A section of this essay ran as a guest column in the Paradise Post.
I’ve never been to hell and I base the choices in my life with hopes that I don’t end up there.
For many, the November 8th morning drive from Paradise to Chico was a trip through literal hell, as flames from the Camp Fire swelled on either side of Skyway and blazes seemingly rained down from above. What’s usually considered a beautiful commute with picturesque views of the valley was an evacuation nightmare shrouded in growing clouds of smoke. For most members of the small community, everything except the clothes on their back was lost. Homes, vehicles and also a climbing number of lives, gone. For these people, it’s a become hell all of its own.
At my internship here in Oregon, where I moved only weeks ago, I kept checking video after video on my phone posted by people driving through the incineration. It took some time but it finally hit me. That this was the big one.
Since November 8th, I’ve been plagued with a numb feeling of separation. I’ve lived in some remote places over the last year, but I have never felt further from home than these last few weeks. I’ve seen pictures and videos of the places that made me, reduced to ash. My father’s home, the house I grew up in and the beautiful roads and trails where I discovered my love for running and logged countless miles and memories. All gone.
Not being present during the time of the fire might have delayed or exacerbated my feelings of helplessness.
The list of missing people is still incredibly high and the death toll continues to climb. Most importantly, I am just thankful that when friends, relatives, and strangers ask me, “How are you doing,” I can say that my family is alive. A response which far too many can’t give right now.
But when having this somber conversation with someone in another state, it’s important to provide some context. And it’s hard to explain what it’s like to grow up in Paradise if you’re not from there.
I, along with everyone else who has hailed from the Ridge has had to explain when making acquaintances, “it’s right by Chico.” It’s not a place that people pass through regularly and even our president had a hard time remembering its name after his visit.
Twice now, when having my I.D. checked in Portland, I’ve been asked by the strangers if my family back home is alright.
It’s terrible that the thing that put Paradise on the map is what took it right off.
For 25 years, Paradise was always home. No matter what city, state or country I was in. Swimming in the Feather River, eating at my favorite family owned restaurants or looking out into Butte Creek Canyon from a trail in Bille Park, it could be assured that whatever peace of mind I was searching for could be found in Paradise.
It wasn’t so small of a town that you’d recognize every name, but still, the worst traffic conditions came when the high school let out. It’s the town I wanted to leave so badly growing up but returned to right after college for my first professional job as a reporter at the Paradise Post. The same paper which I read in the mornings before my high school classes to see if anyone that I knew had been arrested or if one of my close friends was featured in the sports section.
I took pride in my year of telling the town’s stories, but especially during my reporting of Gold Nuggets Days, which included a pageant, a donkey derby and a parade with the firing of blank rifle rounds into the air. It was the same excitement and joy that I hadn’t experienced since I was a child sitting on the curb of Skyway watching this one-of-a-kind event.
To people on the outside, Paradise is sometimes knocked for being a hillbilly town. And with an annual holiday that celebrates mining with donkeys and shooting, it’s not an unfair statement. But there’s also an undeniable sense of comradery that comes from growing up in a small hillbilly town. From a young age, it was instilled upon us to help out those around. The people who you pass on the road aren’t faceless, they are in your classes, you play sports with them and soon enough your social circles overlap.
It’s been tough to look at Facebook as with every scroll I see another friend’s house completely burned to the ground. But there are also reminders of what made Paradise a special place. Stories of people saving animals, saving their neighbors and going the extra mile to put a smile on a displaced person’s face. Not to mention an explosion of Crowdfunding accounts to help those who have lost everything. Donations are being made and people from all around are coming through to help. This is the resilience and support that it means to be from a small town.
During these weeks, the people of The Ridge have faced some of their worst days, but they’ve also been there to help each other despite them.
No one can sugar coat how awful this fire has been. The road ahead will be tough and filled with uncertainty. National media outlets will move along to another story and memories that have been reduced to ashes will have to be sifted through. But until we get to the end, I predict that the stories of kindness and heroism will continue. I believe that this support will outlast the effects of the Camp Fire because tough times don’t last but tough people do and Paradise, along with the rest of The Ridge, has never had a shortage of tough people.
Originally published at elistillman.com on November 25, 2018.