They lost everything in the Paradise fire. Now they’re reliving their grief as fires rage in Hawaii
Aug 11, 2023, 10:31 AM
SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — Melissa Crick was heartbroken this week while watching videos on her phone of people fleeing from a fast-moving wildfire in Hawaii.
“Sending love and support from Paradise, California,” Crick commented on one woman’s social media post.
To Crick’s surprise, the woman wrote back. She knew Paradise — the small Northern California city in the Sierra Nevada foothills that was mostly destroyed by a wildfire in 2018. The woman told Crick her support meant a lot to her.
“That was a really heavy moment,” Crick told The Associated Press.
Lahaina, Hawaii, is a tropical paradise on the northwest coast of Maui. But wildfires ravaging the region have forever linked it to another Paradise, this one in California. The two small towns have the grim distinction of experiencing the two deadliest wildfires in U.S. history — tragedies that played out in a remarkably similar way.
“It’s not what we want to be remembered for,” Crick said.
Both blazes started in the overnight hours when it’s difficult to warn people, and moved quickly, leaving people with very little time to flee. Both places were isolated, with few roads leading in or out. The California fire killed at least 85 people and destroyed more than 18,000 structures. The Hawaii fire has so far killed more than 50 people and destroyed more than 1,000 buildings.
Most people would think a place like Paradise — located in the forests of wildfire-prone California — wouldn’t share a lot of similarities with a small town in Hawaii, a state known for its lush landscapes.
But the two places have more in common than you would think, especially when it comes to wildfires, said Hugh Safford, a fire and vegetation ecologist at the University of California-Davis. The wildfire risks for both places have been well known for years, especially as a changing climate has ushered in hotter, drier seasons that have made wildfires more intense, he noted.
“I’m not at all surprised that Hawaii has had a fire like this,” Safford said. “It was just a matter of time.”
As images filled news reports from Hawaii this week, Paradise was one of the only places in the world where people truly knew what it was like. It wasn’t a good feeling, residents say.
“It immediately triggers, for all of us … the emotions. It’s remembering the fear,” said Steve “Woody” Culleton, a member of the Paradise Town Council who lost his home in the 2018 fire. “It’s a tremendous sense of sadness, and you try to push it down.”
At the Paradise Rotary Club meeting on Wednesday, members acknowledged the Hawaii wildfire with a moment of silence. But they quickly moved on to how they could help.
Pam Gray, a Rotary Club member who lost her home in the 2018 fire, said the local club received more than $2.1 million in donations in the weeks after the blaze. The club used the money to hand out gift cards to people and pay for things such as tree removal. Now, Gray said, the club will be looking to return the favor to Hawaii.
“This whole community of people experienced what we did. If we continue to wallow in it every day, all day, then we can’t get better and our community can’t get better and we cannot help anyone else,” she said. “We went through that experience for a reason. And I believe it was to help other people.”
But others, including Laura Smith, have not felt an urge yet to jump in and help. Smith lost her home and most everything she owned in the 2018 fire. She said it was so overwhelming, it felt like she was “living in a lion’s mouth.”
“My sense is that the folks there just need space to process what just happened to them and to not be overflowing with platitudes with how everything is going to be fine, because it certainly will not be fine for a long time,” Smith said. “I mean, I am sure that they’ll recover. We did. I have. My kids have. But it’s still a wound that we struggle with sometimes.”
In Paradise on Wednesday, hundreds of people showed up for a ceremony to celebrate the opening of a new, state-of-the art building at the local high school. The school was one of the few places that did not burn in the 2018 fire, becoming an anchor of sorts for the community’s rebuilding efforts.
The school library displayed various yearbooks from past classes, allowing alumni a chance to remember happier times. Conversations soon drifted to the Hawaii fire, and then inevitably back to the Paradise fire, said Crick, who attended the event as president of the Paradise Unified School District school board.
Crick couldn’t help but wonder: Would the survivors of the Hawaii wildfires gather in five years to peruse their own past?
“What does it look like for their community?” she asked. “How do we support somebody even more secluded than we were when our fire happened?”
Mayor Greg Bolin said everyone he spoke to at the Paradise recovery event said their minds were on the victims in Hawaii.
“You know what their life is going to be like. … You know how hard and how difficult times are going to be,” he said. “But if they stay with it, there is hope on the other side. It does come together. And our town is coming back.”