Depending on where one stands in the parking lot of Veterans Memorial Hall, the home of American Legion Post 259 in Paradise, Calif., there’s scant evidence of last year’s deadly and destructive Camp Fire.
Turn in a different direction, though, and there’s the fenced-in lot filled with burnt and twisted metal, remnants of the inferno that destroyed some 12,000 buildings in the town and claimed 86 lives.
Some nine months after the Camp Fire, the cleanup continues. New homes and businesses are being built. Homes that survived the blaze are for sale.
And the members of Post 259 who remain in Paradise are doing what they can to help their hometown recover.
“We’re pretty solid in a number of ways; it’s the membership we don’t have because of the fire,” said Post Commander Lawrence Thomas St. Germain.
The hall itself survived the fire, although there was damage from the clouds of smoke which engulfed the town. New flags hang from the hall’s vaulted ceiling, and St. Germain is waiting for some memorabilia to be returned after it was taken to Sacramento for decontamination.
The hall’s septic tanks also burst during the fire, and new code requires the two 1,000-gallon capacity tanks to be replaced by two 2,000-gallon tanks. That means the hall itself can’t be used for functions yet, but that didn’t stop the community’s Christmas on the Ridge event from taking place in the parking lot in June after it was postponed from last December in the fire’s aftermath.
“We’re still going to have a December Christmas party (this year). I’m adamant about that,” St. Germain said.
Many of the post members, much like the rest of the community, have left town. A survey by the state, conducted in April and released in July, showed that over 90 percent of Paradise’s population had left after the Nov. 8, 2018, Camp Fire. The northern California town’s population was about 26,800 in 2010; a door-to-door survey counted 2,034 residents in April.
“We’ve been working with (the veterans), but we’ve lost so many of them, they’ve moved to different states, they’ve moved to different towns. It’s hard to keep track of,” St. Germain said.
Post 259 member Nigel Parkhurst said the honor guard he leads has dropped from 18 members to eight since the fire, with two of those remaining focused on rebuilding their homes.
“What I see with this is slow growth over time. I want a full honor guard here on Veterans Day,” he said.
Parkhurst remains optimistic about the future of Paradise.
“Although we have plumbing issues, we have potable water issues that are still being addressed … we have the building. We have lost a majority of our people but we are getting a few back, starting what will be a multi-year rebuilding process. The hall is still here, and we’re going to be back and active,” Parkhurst said.
“This town is alive … and will survive.”
‘It was just a pile of ashes’
While some parts of Paradise still stand, the devastation is apparent in others — evidence of the Camp Fire’s haphazard nature. Winds approaching 50 miles per hour carried embers across the town, spreading the blaze while sparing some parts of the community.
On the east side of town, the street signs are gone; concrete slabs and piles of debris show where homes once stood. But a few survived the inferno, including that of Oney and Donna Carrell. Built almost entirely out of nonflammable material, their home was basically untouched save for some melted trim on a couple of windows.
The backyard cabin where Donna’s father, Army veteran Edward Robert Warren, lived was destroyed by the fire.
“I think it was a couple weeks before they even let us (back) up here. It was just a pile of ashes. Everything was gone, right to the ground,” said Warren. “Nothing you can do about it. Everything I owned was gone. … (But) we were safe.”
Oney Carrell recalled the efforts to evacuate.
“All we saw were orange glow all around us; we could hear explosions happening from propane tanks, from ammunition, from the transformers blowing up,” Carrell said. “I’ve never been in a war, but if it’s anything like that…”
‘We stuck it out here’
While the Carrells and others managed to make it out of town, some like Navy veteran Jerry Wood stayed put.
“By the time that I got (my wife) out and got a few things … and loaded it into the fifth wheel, well, it was just as dark as midnight at that point, 9:30 in the morning, and I look across the way and see nothing but taillights at a standstill,” Wood recalled. “… It stayed that way for 2 ½ hours.”
So Wood and some neighbors stuck it out. Having been through several wildfires, Wood has kept his grass short and landscaping away from his home to keep it safer from such blazes. And he was able to keep the embers from igniting his neighbors’ homes by using pool water and dirt to snuff out the flames.
“Every year, we’d have one of these disasters, and I would add something more to the place to help take care or soften the blow of the next disaster,” Wood said.
The American Legion’s National Emergency Fund (NEF) approved nine grants totaling $20,300 after the Camp Fire.
The National Emergency Fund is available for American Legion and Sons of The American Legion members, as well as Legion posts, who have been impacted by natural disasters. The NEF provides up to $3,000 for Legion and SAL members with an active membership who have been displaced due to damages to their primary residence, and up to $10,000 for posts that have been damaged by a natural disaster and whose programs and activities within the community are impacted. To apply for an NEF grant, please visit www.legion.org/emergency.