Wednesday, December 8

In the shadow of Paradise, residents make restless peace with fire | Forest fires

The Dixie fire was consuming vast tracts of land in the Sierra Nevada foothills, but in the nearby valley town of Chico, California, it was a typical summer day.

The temperature had already risen over 102 ° F and a cloud of smoke was pushing air quality to unhealthy levels. Still At One Mile City Park on Wednesday, college students lay in the shade of oak trees, children splashed around the Sycamore Pool, and cyclists ran past.

“We look at the statistics every day. We watch the fires. But we’ve been in that weird version of denial, ”said Laura Cootsona, director of Centro Jesús, a nonprofit that serves the homeless in the city.

Devastating deadly fires have struck this region of Northern California almost annually since 2018. Increasingly severe summers and slumps in cities like Chico and Paradise offer a warning of things to come in other cities as the climate crisis intensifies.

Guy It has grown accustomed to the disaster on its periphery after the 2018 Camp fire, which killed 85 people, destroyed the nearby town of Paradise and sent thousands of fire refugees to Chico permanently. Last year, 16 people died in the nearby North Complex fire. This year, the Dixie fire has already burned 221,504 acres, forcing thousands of people to evacuate and destroying more than 40 buildings.

Firefighters emerge from an incident command center at the fairgrounds and fly over helicopters and planes. City signs thank you for your service, and sometimes citizens do too: Young men coming out of a downtown bar cheered loudly for passing engines over the weekend. Others sell fire-themed T-shirts to firefighters and donate proceeds to groups of firefighters and fire victims.

Then there is the smoke. Serena Marie Hary, a Chico resident, reminds her children to drink more water on smoky days and to wear masks to protect them from harmful particles.

The smoke has been constant for the past several years, said Chico State student Leslie Salazar. “It bothers you how strong and thick it is, but you still go out and enjoy life.”

Posters thanking Quincy, California firefighters are seen at the Dixie Fire in Quincy, California on July 27, 2021.
Posters thanking Quincy, California firefighters are seen at the Dixie Fire in Quincy, California on July 27, 2021. Photograph: Robyn Beck / AFP / Getty Images

Boy himself has changed. After the Camp fire, the college town grew by more than 10,000 people, to more than 110,000, the equivalent of at least 15 years of population growth overnight, Chico City Manager Mark said. Orme. Traffic and collisions, waste management and sewage use increased. The housing stock in the area, which was already small before, was rapidly shrinking.

“It continues to be a welcoming community. I think the fabric is still intact for quality of life, ”Orme said. “But there are aspects of having a smaller community that change: the commute no longer takes five minutes, it takes ten.”

Many residents still struggle to adjust to the constant presence of disasters.

“It’s part of the natural rhythm today,” Hary said. “It’s stressful, even though we’re not really in danger where we are.”

‘Just get ready’

In Paradise Ridge, too, reminders of the devastation of the wildfires are everywhere.

Approximately 6,000 people live in Paradise today and 11,000 on the Magalia highway, which was also devastated by the flames. Businesses have reopened throughout the city and there are nearly 1,000 new homes. Although the streets have long been cleared of ashes and burnt car shells, the empty spaces that stretch along Skyway, the main street of the city, and restaurant signs that no longer exist reveal what the fire took to Paradise.

Skyway Antique Mall was one of the few businesses in the city that survived the Camp fire and reopened last year. “I’ve been at this for so long and I love the business and the interaction with people,” said Bille Estrada, the owner of the store.

“People are nervous,” Estrada said. Phones vibrated throughout the store earlier this week when evacuation alerts went out, but they were for a city a few hours away.

Outside the antique store, Donald and Michele Carmack were visiting Paradise for the first time since the fire. Donald’s brothers had lived there before and one was considering going back.

“They are worried, but you prepare and do the best you can,” Michele said, as they surveyed the street, trying to find the location of a burned-down business they had once visited.

The Dixie fire burns near Taylorsville, California, on July 29, 2021
The Dixie fire burns near Taylorsville, California, on July 29, 2021 Photograph: David Swanson / Reuters

On the way up in Magalia, Holly Baker sat inside the fire resource center as the smell of smoke hung in the air. Shelves of canned peaches and pears, oatmeal cereals, boxed milk and sourdough breads line the walls of the building, a converted fire station, and are available free of charge to any Butte County resident affected by wildfires, present and past.

The fire station is one of the oldest buildings in Magalia and survived the 2018 fire thanks to the efforts of local resident John Sedwick, a former volunteer firefighter who saved the building before later dying outside his nearby home.

Baker, who lost his home and his beloved 13-year-old cat Mimi in the Camp fire, has struggled to stay in Ridge with nearby fires for the past two summers. “I fear the summer. There is nothing to enjoy anymore. “

Her volunteer work at the center has given her a sense of purpose, she said as she greeted a visitor, Alice Nutt, 65, who showed off the dress she had received on another visit to the center. Nutt was feeling nervous too. She shares a motor home with her husband, mother, and two dogs, so if there is another fire, her home can be taken away. “We are survivors,” said Nutt.

Baker was more hesitant. “I still have family in the area and that makes it difficult, so I try to resist, but I would like to move because I cannot do this every summer.”

Laura Cootsona, the homeless aid coordinator, is concerned about the dual threat of fires and the Covid-19 pandemic. The pandemic and the recent increase in cases, they have made ongoing fire disasters more difficult to handle, he said. “I think that for me I really feel the mixed feeling of: we will not get out of this crisis. This is not going to end. None of this is ending. We still have fires, we still have people displaced by the fires. And Covid … is not good. “

Her organization provides housing for survivors of the Northern California fires of the past two years, and people continue to need support. Part of Cootsona’s job is to give hope to the community, as it prepares for the next inevitable disaster, he said. “I think fire is the only thing we can count on.”

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