor remarked that if he gotten there with his camera in time the clip would definitely have made onto that TV show (AFV).

    So fire seems to have me in her sites. I’m fortunate that I’ve never been shot at, had a serious car accident or been attacked by someone with a weapon (except once but a buddy took care of it before I could get out the car). When we rebuilt I went out and bought two of the largest portable fire extinguishers they sold, plus a fire blanket for the kitchen. Though I know that there will always be some scenarios that will overcome all my mere human planning. Then you need friends. I’m so glad that I was able in a small way to be one of the many friends of Gerard when he need us.

    • azlibertarian September 3, 2023, 4:34 PM

      On a house fire…..

      This is kinda a tangent, but a number of years ago, my brother’s brother-in-law had the dream of building his own house. When he got to that stage in life where he had the money, time and knowledge to take on this project, he built what I’m told is (was) a nice house.

      Anyway, one day he smelled smoke. Not much and no flames anywhere, but he did the sensible thing and called the Fire Dept. They came out and couldn’t find anything, so they left for other things. A couple of hours later, he smelled the smoke again, and this time he cut a hole in a floor to see if it was coming from the crawl space.

      Whoosh. That was all it took. He had had some hot wiring under there somewhere, and when the source of oxygen was opened up, it erupted. Like Gerard, they had bare minutes to grab what they could and get out. They lost everything but what they could carry out on that one trip.

      The lessons that I’ve learned:
      * Obviously, keep some fire extinguishers around. It wouldn’t have helped my bro’s b-i-l (or Gerard) but I wouldn’t want to be that guy standing on the street squirting a pathetic garden hose on my house when I could have put out a fire quickly before it spread. I’ve made sure to keep my extinguishers in a place close to, but not on top of the likely source of a fire. And don’t bury your kitchen fire extinguishers under the sink or up in a cupboard….in no time, they’ll get pushed to the back, and the day you need it, you’ll be digging when you should be extinguishing.
      * Have a grab bag of important papers and valuables. I’ve done this, but as I write, it occurs to me that I should put my tax returns onto a flash drive and throw that in.
      * Photos. If you’re like me, you’ve got perhaps tens of thousands of photos of the important times and people in your life. Find a way to put them on a cloud or at least a hard drive that you could grab on your way out the door. We boomers have hard copies of photos….wedding photos, baby photos…and I have to admit that in my house, those’ll probably get left behind.

  • Dirk September 10, 2023, 4:09 PM

    There is so,thing “ not right” about the Hawaii fire. We have family and friends who lost everything in Paradise CA, and on Maui. This isn’t the only “ odd” fire that occurred. Up the mountain another community lost much to another fire.

    As an arson investigator for 27 years, something is not right on the island fire.so,e things being hidden.

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