I’m Watching the Place I Grew Up Burn from Thousands of Miles Away
California’s devastating Camp Fire is a solemn reminder to look out for one another, wherever we might live.
A store burns as the Camp Fire tears through Paradise, California on November 8. Photo by Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images
I found out that a fiery blaze had destroyed Paradise, California, the next town over from my hometown of Chico, when my ex-girlfriend texted me saying she had evacuated her neighborhood and was safe.
I’ve lived in Germany since April 2017, far away from the catastrophe that continues to decimate the area I grew up in. But since the Camp Fire began, I’ve been glued to my screen, riddled with anxiety and a sense of helplessness. In the first days after the fire started, I was afraid it would reach Chico, where my friends, family, and ex still live. They’ve been lucky—so far, at least. But the same can’t be said for other residents of Butte County.
Wildfires are something you get used to when you grow up in California, but the Camp Fire is an entirely new beast. It is officially the most devastating and deadliest fire in the state’s history. At the time of this writing, more than 8,000 structures and 130,000 acres have been destroyed; 52,000 people are displaced, 48 people have been confirmed dead so far, and over 200 people are missing. People have been using the hashtag #CampFire on Twitter to try to locate missing loved ones, post photos of lost pets, or determine whether their homes are still standing. And in Southern California, the Woolsey Fire continues to blaze in Ventura and Los Angeles counties, having burned over 97,000 acres, killed two people, and destroyed an estimated 483 homes since it broke out on Thursday. Tens of thousands of people have been forced to evacuate and another 57,000 structures are currently threatened. According to the National Interagency Fire Center, California has seen 7,727 wildfires in 2018 alone, which have ravaged 1.7 million acres to date.
After President Trump sent a callous tweet blaming the fire on California’s “gross mismanagement” of the forests, the blaze took on a gross, partisan quality. Meanwhile, over the weekend, images of Chico’s reddened sky, full of falling ash, left me with a particular chill; it was apocalyptic, foreboding.
“You know when someone asks if you’re okay and then you lose it and start crying everywhere?” my ex asked over text. “Well, that happened to me last night.” She added that she wanted to get out of Chico for a while, to head up to Oregon or down to Sacramento. I couldn’t blame her. But for me, it was the opposite. I just wanted to be there, in Chico, not so far away. I wanted to help.
Because Paradise is located on a ridge flanked by canyons, there are very few exits from the town itself. The videos of people escaping down the hill through a corridor of fire are nightmarish. When I first saw them, I thought of 9/11 and how as a nation all we could do was sit there and watch our television screens, entirely helpless and shaken to the core. My perception of the fire may be mediated by a screen, but that hasn’t made it any less real to me. This is my home. These were the places of my memories.
Before the Camp Fire, the landscape was bucolic. There were majestic oaks and volcanic rocks strewn across golden prairies all the way up to Paradise along Skyway, the road that links the two towns. Paradise itself was spread out among large Coulter pines—those pines with the long, spindly needles and heavy cones.
On Friday, as the fire roared down the hill along the Skyway, I thought of my stepdad’s house where my mother and I had lived during my childhood. It was just east of Chico, in the fire’s path, surrounded by trees and dry grass. At first I was indifferent. He and I never got along, and I thought, If his house were to go, what of it? He’s rich enough to buy himself a new one.
But that indifference was followed quickly by shame, and I began to picture my stepdad having a mental breakdown and a huge part of my childhood being reduced to ashes. It wasn’t until I checked the fire perimeter map, and saw how his house was on the side of the line you don’t want to be on, that I began to feel queasy.
I managed to get ahold of my stepsister; she said the house was still intact but that one of the houses in the neighborhood wasn’t so lucky. I felt vaguely relieved. If it stopped just before his house, maybe Chico would be spared after all. But the fire had been spreading out in more directions than one, and at the rate of 80 football fields per minute.
After she and my stepdad separated, my mom once had a house in Paradise and I lived there for a time while I attended Butte College. The front and back yards were always covered in a thick blanket of dry pine needles. They were a pain; every few weeks I’d have to rake them up and put them in the trash bin. She always told me to be careful with my cigarette butts, and I always rolled my eyes in response. Looking back now I think, Holy fuck. According to official reports, that house is now gone.
I reached out to my former professors at Butte College. Christine Wood, who was the head of the psychology department, said her house was still standing. The same couldn’t be said for Jaime O’Neil’s house, though. He’s been a mentor to me, always willing to give me feedback on my writing, as well as a dear friend. Jaime lived with his wife, Karen, in Magalia, just northeast of Paradise. They no longer have a home to which they can return, but made it out alive.
The aftermath has been chilling, even from afar. The fire continues to burn, but Paradise is stable enough now that some people have driven up to inspect the damage. Nearly everything is gone. On Sunday, I saw the cellphone footage shot by Greg Woodcox on Edgewood Lane, just off Pearson Road—a street I’ve driven many a time. “Well, I’m going to show you what happened here. This poor soul right here got burned out.” A black human-shaped mass is shown on the gravel road with what looks like arms above its head. “Literally burned. This is a body, people. A body.”
Woodcox is then seen walking over to three ruined cars a few yards away. He points his camera at the interior of one of those cars. Sitting in the passenger seat is a burnt skeleton, its mandible slightly ajar, its blackened eye sockets conveying a terror frozen in time. “I’m sorry, buddy.” You can hear the sadness in his voice.
Reading firefighters reports, along with accounts from police officers, nurses, and volunteers—the latter of whom are, in addition to helping victims of the fire, rallying around the entire community to make this tragedy even just a little more bearable—has had a profound impact on my understanding of what it means to be part of a community. In a column Jaime wrote the other day, one line has really stuck with me: “There’s nothing like a major human calamity, literally in one’s backyard, to make a person recognize just how fragile and how precious all life is, and how dearly we must hold it, and treat it, and guard against its loss.”
I see this as a call to become more active in our communities. I see this as a call to fight for change and make sure that we’re looking out for one another—wherever we might live.
If you’d like to help victims of the Camp Fire, consider donating to this evacuation relief fund.
Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of VICE delivered to your inbox daily.