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The Camp Fire Destroyed 11,000 Homes. A Year Later Only 11 Have Been Rebuilt

A year after the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California history devastated Paradise, the state grapples with tough questions about how to rebuild in the era of worsening wildfires.

A new home under construction in Paradise, Calif. // NPR, Kirk Siegler

The sun is setting at a construction site on "the ridge," as locals call it. Towering pine trees with their bark still black from wildfire are lit up in orange. And Chip Gorley and some buddies are about to crack open cans of IPA to celebrate some rare good news.

His foundation inspection passed, meaning they can start putting up the walls on Gorley's new home. It's on the exact site of where he lost everything in the Camp Fire a year ago.

"It's my home," Gorley says. "I'm coming back."

Like most who survived the historic wildfire, Gorley remembers it all that terrifying morning — the exploding propane tanks, the snapping of burnt tree limbs, that moment he thought he might die during a chaotic evacuation. But for him at least, talking about it and being open as the anniversary approached has helped.

In Paradise, Calif., several memorials and commemorations were planned marking the anniversary through the weekend, including 85 seconds of silence at 11:08 a.m. on Nov. 8, for the 85 lives lost in the wildfire.

Despite the trauma, Gorley says he never doubted that his hometown would recover.

"It'll come back, it'll just be a slow grow," Gorley says. "As to when it will get back to where it's [even ] half the population, I don't know."

Many of Gorley's friends have moved out of state. There was already a housing shortage — especially an affordable housing shortage — in rural Butte County before the fire. In search of cheaper housing, survivors have moved to states like Oregon, Idaho and Texas. Or they just don't ever want to live in Paradise again because of all the horror they experienced that day.

At one point displacing close to 50,000 people, the Camp Fire was estimated to be the most expensive natural disaster in the world last year. Just removing the toxic debris cost almost $2 billion. The federal government is paying for about three quarters, including $200 million in direct aid to victims.

The Camp Fire, named for Camp Creek Road where it is believed to have started east of Paradise, was the single most destructive wildfire in California history and the worst in the United States in a century. Close to 19,000 structures burned. In Paradise, more than 11,000 houses burned to the ground. A year later, only 11 have been rebuilt. Eleven.

Paradise's Mayor Jody Jones plans to add to that tally though. Standing at her new home site, as her contractor and his crew hammer away in the background, Jones says those few who are rebuilding consider themselves pioneers.

"We never were victims, we're no longer survivors, we're pioneers," she says. "We're building a whole town from scratch, we're really proud of that."

Jones says the town has passed some new, tougher building codes. That includes no more wood decks or fences and expanded setbacks between homes and flammable material. They're also looking to reconfigure some streets for better escape routes. Some people died while trying to evacuate in the gridlock.

But is all this enough? The Camp Fire continues to prompt some tough questions. Should towns like this built into dense overgrown dry forests where the homes themselves become ignition sources, be rebuilt in an era of climate change?

Jones is a little tired of the question. In her view, no one in Southern California seems to raise the question about rebuilding in high risk zones after fires like the recent Getty Fire in Los Angeles that forced thousands to evacuate.

"So what is the difference, is it because it's in L.A. and a metropolitan area and of course we should rebuild, but because we're a small town in the mountains we shouldn't," Jones asks.

Paradise is a shell of what it was. The population went from about 26,000 to an estimated 3,000 today.

But there is progress here. Crews had to remove twice as much debris here as what was left from the twin towers after Sept. 11. Most of the toxic debris piles are now gone. So are the burnt cars that lined the roads giving it an apocalyptic feel. The demolished Safeway shopping center is finally cleared.

Tammy Waller is one of the rare people up here whose home survived the fire.

"The clean up has been way ahead of what I ever thought it would be," Waller says.

One of the first things Waller did when she moved back into her neighborhood in Magalia above Paradise was pack a go-bag with camping gear. It now sits next to her front door as a permanent fixture alongside her dog crates should she need to evacuate again.

Near her neighborhood one afternoon, she pointed up to power lines still mingling low among dense stands of trees and branches. Folks here recently had their power shut off for six days amid the bankrupt utility PG&E's new controversial safety plan.

Everyone's cable, Internet and cell phones went dark for the most part.

"If there were another fire, how would anybody know at say two o'clock in the morning," Waller says.

Nearby those lines, there's a mobile home with a layer of pine needles and duff several inches thick on its roof. There is also overgrown brush everywhere. The area still feels vulnerable. Yet Waller's not sure anything can really be done to prevent another fire on the scale and intensity as last year's.

"I know folks that had the cement siding, all of that, their house burnt to the ground," Waller says. "In that strong of a fire, there's nothing you're going to do about that."

Like a lot of Paradise area residents, Waller was drawn here by the beauty and quiet and the slower pace than her longtime home in the Los Angeles area. But now she's on the fence about staying here for the longterm.

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