How Paradise Wildfire Survivors Are Helping Rebuild In The Wake Of Disaster

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“I lost every one of the houses that I’d ever lived in, my school, and any job I’d ever worked at.”

Those are the words of Paradise, California, artist Jessie Mercer. She continues, “19,000 of my friends, who I used to live with, are now living elsewhere.”

This is the harrowing reality for nearly 20,000 Americans ten months after one of the U.S.’s deadliest and biggest wildfires, the Camp Fire Wildfire of November 2018. During that span, the story of what happened in Paradise, California, has faded from the media’s gaze. The news cycle moved on a long time ago. Yet thousands of people are still, technically, refugees. Paradise residents are still scratching out an existence in hotels, tents in parking lots, and off the grid, camping on the charred land.

“19,000 people left the town in two hours and 56 minutes,” Mercer says. “Somehow only 87 of us died.”

This is a marvel when you think about it. 87 people of the nearly 20,000 evacuated. But that’s not the end of this story. It continues to this day and while many moved on — seeking a fresh start and untarnished memories — some, like Mercer, stuck around to help rebuild and, perhaps more importantly, heal as the flames turned to ash.

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Mercer had temporarily moved to nearby Chico when the fires swept through, destroying her Paradise home and studio space. Afterward, she found herself at loose ends.