Opinion | Should California Rebuild Towns Nearly Destroyed by Wildfire?

Before the fire that destroyed almost everything here, Paradise was one of those blunders of American suburbia, a misplaced place that made little ecological sense. It inhabited a California landscape that wasn’t quite rolling foothill or rugged Sierra but an in-between zone where Ponderosa pines, Douglas firs and incense cedars kept the earth from baking like the great valley below.

Psychically, it represented California affordability and escape, a refuge that drew a whole carnival of believers: hippie gun nuts and backwoodsmen, growers of pot and fruit, trailer park dwellers and two-income families in middle-class houses and retirees from the city who had enough equity to buy a lovely acre with a creek called Honey running through it.

Paradise sprawled along a ridge between two river canyons. It wasn’t long before the town was saddled with the sorry title of the largest community west of the Mississippi without a municipal sewer system. Politicians and citizens alike paid little mind to sound planning or zoning laws or to safe spaces between houses and all that was kindling. There were few good roads in or out.

If you counted the new suburbs higher up spawned by the original suburbs, some 40,000 people were living straight in the path of western wildfire. When the epic one came on Nov. 8, 2018, carried by an odd wind out of the east, hot and dry like the years of drought that preceded it, no one could say they hadn’t been forewarned. By the old Concow-Maidu Indian, by the old gold miner, by their grandparents and parents who understood the nature they were tempting.

Everyone who outran the flames that morning, dodging flying embers and bullets that ricocheted from stashes of ammo, might have kept on running. But within days of the town reopening, the builders and realtors and Chamber of Commerce evangelists had planted their signs deep in the ash. “Rebuild. Recoup, Recover.” “The Best is Yet to Come.” “We Are Ridge Strong.”

The shouts of revival became an exhortation.

The state of California — which had been blind to a century of bad planning here, yet aimed to be a leader in climate resiliency — might have stepped in and declared Paradise an unfit place to grow again. Instead, its rebuilding was framed as a test of human fortitude, and a mighty river of federal and state aid poured in. From canyon to canyon the sound of hammers and nails, buzz saws and stump grinders, echoed.

Out of the same ash that survivors had sifted through in hopes of recovering a family jewel transmuted into talisman by fire’s heat, a new Paradise, its form recast, too, had risen.

I’m driving the Skyway, the main road, up, up. It’s been nearly five years since my last visit, and I wonder if I’m lost. Atop the ridge and between the canyons, I keep looking for the forest, but the forest is no longer here. More than a million charred trees have been cut down and carted off. The stumps bide like headstones.

The pines and cedar and fir were the essence of Paradise, its gift and curse. Without the woods, the place has been utterly transformed.

Welcome to the land of “sunrise and sunset,” says Lenny McAfee, a construction worker and reader of the novelist James Michener who traces five generations of his family on this ridge. “All the years I lived here it was hard to see either. I now find myself a creature of both.”

We’re sitting in the backyard of his girlfriend’s new custom-built house on a lane where all 13 houses burned. Only one other has been rebuilt. One neighbor split to Idaho, another to Oregon, another to Indiana. Mr. McAfee’s girlfriend used her sizable settlement with Pacific Gas & Electric Company, the state’s most notorious setter of fires, whose faulty equipment burned down Paradise, to construct the 2,000-square-foot house. Everything about it looks perfect. The backyard is a wonder with standing redwoods, a live running creek and a concrete pathway built by Mr. McAfee.

His friends boast about his backwoodsman skills, say they’d bet on him alone to survive the apocalypse. Small and wiry with a mop of gray hair under his ball cap, he hunts and fishes most weekends and gave up growing pot for growing backyard vegetables. It’s hard to believe heirloom tomatoes having this much size, color and flavor and more yet still ripening in the fall sun.

“We traded one Paradise for another,” he says. “The question is, ‘Is it sustainable?’”

He points to the spray-painted markings on the asphalt road, where electrical and broadband cables have been buried in the ground. It’s one part of the herculean endeavor to turn the town into a new and safer place, he says.

Mechanisms arrayed, levers pulled, the money to climate-proof one small community boggles his mind — more than $1 billion of state and federal assistance, and that’s not counting the $219 million pouring into the town itself from the PG&E settlement. “They’re doing things here that I’ve never seen done to a city or town,” he says. “All so it won’t burn again.”

I tell him I have my doubts that wildfire, a force of intricate construction, humans and nature in perfect collusion, can be so easily undone. The effort includes a new Building Resiliency Center donated by the Bank of America. There, residents can learn all kinds of new tricks to keep fire at bay. A community that never heeded codes is now governed by them. Wildland-urban interface standards for roofs, windows, trees, fences, combustible zones and sirens will be rigorously enforced.

Before I went to see Mr. McAfee, I had phoned the mayor, Greg Bolin, a house builder who begged off a conversation because of the noise of construction in the background. He told me to call Colette Curtis, the town official who handles both disaster recovery and economic development. No surprise that she considered the new Paradise to be a model of human resiliency finding balance with climate resiliency.

She pitched it to me as if it were a mantra: “Is this a place that deserves to come back? It’s a question we’ve asked ourselves. The answer is there are very few places in this country or in the world that are immune from disasters. Whether fire or floods or hurricanes or tornadoes and earthquakes. And now in more places as climate change bears down.”

Now, Ms. Curtis said, Paradise didn’t have enough tax-generating houses and businesses to cover its old operating budget of $11 million. Before the blaze, the town numbered 12,000 homes and 1,500 businesses. Today, there’s not quite 4,000 houses and 450 businesses. To keep Paradise afloat when the PG&E money runs dry in 20 years, it’ll take at least a doubling of both. This will necessitate a decade and more of nonstop building.

“The way we see our challenge is how do we live here with the risk. How do we change ourselves, the way we build and lay out our communities,” she said. “We can choose to let these disasters chase us from place to place or we can learn to live with them in a way that is as sustainable and resilient as possible.”

I did not challenge her premise. I did not point out that human resiliency and climate resiliency were almost always forces that worked against each other, that all the town’s federal and state and PG&E money might just be another way to put a fancy costume on human folly as it greets climate change barging through the door.

None of the largess, Mr. McAfee points out, will subsidize the rising cost of homeowner’s insurance. His friend Brad Weldon, who owns a nearby spread with a house and garden that slept and fed Mr. McAfee and 30 other survivors after the fire, is paying $8,400 a year for the privilege of Farmers Insurance. That is a 500 percent increase since the day Mr. Weldon miraculously fought off the flames with a garden hose and buckets of water from his pool. The inferno singed his hair. A spent bullet kissed his back. But his house made of wood stood.

Mr. McAfee now resides in a 28-foot trailer and worries there will be few places to park it when the town meets its makeover. “The old Paradise, filled with people my type, is gone,” he says. “We can’t afford to live here anymore. It’ll be full of rich folks and a few poor ones to serve them.”

As to the future of fire, however, he is sanguine: “Paradise ain’t burning. Not for a hundred years. As you can plainly see, there’s no trees left to burn.”

Trees grow anew, people forget, none faster than the Californian, I tell Mr. McAfee. He may be right that wildfire has so altered this place that it’s erased the nature of fire from it. The wild was gone. For now.

Mark Arax (@arax_mark) is the author, most recently, of “The Dreamt Land: Chasing Water and Dust Across California.” Erin Brethauer, who took the photos for this essay, and Tim Hussin (@timhussin) are Emmy Award-winning filmmakers and photographers. Their forthcoming feature documentary about Paradise is “Nothing Gold Can Stay.”

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