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Paradise CAMP FIRE-

PARADISE, Calif. – Workers have cleared more than one million tons of debris so far from last November’s Camp Fire site in Northern California. About three-quarters of that was debris, soil, and ash. More than 150,000 tons of contaminated soil was also removed. The rest of the materials cleared were concrete and metals, some of which is being recycled. Crews are still in the field to work on more than 9,000 sites as phase two of the clean-up begins.

Much of the impacted area still lacks clean water. Residents there have been relying on truckloads of bottled water delivered regularly. The Camp Fire was the deadliest and most destructive fire in California’s history. It burned 153,000 acres and killed at least 85 people before it was contained. In the town of 27,000 people tucked into the Sierra Nevada foothills, the blaze torched hundreds of businesses, 90% of the housing stock, and the fabric of everyday life.

The fire inflicted devastation so extreme that, six months into a recovery expected to last several years, a sense of stunned disbelief lingers among residents. Thousands remain scattered across the region in temporary housing as they ponder whether to return to Paradise. They cope at once with individual adversity and the collective loss of their community, a place they cherished as much for its close-knit familiarity as for its bucolic setting.

Where is workforce really booming? Among the oldest workers.

Residents reeling from emotional trauma in the fire’s aftermath have sought support from crisis workers, mental health therapists, clergy – and, most often, from each other. California Hope, a disaster crisis counseling program in Butte County funded by the Federal Emergency and Management Agency (FEMA), has provided free group and individual services to more than 13,000 people affected by the fire.

‘Every day there’s a struggle’

State authorities last week pinned the cause of the Camp fire on power lines owned and operated by the Pacific Gas & Electric Company. For residents attempting to regain their bearings, the fire’s origin matters less than its enduring fallout.

The intense heat created a mix of gases that seeped into the town’s underground piping and contaminated its water supply, forcing thousands of residents to rely on bottled water handed out at distribution sites in the area.

One donation center that occupies a vacant church in Paradise attracts an average of 150 people a day who pick up water, clothing, cleaning supplies, and other essential items. Many also come for the compassion and solace that the staff freely dispenses.

“Serving people who lost everything has been healing for me too,” he says. “It gives you the feeling that you’re doing something. You’re not just thinking or wishing you could help. You’re doing it.”

‘That electric-jangling feeling’

The pre-wildfire version of Paradise still exists in street view images on Google Maps. The photos show homes, schools, and businesses – dentist offices, motels, bars, McDonald’s – in unburned form. The town appears whole.

In the dystopian present, Paradise lies in ruins. Yet as work crews continue to haul away piles of rubble, charred vehicles, and trees the color of coal, the tableau reveals evidence of resilience.

Here and there, businesses are reopening, houses are rising. Children scamper around a school playground and climb a jungle gym. A church group has posted yard signs along roads that carry messages of encouragement: “Stay Strong,” “We’re In This Together,” “You Are Loved!”

The slow and uneven emotional recovery of fire survivors, meanwhile, occurs out of view. The demand for mental health services in Butte County has overwhelmed the capacity of clinicians, as residents face a wait of four to eight weeks for an appointment.

The Camp fire destroyed or damaged eight of the nine schools in Paradise, and an estimated 3,800 of the area’s 4,200 students lost their homes. District officials found space for students in schools elsewhere in the county, and in neighboring Concow, administrators reopened an abandoned school to provide classrooms for about 100 elementary and middle-school students.

The gradual rebuilding of Paradise poses a conundrum for displaced residents coping with the emotional trauma wrought by the fire. Their fondness for the town and its people conflicts with an awareness that the place they knew has vanished.