Safety questions still swirl in Paradise year after Camp fire
PARADISE - There was "no way in hell" Victoria Sinclaire was rebuilding in Paradise.
She'd thought she was going to die during the six hours it took her to escape the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California history. The town where she'd raised her family was nearly wiped out, two of her three cats had disappeared into the flames, and she "was done."
Sinclaire and tens of thousands of others in nearby communities fled the wind-whipped inferno that killed 85 people and incinerated roughly 19,000 homes, businesses and other buildings on Nov. 8, 2018.
Despite her vow to stay away, Sinclaire's family was one of the first to rebuild, braving the enduring threat of wildfires, and now, repeated power outages as the nation's largest utility tries to prevent its equipment from sparking blazes on windy days like it did in Paradise a year ago.
Weeks after the fire, Sinclaire had an epiphany when she returned to the ruins of her home, where she raised a daughter and nearly two dozen foster children over eight years. Even rescue groups eventually found her two missing cats.
"There was a wind that was blowing through what was left of my trees, and I just felt a calmness. I just felt more peace than I had any time since the fire, and I was standing in the ashes of our living room," she said. "It was just like, 'This is home,' and then the thought of living anyplace else seemed impossible."
"Rebuilding the Ridge" is a rallying cry on signs around town, evoking the beauty and peril of rebuilding on a wind-swept jut of land poking out of the Sierra Nevada and begging the question: Will the resurgent community be safer this time?
About 3,000 people have come back, and nearly 200 grocery stores, restaurants and businesses have reopened, like Nic's Restaurant with its sandwiches named after police and firefighters who helped evacuate the town. Just 15% of the 1,800 people who answered an online community survey in April said they were gone for good.
"I want people to see that Paradise is a place to return home to," Sinclaire said. "The scars run deep here, but so do the roots that help it grow."
Hers is one of just nine homes that have been rebuilt in the year since the nation's deadliest wildfire in a century, but the town is on track to issue 500 building permits by the end of 2019.
Paradise is now largely populated with travel trailers. They are parked on lots scraped clean of more than 3.66 million tons of charred and toxic ruins, the equivalent of four Golden Gate bridges or twice the tonnage that was removed from the World Trade Center site.
"When you drive around, you don't see all the carcasses anymore of the houses and the cars," said town councilman Michael Zuccolillo, who is also a real estate broker. "You'd hear hammers and chain saws and nail guns."
Wildfire mitigation consultant Zeke Lunder fears Paradise is setting itself up for another disaster.
"As we saw in the Camp Fire, the town's really well set up to kill people with wildfire," said Lunder, who lives in nearby Chico.
The five routes out of town quickly became gridlocked with traffic, abandoned vehicles and downed power poles during the blaze. Half the town's 200 miles (320 kilometers) of roads are privately owned, many of them narrow, dead-end tracks leading through small, densely forested lots. Authorities found five bodies in and around vehicles trapped at the end of a long road with no way out.
To make the town safe, officials would have to start fresh with a new grid of interconnected streets and alleys, spend millions of dollars a year to keep brush and trees in check, and force homeowners to keep their properties clear, Lunder said.
"We're not going to keep fires from burning through Paradise, so whatever they build up there should be something that can survive a wildfire," Lunder said. "But just building a bunch of wooden houses out in the brush, we already saw what happened."
Town leaders are under heavy pressure to keep Paradise both affordable and forested.
"If you take away all the trees, it's what we're here for, is for the trees," resident Vincent Childs told town council members in June as they prepared to vote on new building safety standards.
Former town councilman Steve Culleton said he and his wife couldn't afford many of the safety proposals and he's skeptical they would have prevented the Camp Fire.
"We don't need to be some kind of experiment for the rest of the world," he said at the meeting.
Paradise officials have taken steps to make the town more fire resistant but stopped short of the stringent restrictions adopted by several fire-prone Southern California communities. Paradise adopted only seven of 15 proposed fire safety standards and changed four of those it accepted.