Fire destroyed their town. 5 years on, the residents of Paradise look back on moving forward

Nov. 8, 2018. It was a day like no other for the people of this small Northern California town.
Published: Nov. 6, 2023 at 5:01 PM HST|Updated: Nov. 6, 2023 at 6:46 PM HST
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PARADISE, CALIF. (HawaiiNewsNow) - Nov. 8, 2018. It was a day like no other for the people of this small Northern California town.

That afternoon, powerful winds brought power lines down and ignited a fire. It burned out of control amid extreme drought conditions. Just like in Lahaina three months ago, many were caught off guard and fled for their lives as the fire quickly consumed everything in its path.

“We lost everything,” said Paradise Mayor Greg Bolin.

Sadly, 85 residents lost their lives in the fire complex named Camp Fire.

Before the disaster in Lahaina, it was the deadliest wildfire on American soil.

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“It was a tough time. Afterwards was tough and everybody has their way of grieving through that,” Bolin said, recalling how so many were in state of shock in the wake of the tragedy.

“Some, they were paralyzed. It just absolutely took them out of the game for awhile.”

Bolin said even he struggled to find reasons for hope.

LESSONS FROM PARADISE: As part of this special series, HNN’s Jonathan Masaki traveled to Paradise, Calif. to look at how they’re still recovering from a catastrophic fire five years ago.

“There were times I was in tears. I was like, I don’t know if this is going to work,” he said.

The Camp Fire burned for 17 days before it was fully contained.

More than 150,000 acres were scorched and 18,000 structures destroyed. Overnight, with evacuations in place, the population of Paradise went from 26,500 to zero.

For survivors, the biggest challenges were ahead.

“Losing absolutely everything you have and your entire community is not something you can just move through without having an impact to you,” said Colette Curtis, the town’s director of recovery.

“People are hurt, people of the city are upset and it’s very raw. They lost everything and they don’t know what is next. Where do they go, what do they do, everything is gone.”

Pastor Joshua Gallagher was called to lead the Paradise Alliance Church just five months prior to the deadly blaze. After the disaster, he struggled with how to help his congregation and his town.

“What I discovered was immediately after the fire is that I was completely unprepared for what I was getting ready to face,” the pastor said.

Bolin, his staff, the town council and the leaders in the faith community stumbled, too.

They faced a town of people who were in mourning, who were angry and who were lost. Some blamed them — as they tried to make sense of why and how their beloved town was gone. “We had to take it, we had to be thick-skinned, you got to let them go, let them say their thing,” said Bolin.

Gallagher said the one thing he learned is “you need to be available.”

“For me, that calling was to remain here in Paradise and help rebuild this community,” he said.