By Madisen Keavy

PARADISE (CBS13) — Monday marks three years since California’s deadliest and most destructive wildfire swept through the town of Paradise. It burned 19,000 structures, 11,000 homes, and killed 85 people back in 2018.

Signs and sounds of construction, closed roadways through downtown, and lumber on lawns ready to go up are all signs Paradise is rebuilding.

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The Camp Fire ripped through Paradise and several surrounding communities taking 85 lives three years ago. It was sparked on November 8, and since that day, thousands of residents have worked to get back home to rebuild.

“I think that this anniversary marks the transition from, kind of a response to the fire, to a recovery,” said Kevin Phillips, Paradise Town Manager.

Phillips said the town is averaging 60 permits a day and has grown in population to around 7,000 residents. That’s double the number of people since 18 months ago. And right after the fire, Phillips estimates there could have only been 3,000-3,500 able to live there based on the structures still standing.

Long-term recovery will take 10-20 years by Phillips’ estimates. The city has 30 capital projects in the works right now and all have had some kind of progress made since 2018, Phillips says. At this three-year mark, he said it’s a good time to reevaluate the town’s priorities since more time has passed and more residents have returned.

“Getting an early warning system up and installed, we know, is a major priority for the citizens,” said Phillips.

He expects that project to be up and running within the next 6-12 months.

The Rebuild Paradise Foundation executive team of Charles Brooks and Jen Goodlin are hopeful based on the number of people they’ve seen come back home.

“At some point, you figured you’d be back home faster than you were then the reality of construction sets in and you realize it’s going to take the time that it takes,” said Brooks. 

Brooks started Rebuild Paradise in the weeks after the Camp Fire to support his community left devastated. The foundation connects people with resources, information on grants and permits, and general support through the processing of rebuilding. It’s a choice, Brooks said, is personal.

“We need to help other communities to start with a built-in network to be able to navigate the challenges of a wildfire,” said Brooks. 

His vision for Rebuild Paradise has grown, now, can even provide a residential floorplan library for homeowners looking to save money and jump-start their rebuild process.

“There is a deep sense of community in Paradise,” said Goodlin, “Three years later people kind of forget, and I think that’s when people need the most help.”

‘I feel hopeful’: Rebuilding in Paradise at all Stages

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Those who have rebuilt in Paradise, or are in the process of it, consider themselves the town’s new pioneers. Neighbors helping, and celebrating, their neighbors are at the core of this community, according to Brooks and Goodlin.

The sentiment was echoed by Jaime Happ, who, along with her family, just moved back to their property to begin the rebuild process. They’re in a fifth wheel, now, but they’re closer to home than they were a year ago.

“[We are] tired and hopeful. It feels like there’s some breakthrough happening. It’s been a long marathon,” said Happ. 

Happ and her husband said they promised their four daughters the family would return home and they’ve kept that promise. Now, with the property cleared of trees and the inspection process underway, they’re taking in the opportunity to be back in Paradise.

“We’re cheering each other on, there’s nothing too small to give, I feel hopeful,” said Happ.

Others in Paradise have been back for over a year, like Steve Culleton. He said they built back quickly, but recognizes, that hasn’t been possible for everyone.

“The dilemma is here we are on the anniversary of three years since the fire, and we’ve been given little to no compensation for everything we’ve lost,” he said. 

People are angry, Culleton added and the trauma of what happened on November 8th, 2018 hasn’t gone away.

“Everybody I know that was here that day thought they were going to die. The trauma, the PTSD still lingers for people,” said Culleton. 

His home is built back on the same footprint as it was before. It’s a deeper green than it was, there’s a garden in the backyard because now, his property gets more sun, but he’s kept items from before the fire to remember the change in his life.

“I think for a lot of us it’s about moving on. It’s too painful to sit and live in the past,” said Culleton.

Paradise is the fastest growing city, from growth of housing production, in California, according to the state department of finance. Paradise grew 31.2% in total housing building unit growth and 40.69% in single-family housing unit growth as of May 2021.

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