For many Californians, November 8, 2018, is the day that life changed forever. Exactly one year ago, the deadliest wildfire in state history began its destruction, claiming lives and destroying communities at a terrifying pace.
The Camp Fire started in Butte County, which is in Northern California. It originated above several communities, and an eastward wind drove the fire downhill through developed areas.
When the fire reached the town of Paradise, an urban firestorm began to spread from building to building, independent of vegetation. The fire caused at least 85 civilian fatalities. It covered an area of 153,336 acres and destroyed 18,804 structures, with most of the damage occurring within the first four hours.
In roughly the time it takes to watch an NFL game, the Camp Fire fundamentally altered the course of thousands of lives. As Patrick Strattner found out firsthand while visiting Paradise for the medical and safety technology company Dräger, cleanup and recovery is a slow, painful process.
My briefing was to document the work of the Environmental Protection Agency following a natural disaster. I have worked with journalist Steffan Heuer on multiple occasions for a variety of different publications. Since Steffan knows someone who works for the EPA, he had the idea to pitch a story about the EPA’s work after a wildfire.
We were in and around Paradise for two days about three weeks after the fire was contained. During these two days, we interviewed several members of the Emergency Response Team and also had the chance to watch them collect hazardous waste as they made their way through the rubble.
Dräger is a German company that produces things like breathing equipment and gas detection systems for various emergency situations. Dräger Review is the in-house publication that covers the people who use their products, which is where the EPA employees come into the picture.
This project, a mix of client-based and personal work, was Patrick’s first time documenting a natural disaster. As such, he learned about what the EPA looks for and removes as well as why these areas are so dangerous after a wildfire.
There are several stages for the cleanup, and the EPA is just one of several groups that is part of the recovery response. I never really thought about the hazardous waste that’s left after a house has burned down — asbestos, paint, plastic, appliances, batteries, and cleaning supplies all melted down or burned to ashes.
Add some rain to the mix, and there’s a high risk of groundwater contamination. Even though the EPA removes most of the hazardous waste, the soil on each property is contaminated and needs to be replaced before any redevelopment can happen.
Patrick wasn’t required to wear any protective clothing or gear, but he was barred from being on private land during the shoot because he didn’t have the owners’ permission in advance. So, to properly capture the destruction — and to get footage for the personal side of this project — Patrick drove around Paradise and filmed an unyielding look at the devastation through a tracking shot.
It felt surreal to be around such destruction while knowing that this town was full of life less than a month ago.
Seeing a family’s home with melted bikes in the yard, a freestanding chimney with everything else around in ruin, and a burned-out car in the driveway was heartbreaking. It’s tough knowing that the life that they knew is no longer.
As Patrick dutifully went about his documentation, he put himself in the shoes of the victims by learning of the horrifying realities of that fateful November day.
We were told that the fire moved in very fast — a lot of the residents had little to no warning. There was almost no time to pack up personal belongings and to get out of the town, which was a challenge in and of itself due to congested streets. Most of the residents of Paradise experienced trauma, and some lost everything. It was important to me to be as respectful as possible. I didn’t want to approach it like a paparazzi or a voyeur, being detached and intrusive.
Though most of the residents of Paradise have yet to return (and many never will), Patrick did speak with one of the families who lost everything. Their experience spoke to the chillingly expeditious nature of the Camp Fire, which became a much greater force to be reckoned with than initially thought.
They had fewer than 30 minutes to gather a few belongings and leave. They explained that though they knew how serious the situation was, they could not imagine that they would have nothing to return to. As a result, they did not think to try and save any personal items.
Now they are left to rebuild their homes, lives, and communities elsewhere. They can never return to the life they had in Paradise. That choice is no longer an option due to how extensive the destruction was.
In 2010, Paradise’s population was 26,218 — and this was two years after a separate wildfire had forced thousands to evacuate. But as we’ve discussed, the Camp Fire was a completely different beast. As of January 2019, the population of the Northern California town didn’t even crack 5,000. The totality of the destruction will always stay with Patrick, but, more significantly, it will forever be seared into the psyches of the people who will never again call Paradise home.
A few structures were still left intact after the fire, but the majority of residential buildings, schools, and businesses burned down. A lot of people lost their homes and jobs that day. As of a month ago, no more than about 3,000 of 26,000 Paradise residents have returned. So far, nine houses have been rebuilt of the roughly 13,000 destroyed.
Paradise will never be the same again.
See more of Patrick’s work at patrickstrattner.com.
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