Around 10:45 a.m. on the morning of Nov. 8, 2018, as vehicles fleeing the Camp Fire were caught in gridlock on the Skyway leading out of Paradise, about 75 people found themselves driving another direction, toward Bille Park. They took refuge from the flames, wind and flying embers under the shelter of the metal pavilion until Cal Fire crews came in with tractors to clear the roads and allow them safe passage.
“Their best chance wasn’t trying to make it out at that point, so they went back, into the park,” said Dan Efseaff, director of the Paradise Recreation and Park District (PRPD). “Here’s a park we managed as a recreation resource—and it saved lives.”
Bille wasn’t the only one, either. In Concow, fire personnel ushered people to the open space at Crain Memorial Park, as it was safer than trying to escape through the flames.
Efseaff now looks at parks a little differently. With his background in restoration ecology, he appreciates the value of nature, as well as humans’ impact on it. He also sees the benefits people can gain from getting outside. Now he’s got some big ideas when it comes to increasing the number of parks and open spaces within PRPD’s jurisdiction with a dual purpose in mind: to increase the health and vibrancy of the area, and to create community defensible space in the event of a future fire.
To that end, he says he’s building partnerships with people and organizations such as the Paradise Irrigation District, Butte County Fire Safe Council and Bureau of Land Management. Still, there is a challenge inherent in the rebuilding process—as residents and businesses are clamoring to move back onto their properties, no one has yet presented a comprehensive goal for the community that doesn’t involve going back to what was there before.
“Paradise needs some leadership, to think radically in regard to planning,” Zeke Lunder, a wildfire expert and mapper based in Chico, told the CN&R. “Now is the time. Consolidate parcels, create big parks. If we rebuild on the same footprint, we’re insane.”
That’s just what Efseaff has in mind. Through a combination of easements, property purchases and land donations, he hopes to grow trail networks and bike paths, and to create spaces for additional recreational activities like rock climbing, kayaking and even zip-lining.
“We want to have programs that will take advantage of where we are in the landscape,” he said. “There’s so much therapeutic value in recreation—our community needs that.”
At the same time, introducing more open space within the communities PRPD covers—which is nearly the entire Camp Fire burn area, Efseaff noted—will serve as defensible space. And paths and trails can offer emergency vehicles access to otherwise hard-to-reach areas.
So far, Efseaff said, people have been receptive to discussing out-of-the-box ideas. “There’s a really positive collegial atmosphere,” he said. “Egos are gone.”
Working together is the key to reimagining life in such a fire-prone region. It’s no longer acceptable to stay isolated.
“In our area, property rights are very important,” Efseaff said. “But this episode, this catastrophe, opened some eyes. What happens on your neighbor’s property could have a huge impact on yours. Pre-fire, people in Paradise would say, ‘Concow is across the canyon—it doesn’t have an impact on me.’ But we’re much more connected than we thought before the fire. We need all the partners on board to tackle these tasks that seem insurmountable right now.”
Efseaff is also cognizant that the direction Paradise—and the rest of the Camp Fire zone—takes will inform communities across the state and beyond.
“I’m excited about this,” he said. “A lot of the solutions that happen in Paradise will have huge implications for our future. Paradise [will be] our model, an outdoor lab for the rest of California.”