On November 8, 2018, the deadly and devastating Camp Fire swept through the idyllic mountain town of Paradise, California. In the next 17 days, the fire would destroy nearly 19,000 buildings, kill 86 people, injure 17 others, and three people are still missing.
The fire burned 153,000 acres (239 sq miles) which is bigger than the city of Chicago. “Luckily” the area burned mostly forest but the town remains flattened by cinders nonetheless.
This is not what ghost towns should exemplify. We tend to think of ghost towns as communities that have been abandoned by its inhabitants to move on to the next best thing. Not as being forced out within minutes from a blazing fire ripping through town, leaving behind all possessions, never to be seen by their owners again.
Our now present-day ghost towns that popped up in the late 19th century and early 20th century due to gold mining were typically temporary camps. Those who lived there brought little with them as they knew at any time the mine would prove unfruitful and it was time to move on to the next camp.
But not Paradise.
The History of Paradise
Paradise was a living, thriving, and established town of 26,000 before November of last year. It was initially inhabited by the Maidu Native American Tribe potentially for thousands of years, on what locals call the Ridge due to its elevation roughly 2,000 – 2,800 ft above the valley floor.
Nestled against Plumas National Forest in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, Paradise is just 15 miles away from Chico and 90 miles due north of Sacramento.
How did Paradise get its name? There are two theories. There was a local bar named Pair ‘O Dice Saloon in which is said to inspire the name. The other claims William Leonard of the local sawmill Leonard’s Mill coined the name. As he rested after a wagon trip up the ridge with this crew under a ponderosa pine tree, he sighed and said, “boys, this has got to be paradise.” Whether Paradise’s name stemmed from a saloon, a miller, or something else, is up to you to decide.
The Paradise community grew steadily after American trappers explored the area in 1829 which ultimately brought a trading post in the 1850s. Although gold was found in nearby Dogtown and its surrounding areas, none was found in Paradise. Miners who were unsuccessful at finding gold took up residence in the town and began working for the local sawmill, chopping timber, or farming.
The abundant agriculture was well-known in the area due to ample fresh water in the winter. Although the water mostly disappeared in the summer, that was solved in 1916 when a dam was built and the availability of water was plentiful. With this began the boom of the area’s agriculture.
Paradise grew popular for their apples due to its fertile soil and climate and at one time, the town boasted 50 orchards. The Noble Orchard was the last remaining orchard in the city, which miraculously withstood the flames of the Camp Fire. The orchard is closed at this time but hopefully will open their doors again to the community soon.
Four months ago, the people of Paradise’s lives changed forever. Fifty-thousand people were displaced due to the fire including those in the nearby communities of Concow and Magalia, many taking up residence in tents in parking lots or shelters in Chico.
Although some housing structures still remain, today there are thousands of people without homes and an already shortage of housing in Chico.
Check out this drone footage of the Camp Fire aftermath.
So what’s next?
The town is slowly clearing debris from what’s left of their properties and trying to figure out their next steps. Many are battling with insurance companies that have dropped the fire victims from their policy, forcing them to find another policy at double the cost of the previous.
With no financial reserves and sky-high insurance premiums, it’s near impossible to rebuild. The lots that have been cleared have been put up for sale for pennies on the dollar as homeowners walk away to build a life elsewhere. I can’t imagine the town will be able to be rebuilt in less than 10 years.
Paradise, sadly, has become California’s newest ghost town.
how you can help
The town of Paradise could use your help. Consider visiting the Butte County Recovers site and contribute however you can.
Were you affected by the Camp Fire? How has your life changed? Comment below and tell us your story.