Return to Paradise

Photojournalism

I went to Paradise, California, in December 2018, about a month after the Camp Fire destroyed most of Paradise and the surrounding communities. (I’m hesitant to name them because I have not visited them and don’t want to say anything inaccurate.) The fire spread fast, making it difficult for residents to navigate the few main roads to safety. The fire caused 86 known fatalities. This is Wikipedia’s overview:

The fire caused at least 86 civilian fatalities, with two people still missing, and injured 12 civilians, two prison inmate firefighters, and three other firefighters. It covered an area of 153,336 acres (62,053 ha) (almost 240 sq. miles), and destroyed 18,804 structures, with most of the damage occurring within the first four hours. Total damage was $16.5 billion; one-quarter of the damage, $4 billion, was not insured. With the arrival of the first winter rainstorm of the season, the fire reached 100 percent containment after seventeen days on November 25, 2018.

I couldn’t get a room in Chico because all of the hotels were booked with displaced residents and disaster response teams. I finally found a room in Red Bluff, which is about 45 minutes northwest of Chico.

I drove to Paradise along Skyway, the main road between Chico and Paradise. The views over the ridge looked incredible. It felt strange to be admiring the natural beauty of the area so soon after a tragedy. Off to the right of the road there was a large secured area for the army of responders. There were trucks and trailers everywhere.

I reached a point along Skyway at which I had to turn around. I think at the time you couldn’t enter the main part of Paradise without permission. Other roads were open, though. There was a lot of activity. People checking on their burned out homes, insurance teams, fire trucks, and construction crews. Destruction.

I couldn’t imagine what it must have been like to wake up that morning and see smoke and fire everywhere. I know my Seattle neighborhood very well. I’ve tried to picture walking outside, seeing smoke in every direction, and deciding which was the best direction to flee.

I took some photos that I thought were okay. Just okay. They documented some of the destruction and gave a sense of the terrain, but they didn’t tell those communities’ stories, and that’s the part that matters. As I was driving north back to Seattle, I thought (a lot) about what I could have done differently. I told myself I’d look for an opportunity to return.

That opportunity came in July. My extended family was meeting in Carpinteria, California, so I decided to drive down and visit Paradise on the return.

I took 99 north from Sacramento to Chico. The Central Valley felt like it was baking. This time I was able to get a room in Chico, but the hotel staff told me that availability was still tight. I arrived late in the day, still not sure of my plan. We hear the terms visual essay and visual storytelling all the time. And when I see the work of my favorite photographers and photojournalists, those terms seem straight-forward. And then you’re in a hotel in Chico doubting yourself.

After dinner I got a glass of wine from the hotel’s bar. As I walked to my room I saw a cat in the hallway. It looked at me before dashing back into a room. The door to the room was open, and it looked like the occupant(s) were living there. About an hour later I looked to see if the cat was in the hallway again. It was, and it didn’t run off this time. The cat’s owner returned from speaking to a person working the night shift at reception.

She was surprised to see the cat staring at me. “She usually gets scared and runs off when she hears people coming. She used to be an outside cat before I had to scoop her up, put her in the car, and flee. I wish she could be around some other cats. I think she’s lonely.” I wanted to hear about the woman’s experience and take a photo, but it was late, and broaching that topic in a hotel corridor wasn’t appropriate. I hoped I’d see her again in the hotel lobby, but I didn’t.

I drove to Paradise the next day. The assembly area on Skyway was still there, but it looked practically empty compared to December 2018. I continued on Skyway and into Paradise. I didn’t have a plan, so I kept driving. I stopped for a snack at Magalia’s Sav*Mor. I turned left out of the parking lot and saw the Magalia Pines Baptist Church. I found a story online that described how more than 30 people took shelter overnight in the church as the fire raged.

(Magalia Pines Baptist Church, August 2019.)

(Magalia Pines Baptist Church, August 2019.)

Sometimes not having a plan leads to good things. I’d been meaning to get a haircut for a couple of weeks. As I was driving around I saw Olde Clippings (online it’s listed as Old’e Clippings.) I walked in and met Dan and Frank. Frank was finished for the day, but Dan offered to cut my hair.

Dan asked me what I was doing in Paradise. Good question. I wanted to keep it short. I’m a freelance photographer. I was here in December. I grew up in Arizona, so I know how dangerous western wildfires can be. But I’ve never seen anything like the stories that came out of here during the Camp Fire. Horrifying. I wanted to see it for myself, and to see if I could tell part of the story through photos.

Instead, I faltered and fumbled my way through a response, inarticulately mentioning photojournalism, my previous visit, and a need to return. Dan didn’t mind my poorly worded response. He said he thought he remembered me or had met me in December, but I didn’t see how that was possible. I wasn’t in Magalia in December, and I didn’t stay in Chico. Still, he recounted an anecdote later on that sounded familiar. I think it was just my mind playing tricks on me, though.

I asked if I could get a haircut. Dan looked at my greying mess of hair and asked how long it’d been since my last one. He asked in that tone that’s more of a polite hint than a real question. Frank packed up his barber’s kit and headed home. I sat down in the barber’s chair. Dan grabbed the electric razor and started talking about the fire and its aftermath.

After the haircut I went to Hilltop Cafe, ordered a late lunch (delicious), and wrote down what he told me about his harrowing experience surviving the fire. After some debate, I’ve decided not to post every thing he told me. I told Dan I was a freelance photojournalist, but I’m not sure if Dan wants or needs his story posted online, even if only about 10 people will likely see it. I’ve tried calling him.

(Dan, August 2019.)

Dan is familiar with wildfires. When he first heard mention of a fire (the Camp Fire), he noted that it was over in Concow. He figured it would get sorted out. But the fire spread, and Dan was trapped.

Some PG&E guys found me, picked me up, and drove me to Chico.

I got a room at one of the worst motels in Chico. I was lucky to get that room. FEMA picked up a lot of our lodging bills.

I figured my shop was gone. But a news crew drove through later filming. A buddy sent me a note telling me my shop survived. The post office, my shop, and most of the shops in this complex. I told the chiropractor - he owns 5 of the properties - that they survived. He said, “Figures. The things I’m insured on survived.”

I’m in the same boat. My house is dust. Gone. I’ve got insurance on the barber shop, but it wasn’t touched.

I lost everything man. I’ve always been a collector. Vinyl albums, thousands of football and baseball cards, all my camping and fishing gear. There’s all my tools, too. Welders. I won’t collect things anymore.

Thanks for coming in. Thanks for the business. We need it.

(Dan’s barber shop, Magalia, August 2019.)

I was very happy with the cut, so I figured we should show off his barber skills. My face is even pastier than normal because of the suntan lotion.

We spoke some more about whether people were returning and rebuilding. Dan said some are, but that it’s a difficult decision, for a lot of reasons. Most people have to wait for word that their property is clear. If you’re one of the first, or if your house wasn’t damaged, you’ve got to think about whether you want to live in a place while construction is going on all around. Also, will it happen again? Will enough people return to make it a good place to live?

Dan left the area for a while and went to Everett, Washington, to work and be near family. He was cutting hair and things were going well, but Washington just isn’t for him.

“Too cold and rainy. I’m a shorts and flip flops guy.”

I left the shop and drove around. I tried to get some photos showing what the fire did to cars and houses. I also tried to give a sense of the terrain and how confusing it must have been to navigate through the smoke and fire.

(Magalia and Paradise, California, August 2019.)

(Magalia and Paradise, California, August 2019.)

(Magalia and Paradise, California, August 2019.)

(Magalia and Paradise, California, August 2019.)

(Magalia and Paradise, California, August 2019.)

(Magalia and Paradise, California, August 2019.)

(Magalia and Paradise, California, August 2019.)

(Magalia and Paradise, California, August 2019.)

(Magalia and Paradise, California, August 2019.)

(Magalia and Paradise, California, August 2019.)

(Magalia and Paradise, California, August 2019.)

(Magalia and Paradise, California, August 2019.)

(Magalia and Paradise, California, August 2019.)