The Essay

Welcome to Paradise

by Frank Holland

Coming to terms with the new abnormal.

For most of us, calamity exists in slide shows. It is the “escape video” witnessed on YouTube, the aerial drone footage to which we have become inured, a slow-motion overhead tour of smudged-out postage stamps arranged in grids and culs-de-sac.

We read the stories. We stream NPR. We support GoFundMe campaigns and share the link with our friends, an act often more performative than practical. Some of us quietly write large checks. We tell stories about our experience in the devastated place, whether it’s Santa Rosa or Santa Barbara or Redding or Paradise. We look for connection. Sometimes we find it.

It was raining when I left for Paradise. The air was clean, winter flora and discarded Christmas trees mixed with petrichor. The gray skyline, riven by sleek high-rises and construction cranes, gradually dissolved into vast stretches of rice fields and orchards, foothills undulating softly in the distance. I wanted to see the ruined city, to bear witness to the destruction, to understand the cataclysm that had unfolded.

I was not prepared for what I would see.

On the Skyway, the main artery from Chico to Paradise, billboards that once promoted assisted living facilities, FM radio stations and community banks now feature a range of somber-looking “fire attorneys.” The canyon below, once the idyllic setting for a Sierra Nevada beer label, is a dark, sinister expanse broken only by thin ribbons of green on the meadow floor.

Entering Paradise is deeply unsettling; there is no other way to say this. Mile after mile, the destruction is pure, unadulterated, merciless. There is no color here. The world is rendered in grayscale, ruined neighborhoods bleeding into one another without distinction. Men and women in stark white hazmat suits drift ghostlike in the distance through the footprint of what had once been a home.

There are no sounds here. In what had been a densely forested community, there are no birds. There is no life. This is a dead place. For all the optimistic hashtags that suggest resilience and grit, this no longer feels like a place one can be.

I drove with a friend who had lost everything, grateful that he had escaped with his wife and two young children while the world behind him burned. We passed the locations that shaped the contours of their former life: the grocery store, dentist, a local gym, a playground. Ashes, all.

This no longer feels like a place one can be.

At one stop I saw some movement in the ashes of a home. I walked down the hill to the site and saw a pipe thrust skyward from the wreckage, water flowing from the top like an apocalyptic geyser. It had no doubt been running this way for months. Up the hill, a charred swing set cut angular lines against a background of blackened scrub.

“‘Dresden’ is the only way to describe what has happened here,” I thought. 

Later, we stopped at the Ridgewood mobile home park, a twee senior living community that had become a killing field. It is now a world rendered in the abstract, twisted heaps of scrap metal and melted glass punctuated by oddly intact ceramic squirrels, deer, and other fake fauna. Catastrophe has a macabre sense of whimsy. As we walked among the ruins, my head began to pound. The air here is toxic.

Two months earlier, with acrid smoke choking the Bay Area, I bought an N-95 mask and said goodbye to my wife and three small children, who drove south to seek respiratory relief with college friends in Ojai, who themselves evacuated to our home during the destructive Thomas Fire of 2017. Wildfire displacement — whether direct or tangential — is a new part of the California experience.

With my family safely breathing clean air in Southern California (a marker of my own unmistakable privilege), I struggled to reconcile this new reality with my personal experience as a native of rural Northern California. Summers spent floating down Chico’s Butte Creek, bike rides up Honey Run to Paradise, and long runs along the Sacramento River Trail in Redding (devastated by the Carr Fire last July) are now fuzzy nostalgia, obliterated by the ferocity of climate change and the agony manifest in thousands of shattered lives.

Eventually, the air quality improved and my family returned home. The flood of news slowed to a trickle. The clarion calls for financial assistance quieted. The Red Cross announced that it would be pulling out of the area at the end of January, and our collective attention turned once again to the manic tweets of a cretin. Meanwhile, the Camp Fire was named the most expensive natural disaster on earth in 2018, with losses reaching $16.5 billion and more than 16,000 structures destroyed. At least the smoke was gone...

Workers in hazmat suits search the wreckage of Paradise.
Ghostly figures drift through a barren wasteland.

It is in this space between the primary and secondary consequences of climate change that I noticed a growing social wound, a yawning laceration upon our body politic in the form of the urban-rural divide.

“How would our reaction be different,” I thought, “if the fire had wiped out identically sized Lafayette in Contra Costa County, or a similarly situated town in Westchester County, New York, or even within the Beltway?”

But it didn’t touch those places, which is convenient for a significant population of spectator activists who rail at our collective inability to confront climate change with the sense of urgency it deserves while using precisely zero percent of their influence and agency to change the status quo. As long as the fallout lands on Puerto Rico, the Gulf Coast or rural California, it’s apparently enough to simply stream Pod Save America in your Tesla and pray that Robert Mueller saves us all.

The costs of climate change are borne not by the privileged, but by those who have no choice but to bear them. And despite our philanthropic community’s greatest efforts to soften the blow, no amount of financial assistance can mitigate the scale of destruction we are now experiencing.

The incineration of Paradise is emblematic of a dangerous new era of climate change. Let’s hope we have the wherewithal, creativity and empathy to handle it.

What was here before imperfectly erased

and memory a reliquary in a wall of silence.

Carolyn Forche, The Angel of History
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