“Long is the way and hard, that out of Hell leads up to light.” John Milton, Paradise Lost
The town of Paradise, California was burned to the ground on Friday, November 9, 2018. The town of 27,000 mostly retired blue-collar residents was in the path of a hillside brush fire powered by 40 mile-per-hour winds. The mayor thinks maybe 90% of the houses in town are lost. 23 people died, many burned so badly only bone fragments remain, and 100 are missing after 2 days. As of Sunday the fires are burning all the way down to Chico, 8 miles away, and are only 20% contained. It became the most devastating wildfire in California history, expanding to more than 100,000 acres (about 405 square kilometers, more than ten times the area of the Municipality of Chiang Mai). For two days fires spread at a rate of about one football field every 8 seconds. The most poignant images are long lines of burned cars caught in the fires, gridlocked on blocked roads and burned. Occupants abandoned the vehicles if they could and ran for their lives.
Paradise is gone.
Will it return? The human spirit is incredibly strong. But it will take more than a cheer-leading squad from the Chamber of Commerce to restore Paradise. The devastation is so total that the normal knee-jerk response, “Of course we will rebuild,” is strangled. Thousands of independent decisions will tell.
Nature will restore what nature destroyed, but nature has no special regard for the human species. If the next rains are heavy there will be floods and mudslides before green growth covers the hillsides again. Nature is ultimately inexorable.
“Scientists say these fires are worse than ever because of global warming,” the wire services announced. Of the 20 worst fires of this type in California, 13 were since 2000 and the largest was the one we’re talking about. At the same time another hillside conflagration was causing an even greater number of evacuations north of Los Angeles. Up to a quarter of a million were fleeing Malibu and surrounding areas, abandoning stretches of the state’s most expensive real estate and leaving mansions ablaze.
Human agency is accountable not only for the scope of the disaster in Paradise but also for the nature of responses to it.
The first comment from the top man in Washington DC was to heartlessly threaten to CUT funds, declaring the cause of the destruction was poor forest and water management, which, he implied, were none of his concerns. His intent was to divert attention from climate change, which he denies and which his policies are thwarting all efforts to remediate. California officials snapped back that the forests on fire are all owned by the national government or (10%) in private ownership, so Washington DC is the major keeper of these forests which have been subject to serious budget restrictions from on high. The Man’s wiggling reminds me of a predecessor evicted from Paradise who similarly protested, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
Who are the keepers in Paradise?
The first to rush in as everyone was rushing out were fire crews. Although they lost the war to save Paradise, they won some battles. A few houses, the high school and the main hospital building remain. When there were no more ambulances, doctors and nurses drove their own cars through the fires lining the road to take critically ill hospital patients to safety as the cardiac care unit was gutted behind them. Churches and public buildings in Chico opened doors to take in refugees. 27 thousand permanently displaced persons is a lot to take care of. Another equal amount is being evacuated there in Butte County as the fires spread and threaten.
But this is no short-term crisis. Paradise is lost. The refugees cannot go back where they came from. They will be hungry day after day. Who will be their keepers next?
Who will keep the promises of Paradise when Paradise is lost?
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.