CHICO, California — Business was finally picking up in Paradise, the Northern California town devastated 17 months ago by the deadliest, most destructive fire in the state’s history. Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
Butte County has seen few hospitalizations and no deaths from the coronavirus. But the crisis highlights the area’s health, social and economic vulnerabilities. The county has more people older than 65 than the state average, according to the 2019 Community Health Assessment, as well as slightly higher percentages of hypertension, kidney disease, pulmonary disease and asthma. The only hospital in Paradise closed because of damage from the Camp Fire, which killed at least 85 people and destroyed about 14,000 homes.
Changes brought by the pandemic to daily life in Paradise have tested residents’ hard-earned lessons on survival and resilience.
After the fire, the town’s population dropped from 27,000 to about 4,000. But restaurants and small businesses had recently reopened. Kids traveled hours with their families from temporary homes to participate in the spring sports season. The Theater on the Ridge planned an April production of “Love Letters.” The pandemic forced cancellation of the sports season and the play and caused businesses to close indefinitely. Life has been disrupted once again.
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Jenny Lowrey, the leader of From the Ground Up Farms, Inc., a non-profit helping with the fire recovery, said job losses from the pandemic have pushed people back to where they were after the fire, scrambling for scraps.
New restaurant provided hope
In September, Nic’s Food, Beer & Wine, became Paradise’s first new restaurant to open after the fire. Only 3,500 lived in town at the time and the electric company regularly shut off power to prevent another wildfire. Yet, owner Nicki Jones, a resident of Paradise for more than 20 years, kept the restaurant’s doors open.
Jones lost her home and two businesses to the fire, but said she never doubted coming back to the place she feels most at home.
The restaurant was a leap of faith and, to many in the community, a sign of hope. It showed that the town could do more than recover from what was lost; it could grow, too. Groups of quilters and social clubs booked the restaurant’s communal room even before opening day. People came for Friday football nights and for occasional live music on Saturdays. Jones hosted birthday parties and catered events.
“My goal is for people to feel at home,” Jones said at the time. “I want this to be a place to heal.”
Jones, who is 75, says her role model is a 98-year-old woman she saw on the news who’s still running her cleaning business. Her seven-day work week was a proud choice.
And so the recovery went on, haltingly but ever forward. On Nov. 8, the first anniversary of the fire, people poured into the parking lot across the street from Nic’s for commemorative events. Friends and neighbors who had not seen each other in a year held each other tight. Jones’ hands trembled as she remembered friends and acquaintances who’d lost their lives.
In early March, still in the initial stages of the pandemic in the United States, Jones tried to keep the restaurant open. She reconfigured the dining room first, then offered curbside delivery only. Even then, people from the town continued to congregate outside her restaurant, searching for connection as tensions rose.
But as the disease spread, Jones didn’t want to put her staff at risk and closed the restaurant.
Community lost chance to gather
Residents are now isolated in their homes. Some are still crowded into trailers as they wait to rebuild homes lost to the fire. Where they once gained strength from gathering close and rallying for recovery, they now face the uncertainty apart.
“We’ll be back,” Jones told her customers. “And they said, “We’ll be back too’. There’s a big sense of that here, and I’m grateful for it.”
Jones is already thinking of ways to give back to the community, if she isn’t able to reopen the business. Perhaps she’ll volunteer at an animal shelter.
One thing she’s sure of: finding the will and the creativity to emerge as a survivor from sudden loss. She has done it before.
Camille von Kaenel covers wildfire recovery in Northern California for the Chico Enterprise-Record and The Ukiah Daily. This dispatch is part of a series called “On the Ground” with Report for America, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project. Follow her on Twitter: @cvonka.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Devastated by wildfire, California town now struggles with coronavirus