“Paradise will never burn,” they swore.
The long-time locals gathered on the ridge to stare at the 23 thousand acres of flame and blackness across the canyon. “Trust me,” they said. Pontificating with their cigarettes and pointing with their beers at the perpetual sunset, writhing and leaping against the night sky.
It was one of the most beautiful things I had ever seen. I shivered in my sun dress. I was not used to this land of no-humidity, where, with no moisture to hold it into place, the heat of the early summer day left with the sun, leaving wind in its place.
“You sure? Fire likes to burn uphill, I hear.” No beer, but I clenched a cigarette of my own.
“Nah.” Dismissive wave with the beer hand. “It will never make it this far. It’s the placement of the ridge and the way this town is angled in the mountains. Trust me. My friend is a fire marshal.”
Other locals with similarly occupied hands rushed to confirm:
Trust me. My friend is a firefighter of 20 years. Trust me. My friend is…
I had just met these people and they seemed… kind of drunk, but I was new here and had never before experienced anything like this. I knew blizzards, not fires. So I nodded, watching the swooping planes dump neon-pink flame retardant, like tiny birds bearing thimblefuls of water.
I was a brand-new Californian, just two-weeks liberated from the glacier-smoothed Midwest. I was delirious with freedom. In awe of the West’s eruptions of rocks and drought-resistant trees. Its canyons, the brick-red soil, the shiny black slate, and green serpentine rock. I reveled in its wildness and swore I would never return to the tame and bland domesticity I had come from.
Then on June 11, the fire came. This was the Humboldt Fire of 2008, which began in the valley between Paradise and Chico. For those unfamiliar with these foothill towns of the Sierra Nevadas, think of Paradise as the knee and Chico the flat top of the foot. The Humboldt Fire was mid-calf.
During daylight hours the fire was visible from most of Skyway, one of the town’s two main thoroughfares, which begins outside the north end of town and travels southwest to Chico—a distance of about 10 miles. The fire lived 10 days from first spark to finish and spent its life as a mushroom cloud looming over the southern horizon. A mottled black plume as large as the 36.5 square miles of forest it consumed below. Massive, and surprisingly still. Still as a photo of an atomic bomb.
Each day I drove down my street to the north-end of Skyway and checked on its existence. Each day it was there. It began to seem as though it had always been there, and always would be. There in the sky, watching us all: Are you there, God? It’s me, Sarama.
And the residents of Paradise watched it—with one constant eye as I dropped off job applications, bought next week’s groceries—my periphery vision measuring its size and proximity to the near future we were all planning for and hoping we still had. I unpacked clothes and wondered if I would need to repack them. I bought new books to read and wondered if I had just purchased kindling. There was a moment of, “Fuck everything! We’re all gonna die!” which resulted in the purchase of a royal blue sundress from the boutique on the corner. Aside from what I referred to as my “funeral pyre” dress, I spent as frugally as possible. Whatever the fire god decided, there would be no future for me without money.
I was still confident in my future in my new home.
I expanded my job search into Chico, driving back and forth from Paradise. Most of the drive was blue sky and sunny day. Easy assurance that the ground would continue to stay firm. Only a small part of the trip passed through the fire-tunnel. A vortex of swirling ash and amber-fumed black smoke. Sunlight became the color of burnt cigarettes floating in stale beer. Occasionally the tunnel was lined with neon-red flames burning on a hillside several feet away. But this would last just a few short miles and once on the other side, life would carry on, as sunny and blue as it always was.
It is impossible to exist in full awareness of the possibility of sudden and devastating loss. To get out of bed each morning you must have some faith there will be floor to meet your feet. In 2008, each and everyone of us walked around with this faith. The world continued to spin, businesses and services continued to operate. Babies were born, and people died of old age and natural causes.
In the end, the southern edge of town was evacuated. 74 homes were lost entirely and 20 more were damaged. There was one human fatality: an elderly woman who had a heart attack during evacuation.
Losses as large as the world to those involved, but the rest of Paradise’s 25k residents breathed relief. And smoke. (To this day, I associate the smell of smoke with summer.) For the rest of the summer it snowed ash. A dusting to sweep off my windshield before driving. Sometimes big pieces of ash the size of my fist. Some days the sky was so choked the temperature in our town was 10-15 degrees cooler, the sun a hazy red smear. Aged and decrepit, a cooling red giant. A fire sun.
Eventually the wind and rain blew that smoke and ash out to the ocean and became a distant memory as our future stretched out before us.
Paradise will never burn, they said. And they were right.
Yesterday, November 8, 2019, the sun landed on the ridge to show us humans how decrepit it really isn’t. The fire god decided that yes, it did actually enjoy the placement of this town situated so finely to the mountain winds and its steep terrain and dry pitch-pine forests. And it really appreciated the years of drought that has plagued California in the last decade.
“Paradise will never burn,” echoed in my head as I read about the fire that began at 6:30 am to become 8 thousand acres by noon, and by 2 pm, 18 thousand acres. I messaged friends and waited anxiously for their responses. I scoured FEMA and Red Cross lists for those who I hadn’t heard back from—lists that were bereft of information: emergency personnel and crisis responders being too busy fighting for their lives themselves.
I cried picturing the chaotic mass of people trapped on a “escape route” surrounded by fire on both sides. People forced to abandon their cars and whatever valuables and flee on foot. The animals and loved ones they were unable to locate or had to be left behind. I heard their shouts, fear, and grief.
It has been a few years since I lived in Paradise, and I lost nothing yesterday but memories. A place of awe and wonder where I frolicked for four years. A snapshot of a former home that was pivotal in my personal development and where the friendships I made would significantly shape the structure of my life to come.
Those friends escaped, but many lost all they owned. And perhaps more significantly, their sense of safety, security, and trust in the future. They have been thrust in the impossible existence of full awareness of sudden and devastating loss. This time there was no mushroom plume threatening the sky and casting just a shadow of doubt across the highway. This time, there was hell on Earth. Night during day.
This time Paradise burned.