Camp Fire’s toll doesn’t define town

When I moved to Chico in 2006, it was an open secret that the Chico News & Review’s editor lived in Paradise. The first month stemmed from necessity, my in-laws opening their home to a rapid relocator. The following years, residency became a choice, as I’d grown enamored of this town among the trees.

Every day, as I drove down Skyway into Chico, admiring the beauty that changed with the elevation, I couldn’t believe that people could live in a place like this.

My wife, Amy, and I, with little dog Bella, moved into a newly built apartment on Camino Lane. Friday nights in the fall, I’d walk a few blocks to join the whole town (or so it seemed) at Paradise High football games, in a stadium ringed by pines. We bought our first home in Paradise, near Oliver Road and Valley View Drive, and adopted three more rescue dogs—two from the town shelter, supported by a cadre of active volunteers.

Weekend mornings meant breakfast at Debbie’s, owned by Chico City Clerk Debbie Presson (a former Paradise mayor), served by her daughter Melissa; or the Comeback Diner, where we also got to know the owners and servers by name. Comeback closed well before the fire, another eatery taking its space. It was hard to keep a business on the Ridge.

Colorful characters abounded. The late Jerry Mendon ran a world-class and -renowned nursery in a residential neighborhood. Pam and Brian Gray, Paradise Rotary’s first couple, would get to conventions by Harley. There’s hardly a group that Loretta Griffin hasn’t joined or given her 2 cents’ worth. I met so many interesting, distinct individuals—at shop counters, in supermarket aisles and on Bille Park trails.

Paradise had its share of poverty and problems, predating the tragedy. Mayberry, it wasn’t. Yet, it also was characterized by pride—on display during Johnny Appleseed Days, Chocolate Fest, Gold Nugget Days—and generosity.

All my old residences are gone. The town, as it stood, is gone. The Camp Fire took a toll that numbers can’t represent. Paradisians made Paradise special; people, more than the place, define this town.

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