“Sixty-three dead, 630 listed as missing, 142,000 acres burned, 9,700 homes gone, 230 commercial buildings destroyed, and just 45 percent containment.” So reads the latest update from The Paradise Post, the newspaper whose town went up in smoke last week in the Camp Fire, which is still raging across Northern California.
Since the fire began, reporters from the Paradise Post and the Chico Enterprise-Record, the two local papers, have worked to tell the stories that the national media cannot. They have driven over downed power lines and around felled trees to livestream footage. They have walked through the burnt footprints of houses, calling for lost pets. And they have already started to ask tough questions about what what it means to rebuild their community, after what will have been the worst fire in California history.
Here are their stories, in their own words.
David Little, editor of the Chico Enterprise-Record
It was evident immediately that this was a huge one. It traveled 80 acres a minute. Eighty football fields a minute. We cover fires all the time, and the previous worst one burned 78 homes. This one burned 7,700 homes.
How do you deliver a paper to a town that doesn’t exist anymore? We are overrunning our press as much as possible and sending bundles to evacuation centers in Oroville and Chico. Many people evacuated in a such a rush that they don’t have their phones or computers, and these printed papers are some people’s main source of news. It’s a blessing to be in this field when people are just thirsting for information, to be able to let them know what’s going on to the extent that we can.
Carin Dorghalli, arts editor for the Chico Enterprise-Record
I was at home, it was 7:30 in the morning on Thursday. I looked out the window and saw the most insanely beautiful sunrise. But the more I looked, something was different. I called my family in to see and then I checked with my editor.
The day after the fire hit, it was apocalyptic, like a movie. The entire sky was red. Now everything looks like a beautiful foggy morning. The smoke was hugging the trees, so you can barely see through. We are breathing in this toxic air. People are walking around on the street with giant bags of clothing they’ve picked up from the donation hub. On Tuesday, when I was in Paradise, there was so little there. Just ash and rubble. The only thing standing is brick fireplaces. I went to my friends’ homes. Here I am walking the ground they wish they could visit, just because I have a press pass.
I’ve been at the evacuee camp at Walmart, the town has a large parking lot there. We call it Tent City. All the hotels are booked. People are living in tents with their kids, it’s 35 degrees at nighttime. Someone from Sacramento set up a donation hub there. Yesterday someone set up a medical booth. Chico State is out of session, and the nursing students are organizing shifts at medical booths and churches. Today we got a few computers there with wifi. There are several food trucks and stands giving out free food. Today a Democrat club set up a communal tent with heaters for anyone who’s too cold at night.
Everyone is a little bit somber, but there’s also hope peeking out from the most unusual places. On Monday, I got to go to a tattoo shop and take pictures of people getting pine tree tattoos, $50 tattoos. Paradise is the city of pine trees. That entire day, all proceeds were donated to relief efforts. There was a huge line of people waiting—they were so patient, no one said a word.
Dan Reidel, night editor for the Chico Enterprise-Record
I have a GoPro. On Sunday I put it on my dashboard. Driving up to Paradise was pretty incredible. It was a heavily wooded area, nice redwoods, and big Pines. Now there are holes in the ground where the trees burned down to the roots.
Everything’s smoky here, in Chico, in Paradise. I’ve been up there three times. In the late afternoon it gets thicker, I don’t know why. We have masks. People are asking where they can get masks, on social media. By the end of the first day I was coughing.
I’ve covered fires before. Usually you can tell if there were a lot of plastics, burnt cars smell like that. I smell like a campfire all the time now.
I talked to some people yesterday in Concow who stayed. One of the gentleman said they stayed because the road was blocked. They felt they wouldn’t make it out, so they’d have to stay and defend the house. For the most part they were prepared; this is wildfire country. They had generators and defensible space. You need 100 feet around buildings that’s clear of dead brush, and 30 feet without trees. In some places it didn’t matter because the fire moved so quickly. One couple had a gravity-fed well, so they still had water pressure. You hose down your roof, that’s the first thing if you have water pressure. Another had a small tractor and pushed pine needles on his property back into the fire, 100 feet from his door.
One guy with a gas generator was worried; he only had a week left of fuel. The people who are left up there need supplies, but if they leave to get them, they need to be allowed back in.
Rick Silva, editor of the Paradise Post
I can video, I can write, we use words to convey things, that’s our currency in journalism. I can say “war zone,” or “annihilation,” but you’re not going to know what it’s like here until you’re on the ground with all your senses. The people in Paradise can’t even know until they walk it, smell it, see it. That will be a whole new part of the grieving process. It’s going to be two or three months until people can get back up there and get a sense of closure, so they can make their next move.
Thursday morning I tried to cover the story the best I could. Local television was reporting an all-town evacuation. We have zones in Paradise, it goes back to the 2008 fire when everyone tried to leave at once. I called the town manager. She said it’s just a few zones that need to evacuate. Forty minutes later, I called the county sheriff. It was all-town, so we put that out.
I could see the fire burning down the hill, and I live-streamed some of it. I could have fought to get back in to take some photos, but in a situation like that, I had no idea how fast that fire was going. Maybe them not letting me in was God’s way of saying you’re going to get burned to death.
The first day up there after the fire, it was difficult to get around without hitting power lines and telephone poles on the ground or hanging over the street, plus all cars stopped in middle of street.
I feel disconnected from the day-to-day story coverage because I’ve been driving around showing people their town.
Governor Jerry Brown said it’s a national story because of the sheer completeness of it. Eighty-five percent of the town is gone. But the out-of-town press is only taking a national view of it, when the issues that affect the community are really local. The national media aren’t answering the questions that the people on the ground here most need to get answers to. The people here really don’t care about a president’s tweet. We need to know, What’s the progress? What does a rebuild look like? If I go back to my home and I’m only one of two or three people on my block, should I decide to stay? Do you still want to rebuild? And in your rebuild do you attract all new people? Like a boom town in the gold rush days or the old logging days. I don’t see it becoming a ghost town, they’ve got the roads and some business left. Who are the new people, are they the builders? That’s the question.
What is lost? Families have been there a long time. Their kids are no longer in the schools. And the dynamics of the community. It’s been a major retirement area, but many who perished were elderly. They may not want to stick around, would you?
ICYMI: Podcast: David Little on putting out a paper during the Paradise fireAmanda Darrach is a contributor to CJR and a visiting scholar at the University of St Andrews School of International Relations. Follow her on Twitter @thedarrach.