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Signs of the fire were everywhere. As Sunny drove north toward Chico along Highway 99, she passed hundreds of acres of grassland and pasture burned in the blaze. New grass and blackened fence posts were the last reminders of the catastrophe that had devastated this beautiful part of the Sacramento Valley. Arriving in Chico, she turned east, taking the Skyway upward into the Sierra foothills toward the town of Paradise, shocked at the extent of the destruction around her—mile after mile of scorched earth topped by dead and dying trees.

She had read of the fire, seen pictures, interviewed survivors who came to the insurance office where she worked. Nothing had prepared her for the emotional impact of seeing it all firsthand. She blinked back sudden tears, moved by the enormity of the tragedy.

How did this happen? And how did people survive? How did anyone survive? Many had been asking the same questions since the dramatic events last November. The local congressman came, followed by the governor, the U.S. president, and countless other officials. All were seeking answers to the same unanswerable questions.

The Camp Fire, named for Camp Creek Road where it started, was the deadliest wildfire in California history with eighty-five dead. It was also the first time entire communities had simply vanished.

Sunny remembered the “Paradise Lost!” headlines, but Paradise was not the only town to go up in smoke. Concow was gone, as was more than half of Magalia. Pulga and other small Sierra foothill communities were damaged or destroyed, leaving some fifty thousand people displaced.

Butte County will have a tough time recovering from this, Sunny thought. In fact, this was a big enough disaster to have a ripple effect across the entire state.

Sunny, who had spent her childhood in the Gold Rush towns of the Sierra Nevada, knew the mindset of the survivors, the tens of thousands whose homes, belongings, businesses, or workplaces were now nothing but ash and rubble. Many had lost everything they knew—all they had ever known. Some had also lost loved ones—people who either did not receive word of their impending doom or who chose not to evacuate until it was too late.

I can identify with some of this, Sunny reflected, maybe more than people realize.

“Are you sure you can handle this?” her Aunt Olivia had asked.

Sunny had answered that she could—that she wanted to do it. Now she wondered.

As a jane-come-lately student in the schools of Destiny, California, Sunny knew the pain of being behind all her classmates and struggling to catch up. She knew what it meant to rely on the kindness and community spirit of a small town to bring her through trauma and loss. She even knew how it felt to lose someone, although her losses were not the same as the losses of those who had lived through the fire. She thought of her mother, taken by a heroin overdose, and of her sister, Skye, in jail on her third DUI. Where there’s life, there’s hope. I’m trying not to give up on you, Skye, but you’ve got to try, too.

Thinking like this wasn’t helping at all. Sunny deliberately turned her thoughts to her current project. If all went well, she would graduate sometime in the next year with her bachelor’s degree in U.S. history, something her high school history teacher would find hard to believe.

She had applied to the California State University, Chico to transfer for her final year. With luck, she’d be accepted at Chico State. Otherwise, she’d continue in Sacramento. She hoped eventually to work toward a graduate degree and a possible future in teaching, maybe at the college level or possibly in high school. Her own high school classes had always made history seem like a bunch of boring names and dates. If she could teach it the way she knew now, as the stories of real people making the best choices they could, what a difference she could make for other history students!

She thought of last night’s conversation with her roommate. Libby started by asking a question like her Aunt Olivia’s.  “Will you be okay with this? It’s going to be hard to see.”

“I’ll be okay. I need to be. This paper was due at the end of last term, but Dr. Liu, my professor, agreed it would be stronger if I had personal interviews with survivors. She encouraged me to take an Incomplete in her course so I can get those interviews. If this project turns out as well as I hope, it may eventually get me started on a graduate thesis someday, assuming I eventually have a graduate committee that accepts my proposal for it. The real question is, are your folks are okay with this? They run a bed and breakfast for a living. Doesn’t seem fair for me to impose.”

“You’re not imposing,” Libby assured her. “Mom and Dad are looking forward to having you. As long as you leave before the new semester starts at Chico State, they’ll love it. No worries.”

“That’s very generous. I couldn’t afford to make this trip without their help.”

“They’re happy to help. They may want a copy of your paper, though.”

Sunny laughed. “I doubt that. The dry, academic style Professor Liu requires isn’t particularly readable.”

“They’ll probably want to read it anyway. They’ve been affected by the fires, too.”

Of course they had. Everyone in the area had. Maybe Sunny could make something good come of it, and not just for herself. Recording what had happened might help to prevent future tragedies.  

No one seemed to understand her drive to see the devastation for herself and to record everything she could find of all that had been written and said. She was especially interested in people’s firsthand experiences. Documenting the Camp Fire the way a true historian did would make for a great class project and might one day be expanded into a fine master’s thesis. More importantly, if she wrote it sensitively, she could help to memorialize the eighty-five people who had lost their lives, as well as the many thousands who barely escaped. Most of them had lost everything, sometimes including loved ones.

Sunny focused on what needed to be done. She’d only need half a dozen interviews for Dr. Liu’s class, but to do the job right for an eventual thesis, she’d need at least another sixty or seventy. Of course, she couldn’t get all those done on this trip since she needed to be back to school and work in just two weeks. She wanted to get everything she could. Now, while most of the survivors were still around.  She pressed the accelerator and picked up her speed.

She passed the entrance to the Tuscan Ridge Golf Course—or, more accurately, what had been a golf course. It had become the staging arena for the utility company crews working in the burned-over areas— assessing property damage, removing dead and dying timber, clearing toxic materials, doing all the cleanup work no one ever realized needed to be done until something like this happened.

Farther up the road, she could see into the canyons on both sides of the Skyway and witness the way the fire had swept over the ridges and up through the canyons. Fueled by gale-force winds, the flame had funneled down those canyons toward the valley, becoming a voracious monster that devoured everything in its path for miles. She shuddered. Hell, on earth. It was a literal hell on earth. It’s a wonder so many got out with their lives.

As the elevation increased nearer Paradise, the burned growth grew heavier. Soon she was entering pine forest, what little remained of it. She thought of what a beautiful town this must have been, thick with trees and shrubs, much like her hometown of Destiny. She stopped herself short of realizing that her town in the foothills above Sacramento could burn just like this. Just then she passed the place that once held the town’s welcome sign— “May you find Paradise to be all its name implies.” She remembered the “before” pictures of the beautiful sign for a lovely community. Now little remained of either.

The surreal experience of driving into the burned-out town came as a second emotional jolt. It was like entering a cemetery. Fire-seared chimneys stood like headstones and seemed to announce Here lies the Smith home or Here lived the Jacksons. They stood in rows, one after another, block after block, a graveyard for families’ former lives that stretched as far as she could see, clear to the edge of the charred forest.

Some lots had been cleared, dying trees logged for their timber, rubble hauled away, ashes removed, even the scorched topsoil taken, its brew of toxic chemicals carefully disposed of elsewhere. A few spaces had new construction underway, but most of the plots looked just as they must have since the flames were finally cooled by the quenching rains. Those lots were littered with the remnants of heating and cooling systems, kitchen sinks, melted windows, and even a sporadic burned-out vehicle. Each scorched vehicle was marked with a large, spray-painted X indicating to search crews that it contained no bodies.

It was hard to believe… difficult to imagine. But Sunny didn’t have to imagine what that first ghastly morning had been like. She had seen the videos shot by panicked people, fathers and mothers, sons and daughters, friends and neighbors who recorded their flight as they scrambled to outrun a racing wildfire. Some prayed as they drove. Others sobbed as they recorded what they believed to be their last words, hoping their cell phones and the record found there would outlive them. The terror reflected in every video was poignant and raw.

In several videos, Sunny watched homes burning on both sides of the road, burned-out shells of vehicles still on fire, trees exploding into flame all around. One video showed fire blocking the road as a shaky voice announced, “There’s no way out of this but through. I hope we can get past this. If we don’t, remember we love you.” A baby screamed in the background while a young child’s voice quavered, “Mommy, are we gonna die?” Sunny’s throat tightened every time she thought of it.

She drove through several neighborhoods, simply staring at the devastation. At some point, she realized that all she was doing was driving and gaping. Some shock was natural. Destruction on this scale was difficult to fathom. Still, she had come here for a purpose, and it was time she remembered that.

Sunny got out her camera and began to document all she saw.




On the two-acre lot that had once been his own small piece of Paradise, Evan Millett worked steadily, stacking most of what remained of his home and belongings into piles: one for trash removal, one for toxic waste and potentially hazardous materials, and a third small stack for items that might be worth keeping. There was very little in the third stack. Everything he had dreamed of, all he’d wanted, was gone. Just gone. It was almost too much to face.

He hadn’t faced it at first. Throwing himself into work, he avoided even driving past this place. Later, when he finally made the pilgrimage, he was horrified to find all the trees being removed, even those the fire had missed. A state-certified botanist explained that the heavy rains that followed the fire, leaving flash flooding and debris flows in their wake, had washed the smoke and toxic gases from the air back into the soil, poisoning the hardy plants that survived the flames. It would take a century for this forest to recover. He hated even thinking about it.

He hated that almost as much as he hated the vultures who’d swept through Paradise in the fire’s wake. Evan knew not everyone felt as he did. Some were grateful for any intervention and saw all outsiders as sources of help. But the attorneys and insurance investigators who set up shop in the area, even before the fires were extinguished, struck him as scavengers, feeding on the remains of all that had been here, looking for someone to sue to recoup their own losses or make a profit.

Evan bristled when he recalled their quick and slick promises to sue on the survivors’ behalf well before fire investigators had any clear idea of how the fire started or who might be responsible. Some of his neighbors had been grateful and open to hearing more, but Evan turned them all away—rudely when he could. Making a profit out of this level of tragedy? They were ghouls, vampires, all of them.

I have to find a way to get past all this, Evan thought as he worked, but the pain of loss was like a cold, hard stone in his gut. The guilt was even worse.




Sunny found frequent opportunities to stop. Sometimes she snapped pictures from her car window; occasionally she got out to walk up to the remains of someone’s home. She usually stopped short of walking inside, brought to a halt by her reluctance to intrude as well as the odd mix of rubble, ash, and what looked like gooey gray paste—the fire’s version of mud.

Sunny had been taking pictures for half an hour when she turned a corner and saw someone dressed entirely in camo sifting through the debris of a small home. The worker was outfitted for HAZMAT conditions in a white hazard mask, heavy boots, and thick gloves. Man? Large, short-haired woman? At this distance, she couldn’t guess.

The building’s footprint stood a little apart from others around it, telling Sunny it had once occupied a large lot covered with tall trees. Only stumps remained. The lot looked as if it had been clear-cut. Other nearby lots looked the same. Surely this person had a story to tell. She got out of her car.

“Hello!” she called. “Mind if I shoot some pictures?”

“Why?” A deep bass voice responded.

Definitely a man. “I’m documenting the Camp Fire for a history project.”

“You’re sure? You’re not from one of the insurance companies or the people who want to sue the utility company?”

“Uh, no. This project is a personal one, and I don’t intend to share it with my bosses.”

“Your bosses?”

“Oh. Um, yeah. I work part-time for an insurance company, but this isn’t for them.”

“Likely story.” He turned his back. “Yes, I mind if you take pictures.”

Sunny bit her lip in frustration. That’s what total honesty did. “Okay, then, no pictures,” she said, still shouting across the wide space. She put the camera back into her car. “Can I just come over and talk with you? I’d like to get your fire story—you know, what happened here.”

“Why?” he asked again.

“I told you.… Never mind. May I just watch for a while?”

He shrugged. “Suit yourself.”

She drew nearer, looked the man full in the face, and caught her breath.

“Something wrong?”

“No, no. You’re just not what I expected.” No way she’d expected him. She’d imagined a much older man. This one was close to her own age, solidly built, and very attractive, his eyes a startling blue. “May I ask your name?”

He actually curled his lip. “Maxwell Smart.”

“Very funny. I’ve seen the movie.” She stepped forward and held out her hand. “I’ll tell you mine if you tell me yours.”

He took her hand, but the look in his eye hadn’t changed. “Very well, Miss Not-from-the-insurance-company-but-yes-I-do-happen-to-work-there. My name is Evan Millett.”

She offered her most winning smile. “I’m Sunny Ray.”

He didn’t just drop her hand. He threw it back at her. “Sunny Ray? Like I’m supposed to buy that? I think you need to leave now, Miss Whatever-your-name-is.”

She took a deep breath followed by an exasperated sigh. “It’s actually Golden Sunny Ray, but I only use Sunny. If you’d ever known my neo-hippie mother, you’d understand.”

Steel glinted in his eyes and laced his voice. “I asked you to leave.”

“All right, all right. I’m going. But I have a business card. It has my name—my real name, Sunny Ray—along with my phone and email. If you decide you want to talk, give me a call. People tell me it can be very therapeutic to share their story.”

“Off. My. Land.”

“I’m going!” As she turned, she spotted a large stump near the edge of Evan’s property. That tree must have shaded the front door of his home for decades. “I’ll leave my card right here, just in case.”

He opened his mouth to speak again, but she didn’t need any more warnings. “I’m gone!” she said. As quickly as she could manage across the rough ground, she made it back to her car. Before anything else could happen, she drove down the street, not even stopping to shoot pictures of other properties until she was well out of the man’s sight.

A few minutes later, she came across a couple, probably in their fifties, who were working on a smaller lot with a large home footprint. Sunny spent the next hour recording their detailed and harrowing story. When she thanked them for sharing it, they thanked her for giving them the chance. It had been that way with everyone she talked to so far—everyone but Evan Millett.

During the rest of the day, she spoke to five more people who were happy to share their stories. She didn’t leave Paradise until the sun was down and a brilliant, fiery sunset tinted the western sky.

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