Rebuilding the Ridge

Photo by Meredith J. Cooper

Frank Lewis (left), Julian Martinez and Michael Hart of Nor Cal Development have a plan to deal with a lack of clean water in Paradise: They’ll install storage tanks at residences and supply water until the irrigation district’s system is up and running.

When the Camp Fire hit, Isaiah Mangold looked out a window at work, at Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., and saw an ominous cloud of smoke in the air. He drove home to Paradise and he and his wife, Laura Sutherland-Mangold, started packing “nonchalantly.” They’d been evacuated before and knew the drill; they expected to be back home that night. Mother Nature had other plans, however, and the couple, their two kids and their dog ended up staying with Mangold’s parents in Red Bluff for several weeks, before moving in to the RV park set up by his employer at Meriam Park.

The experience was chilling, but they made it out without incident. For Mangold, whose brother’s property is next door to his, whether to rebuild was never a question. He’s not alone—many like him hope to return to the Ridge, but the process is daunting and complicated. The town of Paradise, Butte County and a new local firm have stepped up to try to make it easier for people to move forward, giving hope to those committed to returning to the area.

“We have a pretty strong group of friends and family determined to rebuild and be together,” Mangold said. “The reality is, if we don’t rebuild, everyone will be spread to the wind. Nobody wants that.”

In the months following the fire, the Mangolds weighed their options for rebuilding, and then a friend turned them on to Nor Cal Development Inc., a new company formed in the wake of the Camp Fire with the singular goal of rebuilding the Ridge. Mangold didn’t know what to expect from their first meeting, but it didn’t take long before he was sold. These guys were the real deal, he said.

Frank Lewis and Michael Hart both graduated from Chico State and have worked locally as contractors for years. Lewis spent much of his career in the Bay Area before moving back to the North State; Hart has built several well-known structures, including Chico State’s Student Health Center. Now, they share a vision to shape the residential landscape of the Ridge.

“This was an enormous natural disaster … and it’s hard to conceive of what that means,” Hart said during a recent interview at Nor Cal Development’s headquarters. “We have a unique perspective on what rebuilding Paradise means.”

The pair’s new venture aims to encapsulate all aspects of rebuilding—from debris removal to handing over house keys—under a single umbrella. The goal: to streamline the process for both residents and local building departments while providing a road map for positive development and growth in the Camp Fire burn area.

“A lot of people have never built a house, or even dreamed of building a house,” Hart said. “We can’t help everyone, but we are giving families hope—they love their community and they want to go back home.”

At Nor Cal Development, which occupies a 20,000-square-foot building off of Oro-Chico Highway at the Midway, business is happening fast. Hart and Lewis started by creating seven different floor plans. Clients can choose among those, then customize. Limiting the options makes the process simpler for people who are new to homebuilding while also easing pressure on building officials—after a plan has been approved once, it’s smooth sailing. In fact, they’ve already submitted plans for Mangold’s house and a few others.

The company aims to pave the way for positive growth. Hart and Lewis estimate they will hire about 100 workers, from laborers to electricians to surveyors, with the goal of employing people who were displaced and helping them rebuild. Julian Martinez is a case in point. Two days before the fire, which claimed his home, he lost a bid for a Paradise Town Council seat. His campaign platform was based on fire prevention and boosting the economy, two things he’s now working toward as Nor Cal Development’s vice president of operations.

“It was a pretty seamless transition,” he said.

More than anything, the team sees itself as bringing hope to the community.

“This is better than anything I’ve ever been a part of,” Lewis said.

“We hope to make an impact on the community as a whole, to set an example,” Hart added.

The town of Paradise has received eight house plans post-fire thus far, according to Colette Curtis, spokeswoman for Paradise. No permits will be approved until debris removal has been completed—Mangold said his lot was cleared last week. Turnaround for permit approval tends to be a couple of weeks. At Tuesday night’s meeting (March 12), the Town Council approved a contract with 4Leaf Inc. to bolster its Building Department. That means more staff to accommodate the added workload. They will start work in a couple of weeks.

“Prior to the fire, we handled about 30 building permits a year,” Curtis said. “We are expecting much, much more than that.”

The county already has contracts with firms to handle extra workloads, though it’s possible it could hire additional temporary employees, said Casey Hatcher, county spokeswoman. As for codes and fees, nothing has changed. Impact fees, Hatcher explained, have been waived in both Paradise and the unincorporated areas because rebuilding won’t add an impact—it’s just replacing it. Paradise will consider whether to alter its building codes, but those discussions will take time, Curtis said.

“We’re working to develop a vision for the community,” Curtis said. “We want codes to be as safe as they can be, while also being appropriate for the place that we live in.”