After the campfire: rebuilding paradise

On the road to paradise, you’re seeing signs of a comeback. Nestled in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, the rebuilding of this city was far from certain after Paradise was lost to the inferno known as the Campfire.

The 2018 fire killed 85 people and destroyed nearly 20,000 homes and businesses.

In November 2018, a wildfire ripped through Paradise, California. About 95 percent of the city was lost.

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Mike Petersen, who runs the Ace Hardware Store that somehow survived the worst fire in California history, lost his home, like most people here. When he looks at his neighborhood now, he sees that all skeptics are wrong.

“A year ago, these three houses weren’t there,” he told correspondent Ben Tracy. “A lot of people had their doubts about how much people would rebuild. It’s nice to see the progress for sure.”

Petersen isn’t just renovating; he builds something he hopes will survive future burns. He and his wife are about to move into a two-bedroom house that looks a bit like a modern barn. They like the architecture, but the real selling point is that it’s built not to burn.

Tracy asked, “Do you feel like you’re going to worry less about your house?”

“Yes,” replied Petersen. “And my insurance company loves it.”

AQ Cabin built in Paradise, California.

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Vern Sneed is the owner of Design Horizons, a company that builds what it calls the Q Cabin, short for quonset cabin. It takes its name from Quonset Point, a Rhode Island naval facility where these corrugated metal-roofed buildings were first made during World War II. “It’s non-combustible,” Sneed said. “It’s a product you can’t really set on fire.”

According to Sneed, the Q Cabin costs about the same as a house built with conventional 2x4s: “We would have a non-combustible siding here. Then we have our non-combustible casing. Then we have our non-combustible structure. So, you would go through all these non-combustible layers. must come before you go in.”

Scientists say that most homes catch fire in wildfires because embers get into window frames or between roof shingles. With the Q Cabin, those entry points don’t exist.

Tracy asked, “I can see why you wouldn’t call this ‘fireproof’, because you can never guarantee that. But this is about as close as you’re going to get?’

“This is about as close as you can get,” Sneed replied.

Vern Sneed of Design Horizons shows correspondent Ben Tracy the non-combustible materials used in a Q Cabin.

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Getting too close to nature is, of course, part of the problem. Communities like Paradise are known as the Wildland Urban Interface, where the outdoors collide with one’s front door. Nearly 50 million homes are now in these areas prone to wildfires.

Tracy asked, “When you see all the natural disasters, especially a state like this, and what we know is coming as climate change accelerates, is this the future of home building?”

“I think non-combustible homes are the future,” Sneed said.

Rebuilding Paradise, California.

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But the campfire left more than burnt trees and empty lots; it also changed a lot of the people here. “I think people just let go of their need for control because we’ve all learned that there’s no such thing,” said Gwen Nordgren, president of the Paradise Lutheran Church. It’s also in the process of rebuilding: a four-part Q Cabin that will replace the rectory that once housed their pastor, which was lost in the fire.

“Given what you’ve been through, what’s it like for people to see something being built there?” asked Tracy.

“Well, it’s not just anything; it’s like… this oneNordgren replied. “We’re so excited about it because it’s all going to be new, beautiful and fire-resistant, which is what most people are concerned about.”

A four-plex is being built for the Paradise Lutheran Church.

Design horizons

They plan to rent it out to four families to generate income for the church, which lost nearly half of its members after the fire. But now people are flooding back, making Paradise the fastest growing city in California.

Nordgren said, “No one who was here gave up. This is Paradise, brother. No one gives up. There’s a ghost in this city that was here before the fire, and it’s here now, and it never left.”

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Story produced by John Goodwin. Editor: Ben McCormick.

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