After the Camp Fire: Rebuilding Paradise
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On the road to Paradise, you can see signs of a comeback. Rebuilding this town nestled in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada was far from certain after Paradise was lost to the inferno known as the Camp Fire.
The 2018 blaze killed 85 people and destroyed nearly 20,000 homes and businesses.
Mike Petersen, who manages the Ace Hardware Store that somehow survived the worst fire in California history, lost his home, like most people here. Now, when he looks out at his neighborhood, he sees all the skeptics being proven wrong.
“A year ago, these three homes weren’t there,” he told correspondent Ben Tracy. “A lot of people had their doubts about how many people would rebuild. It’s nice to see the progress for sure.”
Petersen is not only rebuilding; he’s building something he hopes will survive any future fires. 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 gonna worry less about your home?”
“Yes,” Petersen replied. “And my insurance company loves it.”
Vern Sneed is the owner of Design Horizons, a company building what it calls the Q Cabin, short for quonset hut. It takes its name from Quonset Point, a naval facility in Rhode Island where these corrugated metal-roofed buildings were first made during World War II. “It’s noncombustible,” Sneed said. “It’s a product that you can’t really light on fire.”
According to Sneed, the Q Cabin costs about the same as a house built with conventional 2x4s: “We would have a noncombustible siding out here. Then, we’ve got our noncombustible sheathing. Then, we’ve got our noncombustible structure. So, you would have to get through all of these noncombustible layers before you got to the inside.”
Scientists say most homes ignite in wildfires because embers get into window frames or in-between roof shingles. With the Q Cabin, those entry points don’t exist.
Tracy asked, “I understand why you won’t call this ‘fireproof,’ because you could never guarantee that. But this is about as close as you’re gonna get?”
“This is about as close as you can get,” Sneed replied.
Of course, getting too close to nature is part of the problem. Communities like Paradise are known as the Wildland Urban Interface, where the great outdoors collides with someone’s front door. Nearly 50 million homes are now in these areas which are prone to wildfires.
Tracy asked, “When you see all of the natural disasters, especially a state like this is facing, and what we know is coming as climate change accelerates, is this the future of home-building?”
“I think noncombustible housing is the future,” Sneed said.
But the Camp Fire left behind more than burned trees and empty lots; it also transformed a lot of the people here. “I think people just let go of their need to control, because we all learned that there is no such thing,” said Gwen Nordgren, president of Paradise Lutheran Church. It’s rebuilding, too – a four-plex Q Cabin that will replace the parsonage building that once housed their pastor and that was lost in the fire.
“Given what you’ve gone through, what is it like for people to see something being built back there?” asked Tracy.
“Well, it isn’t just something; it’s something like this,” Nordgren replied. “We’re so excited about it because it’s all gonna be new and beautiful and fire-resistant, which is on most people’s minds.”
They plan to rent it out to four families to generate income for the church, which lost nearly half its members after the fire. But now people are flooding back, making Paradise the fastest-growing city in California.
Nordgren said, “Nobody who was here gave up. This is Paradise, brother. Nobody gives up. There’s a spirit in this town that was here before the fire, and that’s here now, and it never went away.”
For more info:
- Q Cabin kits from Design Horizons
- Paradise Lutheran Church, Paradise, Calif.
Story produced by John Goodwin. Editor: Ben McCormick.
- Paradise Lost: Inside California’s Camp Fire (“60 Minutes”)
- For many climate change finally hits home (“Sunday Morning”)
- Climate refugees: The quest for a haven from extreme weather events (“Sunday Morning”)