People fleeing for their lives, surrounded by walls of flame. The fury of Mother Nature tearing through everything in its path. Those who have managed to get out safely wondering what the future will look like when, or if, they return.
That was the scene in Paradise, Calif., on the morning of Nov. 8, 2018. A town in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in Butte County, Paradise was largely destroyed by the Camp Fire—the deadliest fire in the state’s history, causing at least 85 deaths and more than $16 billion in damage.
That night, Scott McLean, a spokesperson for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, told members of the media, “Pretty much, the community of Paradise is destroyed. The wind that was predicted came and just wiped it out.”
One week prior to the fire, the congregation of Paradise Lutheran had completed the renovation of old classrooms into housing quarters and a communal living space. Although the church’s parsonage, garage and toolsheds burned to the ground, the church building itself was mainly spared.
“The church, our hall, a building behind the church we turned into apartments to rent out … the fact these buildings didn’t burn gave us a huge lift,” said Gwen Nordgren, a member of Paradise who is leading the effort to rehabilitate and restore the church from smoke damage and asbestos found after the fire.
Nordgren was one of many who had to flee the Camp Fire at a moment’s notice. Like more than half the congregation, she lost her home. She was able to rent one of the church’s apartments, along with other people affected by the fire. Six months later, she still lives there.
At age 76, Nordgren chose to stay in Paradise after the flames were extinguished. But she said many her age chose to leave because they couldn’t, or didn’t want to, rebuild. Members of the community experience “fire brain,” she said, a feeling she compared to post-traumatic stress disorder.
“It’s all surreal, and surreal here is the new normal,” she added.
Several months later, though, Nordgren sees plenty of reasons to be hopeful. “We know we are following a disastrous situation, but we have the location, attitude, faith, wonderful leadership, and we’re all standing up,” she said. “I don’t cry anymore going up the hill [near the church]. For months, everyone here just broke down and cried when they saw each other and what our town had become.”
Signs of new life
As Paradise residents adjust to a new normal, Nordgren said she sees “every kind of truck imaginable” in town as the restoration effort continues. Recently two of the town’s four grocery stores reopened. Each has a deli, and there are long lines every day at lunchtime. The post office also recently reopened, which Nordgren said has been an important change. Previously, those in Paradise had to drive 20 minutes to nearby Chico to pick up their mail.
Meanwhile, the Paradise congregation is “rising from the ashes,” she said.
In the weeks following the fire, the congregation got a meaningful boost from Faith Lutheran Church in Chico. “We were offered shelter, quilts, clothing, food and a place to worship for that Sunday,” said Rod Platte, pastor of Paradise. For several months, Faith hosted weekly services for both congregations, in addition to offering office space to Paradise, while damage repair got underway.
Although work remains, signs of new life can be seen in the restored Paradise Lutheran. In February, the congregation was able to hold services in the church hall again. Nordgren said they have had “good attendance,” including new faces and new families from Paradise and surrounding communities.
The congregation has been developing a strategic plan to grow not only the church but also the community. Before the fire, Paradise had offered a free lunch program and was growing its housing-assistance project. Today those efforts are needed more than ever. But Nordgren said the congregation is ready to meet those needs and expects to share its spaces with other congregations and denominations that have lost their facilities.
“People here have a lot of faith,” she said. “We’re safe and we know we are going to make it. Everyone cares so darn much about each other, and there’s an amazing sense of dedication here. We are Paradise strong.”
Lutheran Disaster Response is working to provide long-term relief following last fall’s fires. Visit ldr.org or call 800-638-3522 to help. Gifts designated for “U.S. wildfires” will be used for those affected by wildfires until the response is complete.