Welcome to Paradise
“Paradise will never burn,” they swore.
The long-time locals were gathered on the ridge staring across the canyon at 23 thousand acres of flame and blackness. It was one of the most beautiful things I had ever seen: a perpetual sunset, writhing and leaping against the night sky.
“Trust me,” the locals said, pontificating with their cigarettes and pointing with their beers. “The fire will never make it this far.”
I shivered in my sun dress. I was not used to dry climates where, with no moisture to hold the heat, the warmth of the early summer day exited with the sun, leaving wind in its place.
“You sure?” I asked. “Someone else said fire likes to burn uphill.” No beer, but I did clench 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. I’ve lived here all my life. Trust me. My friend is a firefighter of 20 years. Trust me. My friend is…
I had just met these people and they did seem… well, kind of drunk, but I was new here. I knew blizzards, not fires. So I nodded, watching the swooping planes dump neon-pink flame retardant, like tiny birds bearing thimblefuls of Kool-Aid.
I was a brand-new Californian just two-weeks liberated from the Midwest, and delirious with freedom. I frolicked up and down the mountainsides, in awe of the eruptions of shiny black slate, and green serpentinite rock. The canyons, the brick-red soil, the forests of towering Ponderosa Pines—full of pitch, and dry straggly branches. I reveled in the wildness and swore I would never return to the tame and bland domesticity I had come from. It had taken months of preparation and four days of driving for my friend and I to reach our destination—our future, as we thought of it.
“Look, Sa,” my best friend had said to me on our last morning as Midwest residents. We were sitting in my car idling in my parents’ driveway, the fully-loaded Penske truck waiting in front of us for its opening to pull out into the street. “We have our whole lives ahead of us,” he said, and I’m sure there was wonder and excitement and fear on both our faces. Phil pointed at the yellow truck, “Our whole lives, literally and figuratively.”
When we pulled into Paradise for the very first time, passing the welcome sign on highway 70, Phil fired up the Green Day track we had been waiting four days to play. We honked the horn and pounded the steering wheel and dash as we screamed and shouted along:
Dear mother, can you hear me whinin’?
It’s been three whole weeks since that I have left your home
This sudden fear has left me tremblin’
‘Cause now it seems that I am out here on my own and I’m feelin’ so alone
Pay attention to the cracked streets and the broken homes“Welcome to Paradise” by Green Day on the album “Dookie;” 1994
Some call it slums, some call it nice
I want to take you through a wasteland, I like to call my home
Welcome to Paradise
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. Each day I drove down my street to the north-end of Skyway and checked on its existence. Are you there God? It’s me, Sarama.
Each day it was there to return my greeting. A mottled black plume looming in the southern horizon, 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. It began to seem as though it had always been there, and always would be. There in the sky, watching us all.
And we 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. The future I had worked for months for and driven 2,000 miles to reach. It is impossible, however, to function in full awareness of possible and devastating loss. Building a future requires confidence in having a future. In 2008, the world continued to spin on this confidence, no matter how wobbly some of us found it.
I did have a moment of, “Screw 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.
My job search expanded into Chico. Most of the 10 mile drive from Paradise was blue sky and sunny day. Only two or three miles passed through the fire tunnel: a vortex of swirling black ash and amber smoke. Neon-red flames burned on the hillside several feet away. Sunlight became the color of burnt cigarettes floating in stale beer. The stack of resumes on the passenger seat lost their clean crisp whiteness and became the mottled brown of imminent death and doom—until we passed through the fire tunnel into the sunny-and-blue sky future on the other side, where the resumes resumed their crisp whiteness.
Work hard and be a good person, and everything will work out in the end, the resumes promised.
They never mentioned luck.
The Humboldt Fire lived 10 days from spark to finish. 74 homes were lost entirely and 20 more damaged. There was one human fatality: an elderly woman who had a heart attack during evacuation.
The rest of Paradise’s 25,000 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. Sometimes big pieces of ash the size of my fist. Some days the sky was so choked the temperature 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 the fire became a distant memory as our future stretched out before us, confidently sunny against a blue sky.
“See?” the locals said over their beers. “What did I tell you? Paradise will never burn.”