(Charlie is driving some long stretches on this leg of his travels and his schedule is packed with marvelous visits. This provides a great opportunity to share the following update and reflection from Deon Mangan, a regular follower of A Sign of Hope, who sent this piece to Charlie earlier this month. ~Beckita)
I wrote a first-person account of the Camp Fire in, “Paradise on Fire,” posted in December 2018 here. This is an update on the progress and recovery in Paradise and Magalia since December.
It has been nearly 7 months since the Camp Fire devastated Paradise, Magalia, and surrounding areas in northern California. I wanted to let you know what’s been happening here since then. The first section gives some pictures and description of the community. The second section describes my personal journey since the last post.
This is largely a story of recovery, sadness, grief, loss, and with the spring and Easter, sprouts of grasses and flowers signaling new growth, life, and hope. The recovery is progressing, slowly, but surely.
Part One: Physical Community Changes
The first phase of recovery, with an official description found here, was led by the “U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA) to inspect your property and remove any hazardous waste that may pose a threat to human health, animals, and the environment, such as batteries, herbicide, pesticide, propane tanks, asbestos siding, paints, and e-waste. Phase I is automatic and includes both residential and commercial properties destroyed by the fire.”
This phase seemed to take so long, and even though it is understandable given the scope of the task, people’s lives were on hold. Driving past the same untouched destruction everyday was such a depressing and soul-wrenching experience. It was impossible to see progress being made. It just felt that we were all forgotten.
Once this stage was completed and the winter/spring rains subsided in mid-March, then the cleanup of the properties began in earnest. The first step in cleaning up the fire debris is to remove the burned trees. Some of the trees are very large and required cranes to remove the trees safely.
California lost 18.6 million trees in 2018 to the fires statewide. This was down from a high of 62 million in 2016 and 27 million in 2017.
After the trees are cut down and removed from the lot, then the heavy cleanup requires crews, heavy equipment, and a lot of trucks.
All the debris is loaded into large trucks that take the debris to several sites in northern California: Redding, Red Bluff, Oroville, and further south. Once the lots are clear there is just the red iron-rich soil, or a layer of protective covering, and all the evidence of the home or business are gone.
The Town of Paradise reports on its webpage (found here with succeeding updates) on June 5, 2019, that over 1/3 of the 10,000 lots have been cleared of debris (3,786), and 40 building permits have been issued.
The updated population of residents in Paradise is now 5,000 people. Before the Camp Fire there were 27,000 residents in the Town of Paradise and another 25,000 in Magalia, Paradise Pines, De Sabla, Lovelock, Nimshew, Stirling City and above.
There are hundreds of trucks on the roads of Paradise and Magalia every day. The first week of May we had a flat on our Toyota Corolla, then last week on the Ford Focus, then two days later two tires on the Corolla again. A co-worker of my husband had a flat on his motorcycle and then two flats on his jeep. They were all from screws on the road from the debris removal. We have not been driving on any off road or debris strewn areas, just the regular roads of Paradise and Magalia. While we were getting the tires fixed in town, generously done for free by a local tire store, there were long lines of other customers needing repairs. Another tire store in town said its road hazard repair business increased ten times over last month.
While there are frustrations at this stage with increased truck traffic, stoppages in traffic flow, and tire issues, at last everyone can see that progress is being made to clear away the debris that was once our beloved homes, active businesses, and treasured cars and trucks.
In the Town of Paradise 90% of the homes (about 10,000) were destroyed, so there are about 1,000 homes standing, scattered over the large town area. One or two here, and another one there. In town are two supermarkets, two gas stations, three pharmacies, and lots of food trucks, but no restaurants open currently.
Water in Paradise
The challenge is with the Paradise Irrigation District (PID) water. All over the town are high levels of benzene, a known carcinogen. The first time this was discovered after a wildfire was after the Santa Rosa fire last year. The situation is far more complex and challenging in Paradise. At first, they thought the plastic pipes had melted, then they thought flushing the system would resolve it. However, they are finding different readings all over town and so many broken pipes that there is not an easy solution. They have reached out to agencies and experts all over the country without a clear solution. While they continue to investigate this health hazard to the Paradise community, some estimates are up to two years and an additional $300 million to fix the water system, not counting the current estimate of $2 billion to rebuild Paradise. This is also impacting the number of people wanting to return to the homes still standing in the community or their readiness to rebuild. Some families are getting by on bottled water in their homes. This good article from the Sacramento Bee explains the water situation in more detail.
So, PID is putting in water tanks at the businesses in town, large ones, and filling them up with clean water as often as needed. Starbucks’ 3,000-gallon tank gets filled every day. My husband, Mike’s office now reopened in Paradise has a 2,600-gallon tank that is filled once a week, and the large one at St. Thomas More is filled every week also.
Washing with water flowing through the pipes isn’t safe, so handwashing, and restrooms are not readily available. There are lots of porta potties in town. Some businesses use the non-potable water to flush toilets only. Hand-sanitizer or bottled water is used to wash hands. So, restaurants that need to wash dishes, pots, and pans, are just not viable currently. The local residents and all of the debris removal workers (about 1,500 in town each day) use the food trucks, or they go to one of the local markets with small concession areas for lunch.
Food trucks can have tasty options, but it is not ideal for every day eating out. However, while not a permanent solution, this has allowed a little “normalcy” to return to life in Paradise.
Families who live in Paradise either use bottled water for showers and baths or they take chances with the benzene. Due to its absorption through the skin, people are told to avoid hot water because it opens the pores and may increase the absorption.
Water in Magalia
The community of Magalia is on a separate water system through Del Oro Water. We have no problems with our water in Magalia. Immediately after the fire there was some benzene in the water, but after the system was flushed, the water has been fine ever since. Magalia has four restaurants open and, in a role-reversal, people are coming up to Magalia from Paradise to eat out these days. We also have a supermarket, three gas stations, a pharmacy, bank, post office, and Dollar General. For a small unincorporated community with 1/3 of the homes lost, we are doing pretty well.
Shopping in Paradise and Magalia
We are blessed to have supermarkets, pharmacies, a hardware store, a few auto parts stores, a Dollar Tree, and a couple of Dollar Generals in Paradise and Magalia. As of most recent reports, there are 200 businesses open in Paradise. However, if there are any other items needed by the residents of these communities there are two options: order online or go to Chico or Oroville, a 45-50-minute drive each way. This means that we have a fleet of delivery trucks making the rounds in Paradise and Magalia: UPS, Fed-Ex, and many new delivery services that we’ve never seen before. I’ve never seen so many delivery trucks in the years before the fire. The stores that have opened are serving the people living here during these difficult times, so we try to shop on the Ridge for as much as possible. Otherwise, we make shopping lists and go to Chico once or twice a week for the other things we need.
Good News in Paradise
All the schools in Paradise moved to Chico and Oroville for the remainder of this 2018/2019 school year. Paradise High School students graduated on the school property in Paradise the first week of June. We have a great-nephew who is graduating from Paradise High and a great-niece from Magalia who graduated last week in Chico. Several organizations got together and sponsored a Paradise High Prom with only a $5 charge per student. Everyone was invited. They had free prom dresses, hairstyling and makeup, tuxes for the young men, and they even recreated a façade of the Honey Run Covered Bridge, destroyed in the fire, as an entrance to the Prom. I heard it was a wonderful experience for the young people. This link will take you to some news coverage of the event.
For next year the Paradise High School will be turned into two schools, high school and junior high. The old junior high will become an elementary school for the time being. So, students will be able to stay on the Ridge and attend school. Many students from Magalia have had to make the commute to Chico every day. Even with buses, extra-curricular activities can make it a long day for parents and students doing the commute.
Sewer System in Paradise
Good news for the community of Paradise is that the Town has approved the first step toward a sewer system. Prior to the fire Paradise was known as the largest community in the country that did not have a sewage processing plant. All the homes and businesses in town currently have septic tanks and leach lines. This is a good step for the future of the new town.
Tragedy Brings Out the Best and the Worst in Us
I have been impressed at the patience, kindness, and generosity I’ve seen by the residents and the businesses back in Paradise and Magalia. They are inspiring and encouraging for us to persevere in the rebuilding of our communities. In contrast, there are a handful of stories I’ve heard over the past few weeks that make me just shake my head at the selfishness of a few.
On the lots that have been destroyed by fire, the cleanup process literally takes months, requiring coordination with all different government agencies, utilities, insurance companies, and debris removal companies. One family Mike and I know had a home in Paradise that burned, but they were looking forward to returning and rebuilding. PG&E had surveyed the property and said that most of the trees needed to be removed and they would do it. There was one large tree that was undamaged, and the property owners and PG&E both agreed to keep the tree. A few weeks later the family returned to their property. Not only was the large tree gone and all the wood, in addition, whoever took the tree down dropped it on their undamaged septic tank and destroyed it. So now, instead of returning to Paradise, this family may be moving to another community. Adding insult to the huge injury of losing their home, they now need to investigate this crime on their property in addition to managing the continuing efforts at cleaning up their property and working with the insurance company.
Another friend of ours became a widow in the months before the fire. Her home was lost in Paradise, but some metal closets remained on the property with her husband’s tools and other items. As our friend visited her property, she found the cabinets emptied, items dumped on the ground, and other things taken or broken. It’s as if everything is fair game. I guess people think that the owners are gone. It just feels so sad.
Another family we talked to had their home that survived the fire burglarized several times. All the drawers and cabinets were emptied, dumped on the floor, and vandalism was done to the home, not on just one occasion, but multiple times. They also are planning to move.
Please understand me, these stories are exceptional. Most people are moving ahead with things day by day and are not being victimized again, but some of the people are hit yet again. Fortunately, the stories of generosity, kindness, and brotherly love significantly outnumber the few evil and selfish actions. It just feels like each family who moves away leaves another hole in our community.
Beauty in the Rubble
An artist from Los Angeles, Shane Grammer, was inspired by stories from the Camp Fire to paint murals in the rubble. He received permission from the owners of the properties, and he had the understanding that the artwork would be going away in a matter of months. Grammer had experience working on illustrations in Disneyland, Universal Studios, and other locales. I took these pictures off Pearson Road in Paradise. There were more of the murals in town, but the lots have been cleared now. I heard there was one of Jesus in the remnants of a church, but I was not able to find it still standing. The pair of pictures are so that you can get a context of the art in the environment and then a close-up. There is an exhibit of photographs of these murals in Chico next week, called “Beauty from Ashes.” Here is an article on the work.
Changes to Our Lives
As I said earlier, my husband, Mike’s office moved back to Paradise the week after Easter. He is the Accounting and Finance Manager for a local medical group. They had been seeing patients in Chico since the week after the fire, and Mike had been working in Chico. In mid-April, doctors began seeing patients in Paradise again. Each doctor comes to Paradise once a week to see patients who are back in their homes in Paradise or the larger community of residents in Magalia. My 83-year-old mother was able to go in just fifteen minutes to see her doctor in Paradise, instead of the 45-minute drive from Magalia to Chico. This may seem like a small step forward, but it has a great impact, as it is a step toward normalcy again.
Life in Magalia
In contrast to the isolated homes in Paradise that survived, in Magalia, most of the upper end of the community survived. At the edge of the fire line, there are a few homes gone, but at a certain point almost all the homes survived all the way up the mountain to Butte Meadows at the summit. Where we live in Magalia, the neighborhood looks normal. It is about 2/3 mile in one direction to one edge of the fire and about 2 miles to the main fire line. When I go for my daily walks, praying my Rosary, the tall trees, homes, squirrels, and life around me appear the same as before the Camp Fire. When I drive a few miles to the grocery store, crossing that line, the devastation becomes the major feature of the landscape.
Part Two: My Journey in 2019
This year has been a challenging journey for me, personally, emotionally, and spiritually. I am blessed to be working through the trauma, tragedy, stress, and grief, but it has been a process.
I am prayerfully sharing this personal journey with you, because I think that many of us are, or will be going through trauma and loss in this upcoming time in the storm. If not you, then maybe your spouse, children, parents, siblings, co-workers, and friends will be going through a crisis. This has been one of the biggest in my life, which I share with the entire community I live in, worship in, and work in. If any of my experiences and insights might help someone else, then I am honored to share them with you.
In December, I was working for St. Nicholas’ Episcopal Church out of the St. John’s Episcopal Church facility in Chico. The working situation was fine, but the commute through the devastation every day became overwhelming for me. We moved back to our home in Magalia on December 8th, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, one month after the fire. I drove from Magalia to Chico every morning and once I got two miles from home, I was into the fire devastation. This continued until I got to the bottom of the hill, ready to enter Chico. So for about 35-40 minutes every morning and then again at night returning home, everywhere I looked was the destruction.
In the immediate hours and days after the fire, many of us were “called up” to help our businesses, organizations, and churches. We went into what I refer to as “superhero” mode. We were needed and so our personal needs, physical well-being, health, sleep, etc. took a back door to the needs of others. During the weeks after the fire, I was working my parish job during the day, visiting shelters in the evenings, and family on weekends. It was hard to shut down, I just collapsed into bed, just to start again in the morning. One friend of mine who stepped in to lead an organization after the fire became very sick during the holidays. Instead of taking a day off and going to the doctor, he worked all day and went to the Emergency Room at night, so he could be back at work the next day. It is my experience, that at some point our candle being burned at both ends, burns out.
Mike and I traveled to Los Angeles to spend Christmas with our daughter. Before leaving, I caught a winter virus, but I was still healthy enough to travel. My daughter also had a winter bug when I arrived and I think the combination became a health crisis for me. I came back, after Christmas, and made it through two days of work and then I left for New Year’s weekend and was too sick to get out of bed. I kept trying to get up, but nothing was working. One week went by and then two. And I still wasn’t snapping out of it.
Eventually, I went to see my doctor. Besides feeling ill, I was also beginning to experience the effects of the trauma of the fire, the grief and sadness were hitting me big time. I was just about to turn 62 in March and I told my doctor I was considering retiring (Social Security) and taking some time to rest and recover. To my surprise, my doctor agreed with me. She said that after I felt better, and I would, I needed to do something else with my life. She said I was too young to just quit and stay home.
So, I began a new adventure. I was no longer working and having the daily demands of being a parish administrator. Letting go of the responsibility was very freeing for me and I was able to give myself permission to grieve. I was also relieved of driving through the devastation twice every day which was very important for my healing.
Long Winter Nap
Next, I went through what I refer to as my “long winter nap” phase. I was sleeping a lot, not leaving home much, not terribly depressed or weepy, just exhausted and resting.
During this time, I was feeling better from my cold viruses, but I didn’t feel like traveling out of my area in Magalia. The weather was wet and cold, not easy to take walks yet, and I stayed inside a great deal. Eventually, I had a variety of ailments that kept me even from attending Mass on Sundays for about 4 weeks in a row. My husband, Mike, was so patient with me at the time. He was supportive, encouraging, and trying to help me any way he could. I remember one time he asked me on a Saturday if I thought I would be feeling well enough to go to Mass the next day. I understood his question and I also understood that I did not know how I would feel the next day. Periodic migraines, muscle spasms in my back, etc. came without warning. Instead of me bringing Holy Communion to others, he was bringing it to me. Mike said when people asked how I was doing, he told them I had about two good days out of seven, and eventually one of the two would be on a Sunday.
Our parish, St. Thomas More, was meeting in Chico at Our Divine Savior Parish since a few weeks after the fire. One of our deacon’s wife began a Grief Support Group for women in the parish. It was for anyone grieving, but especially for us, St. Thomas More of Paradise parishioners, going through the Camp Fire loss. Initially, I was still not able to make these meetings. Like Mass, they were both being held in Chico and making the trip up and down the hill through the fire devastation was still too much for me. I would go to the grocery store a couple of miles away in Magalia. It was in the fire area but the store itself survived. One of these outings per week was as much as I could handle at this point.
As time progressed, I knew I was in the throes of grief, feeling some depression and spiritual desolation. Perhaps a clinician could tell which part was which, but I couldn’t; I was just living through it. I remember at one point I called my sister who also lives in Magalia. I hadn’t talked to her in a while and I just wanted to catch up. I asked her how she was doing and she said she had her good days and some days when she cried most of the day. It made me think. I hadn’t cried in a couple of months. That was not usual for me and especially in these emotionally charged times. That was a warning sign. I knew that if I was crying constantly that was probably not good but also not crying at all was very unusual.
I remember it was the beginning of March. Ash Wednesday was coming, my birthday, and spring. I was ready to be over whatever this was but it didn’t seem like there was anything I could do to make myself snap out of it. I was praying more than I had been during my “sleepy time.” I was sincerely asking God for help and direction. I was willing to get counseling help, if that would be best, or whatever I needed to heal. My prayer was only not to make me drive up and down through the devastation to get the help.
At one point, I remember the weather was cleared up enough for me to go for my walks in my Magalia neighborhood. While I walk, I usually pray my Rosary and, sometimes, the Chaplet of Divine Mercy. This particular day was a Friday, maybe the first in Lent, and I was meditating on the 14th Station of the Cross while praying the 5th Sorrowful Mystery of the Crucifixion. I meditate on Jesus’ bloody and lifeless body being wrapped in a linen shroud and He is laid in the tomb and the large stone is rolled in front of the doorway and it is dark, and it is quiet and now we await the Resurrection.
And I had an epiphany regarding my circumstances. I realized that I was in the tomb with Jesus – emotionally, spiritually, I was cut-off, shut down, but waiting to rise with Him, when the time was right. I didn’t feel angry, resentful, frightened, just a certain peace, that the Resurrection would come eventually, and I would wait with Him until it was time. I guess I had reached Acceptance. I think that insight was the beginning of my healing.
I was able to go to Mass with Mike that Sunday. On the way down the hill, the first time in a month, I had some flashbacks of the fire that day. I also had a time when I began to cry and sob uncontrollably. But it was a release of the tension. It was the first time I’d cried in several months. The dam had burst and the healing was beginning.
Looking Back – Things I’ve Learned
Now looking back, I realize a few things about what I was going through. During the very difficult times for me, I just couldn’t make the trip up and down the hill through the fire devastation and I didn’t understand why. I wasn’t agoraphobic, afraid to go outside. But I just felt it was a barrier I couldn’t force myself to cross. What I can now see is that the trauma from the devastation was so great, that every time I drove through the area, it was re-traumatizing me. It’s like pulling a band-aid off a cut and it reopens the wound. Now imagine the wound is your whole arm or leg and every time you go through that space you rip open the wound again. I feel now that God was allowing me the time to heal enough that I could go through the fire area and not re-injure myself. I needed time for the wound to heal enough to handle it.
Now driving through the fire area, I see the progress being made in the debris removal. More lots are being cleared every week. I notice some places I hadn’t before that are lost. I’ve also been able to get off the main roads and see my friends’ and relatives’ lots, take pictures, and I am not overwhelmed by it now.
I was able to join the Women’s Grief Support Group in Chico at STM for the second half of the ten-week program. It was so good to be with other women and share. It also builds community which is part of what we need to connect with others and not be so alone. In this group, I remember realizing that I was never going to wake up and have the wish that the fire had never happened. The devastation was part of the world I now lived in. However, we can all heal from this wound and, like a broken bone, we can become strong again. And we can face this new future with God’s grace, providence, and love.
I am blessed now in my new role for St. Thomas More parish doing outreach to our parishioners in the Paradise and Magalia areas. This week I am beginning to facilitate a Women’s Grief Support Group of St. Thomas More parishioners at our church in Paradise, like the one I attended in Chico; this is for the women on the Ridge who couldn’t make it down the hill to Chico.
An additional insight is like that of my sister, Monique. “Monnie,” as we called her, was diagnosed in her early 40s with an aggressive Stage 4 Breast Cancer. They gave her at most 2 1/2 years to live and Monnie lived for 12. She was able to see her youngest daughter graduate high school and her older daughter get engaged. Anyway, Monnie told me, after 10 years or so with cancer, that she could now see that cancer had been a gift to her from God. It had shaped the woman she had become and she was grateful for the lessons she learned. In looking at the experience with the fire for me, I can see that God has given me the grace to go through this. I feel that with what I’ve learned and experienced, I may be better able to help others who experience trauma and loss. I feel God has helped to increase my compassion and I am grateful for these lessons and the gift.
St. Thomas More – Moving Forward
St. Thomas More Church had our first Mass on the Ridge, on Sunday, May 19th, with our Bishop Jaime Soto. There were about 380 parishioners in attendance, a little less than the total number from our four Masses on the weekends before the fire. There is a new Pastor being assigned to Our Divine Savior beginning July 1st. He will be serving ODS 75% of the time, and STM 25% of the time. We are hoping this means our weekly STM Mass will be in Paradise starting in July.
Personally, Mike has been invited to begin the second year of formation for the Diaconate. It is a wonderful journey for us. We are so blessed by the weekend Formation at Christ the King Retreat Center, the online classes through the University of Notre Dame STEP program, and the small group work with our deacon and wife couple leading our small group.
I am investigating online teaching opportunities, and I am excited to work with St. Thomas More as we reach out to the community just beginning to rebuild. The churches are already working more collaboratively and communicating with each other. We have advertised our Grief Support Women’s Group to any women on the Ridge who are interested and we are looking at forming a group of women to help serve in different ways in the community. Our first hot lunch program in Paradise since the fire is set to start at Paradise Lutheran in June and several STM women want to help serve there also.
I think the Town of Paradise will be a long time coming back, requiring years of work. I also think it will be a different town and St. Thomas More will be a different parish. But it is exciting to think about the possibilities and to pray about how we can respond to God’s call. One of the most wonderful moments in recent memory for me was when Bishop Soto consecrated the Most Blessed Sacrament and I thought, “He’s here. Jesus is here!” This was the first time that we had Mass and the True Presence on the Ridge since the fire in November 2018. Now, we have had the Blessed Sacrament reserved again, in the Tabernacle at St. Thomas More, for the sick, and for visits of Adoration. It is wonderful to have Our Lord home again!
The Greatest Loss
One more personal note: my biggest loss, over the last seven months, is not being able to go to daily Mass. I miss it more than I can say. Now, I look for opportunities to attend in Chico on my weekly shopping trips or when I have meetings. There’s a 7:30 AM at one parish, an 8:00 AM at another parish, and a 6:00 PM most evenings. So, I try to plan my visits so that I can go to one more Mass. There’s also an Adoration Chapel so I can stop in and pray if the timing for Mass doesn’t work out. We were able to go to the Triduum, receiving Our Lord three days in a row. We had another reason to visit Chico for two mornings in a row and we were able to attend Masses. Last week I made two trips to Chico in one day, just so I could go to Mass that evening. If someone told me a year ago that I would not be able to go to daily Mass and a weekly Mass would be 45-50-minute drive each way, I would have had a hard time believing it. My one suggestion to each of you, if you get the chance, go to one more Mass, receive the Lord one more time, spend a few minutes (or an hour) in Adoration as often as you can. Imagine, just for a minute, if this was taken away from you tomorrow. How would you feel? How much would you miss it? This is not to make you feel guilty, just realize what a gift you have in the Mass and the Blessed Sacrament. This is a gift to treasure.
I was shocked and saddened at the attack in Sri Lanka at Mass on Easter. Afterward, the Catholic Cardinal, in order to protect his people, had them stay home and watch Mass on TV. I do not question his discernment to keep the people safe, but did you think there would ever come a time when the church leadership would tell people to stay away from their churches? We live in rapidly changing times; make the most of each day and moment.
People from our parish who have lost their homes and are still trying to cope in this transition, say the same thing, “I just want to come home.” Please pray for their strength, perseverance, healing, and discernment about what to do with their lives. Many are trying to hang in there to return to St. Thomas More and Paradise. Others are trying to decide if it’s time to begin again with a new parish and a new community. Many have chosen to move on and are now living in other communities, many all across the United States. This is right for them but there is sadness and loss for them and the parish. I ask for your continuing prayers for the people of Paradise and Magalia. This is going to be a long haul, years of recovery and transition for both communities.
I have two personal prayer requests for women friends of mine who went through the fire and have recently been diagnosed with cancer. First, Pastor Ann Sullivan from St. Nicholas’ Episcopal Church was diagnosed with cancer and has just begun chemotherapy. I worked for this wonderful woman for seven years at St. Nicks’. She led the small Episcopal community on the Ridge and started the hot meal program throughout Paradise. Pastor Ann is married with three teenage children and the family moved to Chico after the fire. The Camp Fire complicated getting treatment; her doctor left the area due to the fire evacuation and she needed a new doctor and then there were referrals and tests which took six months to complete so she could get the diagnosis. Pastor Ann has given me permission to ask for prayers for her. Another friend of mine has been recently diagnosed with an aggressive cancer and has surgery next week. Please pray for her and her family as well.
God’s blessings to all of you and your families. Thank you for your prayers and support through this challenging time. It is great to be in a community with people of faith, like each of you. It makes these times easier to handle.