‘Reimagining Paradise’ — Making Plans To Rebuild A Town Destroyed By Wildfire

Cal Poly architecture students focused on reimagining and rebuilding Paradise, Calif., by presenting models, renderings and updated concepts during a community forum in Chico, Calif. CREDIT: JASON HALLEY/CSU CHICO
Cal Poly architecture students focused on reimagining and rebuilding Paradise, Calif., by presenting models, renderings and updated concepts during a community forum in Chico, Calif. CREDIT: JASON HALLEY/CSU CHICO

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BY KIRK SIEGLER

Last fall’s deadly Camp Fire has brought renewed questions about whether towns in high-risk areas like Paradise, Calif., should even be rebuilt.

Barry Long recently tried to squash those questions immediately as he kicked off a crowded town hall meeting at Paradise Alliance Church.

“One of the first questions we get is, ‘Are they really going to rebuild Paradise?’ ” Long said. “And we say that’s not a question. [The Town] Council made an immediate decision [that] we’re going to rebuild Paradise.”

That was met by a resounding applause from a large crowd of anxious Paradise residents. Long’s firm, Urban Design Associates, was hired by the Town Council to develop a long-term recovery plan for Paradise. They’ve begun holding meetings — the latest scheduled for March 19 — to discuss with residents how they think their town should be rebuilt.

Many people have had to leave Paradise after about 90 percent of the town — almost 19,000 structures — burned to the ground last November in the Camp Fire, which also claimed 85 lives. But for the few who do remain and are eager to begin rebuilding, Long sought to give them reassurances: You can’t just abandon a community that has been a fixture in the Sierra Nevada foothills since the 1800s, he said.

“It took 140 years to build Paradise, and obviously things did survive, like the church here,” Long said.

Urban Design Associates also consulted for the state of Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina. And that’s what this still-unfolding crisis is starting to be likened to: a rural Katrina. One big parallel emerging so far is anxiety over gentrification. Once Paradise is rebuilt, there’s resounding agreement that it will have much tougher fire-safe building codes. And that won’t be cheap.

“We just need affordable living and our home back,” said Paradise resident Cathe Wood.

Paradise Mayor Jody Jones talks with anxious constituents about rebuilding their town, destroyed in last fall's Camp Fire, at a recent town hall meeting at Paradise Alliance Church. CREDIT: KIRK SIEGLER/NPR

Paradise Mayor Jody Jones talks with anxious constituents about rebuilding their town, destroyed in last fall’s Camp Fire, at a recent town hall meeting at Paradise Alliance Church. CREDIT: KIRK SIEGLER/NPR

Anxiety Over Gentrification

Wood has lived in Paradise for 30 years. She’s planning to rebuild but is still applying for permits and dealing with insurance claims. For now anyway, her job is still in Paradise — she works at an accounting firm that didn’t burn. Her home and her family weren’t so lucky.

“I lost everything,” Wood says. “All my family members are homeless, scattered throughout California. I just want to come home.”

Paradise was a haven for retirees and others who couldn’t afford the city or just wanted to live in the country. Like a lot of Western towns, it grew too quickly — without a lot of planning and scant zoning. Mobile home parks, tract houses, fast-food restaurants were packed into overgrown forests.

Wood hopes something good will come out of all this.

“We have a great opportunity up here for a complete reset,” she says.

A Complete Reset, But Will It Be Affordable?

“Paradise is not going to be the same as it was,” says Jody Jones, the town’s mayor.

As the recovery process moves forward, Jones and other town officials insist they’re trying to balance rebuilding smarter with not mandating expensive changes. But they’ve never done this before, and they’re learning as they go.

“I don’t know that I can give any assurances it’s not going to be gentrified,” Jones says. “Because in some sense of the word, what people mean by that is new, and everything we build is going to be new, it’s going to be different.”

The good news is that Paradise has time to get it right. The scale of this disaster is enormous; even just cleani