A shining city, covering an abandoned golf course, now sits on a hill only a few miles west of Paradise, a town that no longer shines.
The shining city houses, feeds and supplies thousands of utility workers who each day swarm Paradise. It sits on a former golf course on Skyway Road that connects Chico and Paradise. The narrow road was one of the few routes Paradise residents could use to escape the raging wildfire that blowtorched their town in late November.
At night the new city — and the word should be used advisedly — shines with the glow of dozens of flood lights. The glow is visible for miles. It was thrown up by the Pacific Gas and Electric Co., the much-maligned utility whose failings may or may not have caused the Paradise fire.
Numerous lawsuits have been filed against the company. To defend itself — and pay the billions of dollars in expected costs — there is talk PG&E may sell off its vast natural gas holdings or even file for bankruptcy. Replacing the company’s directors also is being discussed, according to news reports.
The Camp Fire ignition point was miles east of Paradise where, in the minutes before the fire was reported, a power surge was detected in nearby PG&E equipment. From there, the fire raced westward, pushed by 70 mph winds, and consumed what some say was a football field per minute. There was no fighting this fire. There was only running from it.
It took 17 days to bring the Camp Fire under control. By then it had killed 85 people, destroyed 14,000 homes and damaged thousands more. The wildfire ran westward and jumped Highway 99 south of Chico before it was stopped. It destroyed the Paradise electrical system. It melted parts of the town’s water system, releasing toxins into the supply lines.
Photos, video and stories about the fire, the deadliest in state history, cannot convey the feeling you have when you drive through the Paradise that’s been lost.
Block after block after block after block of, what? A friend calls it a town of chimneys. That, along with thousands of burned conifers, is all that’s left standing save a home here and there that was mysteriously spared.
Recently, we drove south along Edgewood Lane, a narrow road that was the scene of the most concentrated number of deaths. There is one way in. In the panic of the wildfire, there was no way out. At least eight people didn’t make it.
At dinner the evening after our tour I mentioned a mobile home park on Edgewood. The engineer across the table said three words: “I designed that.” That park today is nothing but dozens of parallel steel beams covered with ash.
On Lofty Lane, we found what remains of a house rented a few years ago by a relative. Our family gathered there for birthdays, dinners and lunches and to watch the Super Bowl. I’d sit on the deck, enjoy the view of the canyon below and fret about the dry pine needles at my feet. We barbecued on that deck. It was hard to find where the house had been. I recognized it only by the slant of the driveway.
The town of ashes swarms with EPA officials and EPA contractors clearing each residential site of potential toxins and environmental hazards. Some residents could be seen poking through the ash of their dreams.
Loggers have moved in to down hazardous trees. Before its over, thousands more trees will be cleared. In contrast to the hundreds of trees already cut are the hundreds to wooden utility poles that have gone up as utility crews work to restore power. Say what you will about PG&E’s management, its lack of maintenance (think: San Bruno natural gas explosion), but it’s hard to be critical of the massive response the company has made to the Paradise disaster.
What’s ahead? Years of work rebuilding.
What’s also ahead is the challenge of figuring out how to pay for all this. It is unlikely that all the people who have lost homes will rebuild. People who worked there already are seeking employment elsewhere. Butte County has taken a huge budget hit. The tax base of the town essentially doesn’t exist. It is questionable if the businesses not burned out will survive. Workers will be hard to find, customers harder still.
It’s going to be a long, long road back. And that road will be bumpy. But maybe, just maybe, how the county, state and federal governments respond to the needs of Paradise will tell us what we can expect as we collectively address the challenges of climate change and living in areas where Mother Nature can show her anger.
Contact Eric Grunder, former opinion page editor of The Record, at email@example.com.