At sunset last Tuesday (Oct. 15), volunteers began removing and preserving the Camp Fire memorial crosses along the Skyway near the southwestern edge of Paradise.
The plan, undertaken by Gold Nugget Days Inc.—which oversees the Gold Nugget and Depot museums—was to complete the task with as little fanfare as possible, Executive Director Mark Thorp said, adding that some families of the deceased noted their preference to keep the media at bay.
By around 8:30 p.m., all of the crosses, which Thorp described as being in fair to poor condition, were collected and placed into storage at an undisclosed location.
“We’re holding them in trust in the event that a family—next of kin—would like to come and recover those,” Thorp said. “We will have them available for them.”
But the timing—less than a month before the Nov. 8 anniversary of the Camp Fire—and lack of public notice about the operation have left some questioning the move. Why not wait? And how much input will the public have in other memorial decisions, such as the proposed $1.5 million Hope Plaza?
The memorial crosses had been placed by Greg Zanis, whose Illinois-based Crosses for Losses commemorates victims of tragedy and disaster. Zanis placed memorials, for instance, for the 58 people gunned down at a concert in Las Vegas in 2017.
Thorp, who also is employed by the Paradise Ridge Chamber of Commerce, said the removal of the crosses was about three months in the making. Multiple groups, including the museum, the Chamber of Commerce and the town, had been approached regarding the crosses’ deterioration, he said. They were constructed of laminate, and the glue holding them together was failing after nearly a year in the elements.
Local chamber officials consulted with their counterparts in Las Vegas, asking how they’d gone about collecting memorials there, Thorp said. Officials learned that historical societies and museums had been tapped for the job.
Further, the site where the Camp Fire crosses were placed raised its own set of issues. Thorp said Zanis placed the crosses on private property without consulting the owner. He suggested potential liability issues may have been a concern.
The upcoming anniversary of the Camp Fire did not weigh heavily in the museum’s decision to collect the crosses, Thorp said.
“It was more of, we have inclement weather coming, we have a failure of the crosses … and we need to get them in as soon as possible with a number of volunteers that we have currently available,” he said. “That was the consideration.”
A letter notifying families of the crosses’ pending removal was circulated through the Butte County Coroner’s Office, Thorp said. However, at least one family told the CN&R it did not receive such a letter.
Jed Amendola, whose mother, 56-year-old Lolene Rios of Paradise, died in the fire, said he learned of the removal after the fact but has since been in contact with the museum to sort out the matter and collect his mother’s cross. Amendola said he regularly visited the memorial on the Skyway, and he had planned to visit the site on Nov. 8 to commemorate the anniversary.
“I honestly think the timing is a little odd,” he said. “But other than that, I don’t have any issues.”
This comes at a time when town officials and community groups are discussing plans for a permanent Camp Fire memorial. The Town Council on Tuesday (Oct. 22) threw its support behind one such proposal—the Hope Plaza memorial project—which would be constructed on town-owned property at 6148 Skyway, which is a small, vacant triangle-shaped lot downtown that’s wedged between Foster Road and the Skyway.
The council voted 3-2 to enter a license agreement with the Rebuild Paradise Foundation—a nonprofit which is working with the Hope Plaza Memorial steering committee—to use the property for the memorial site. Councilmen Steve Crowder and Michael Zuccolillo cast the dissenting votes.
The project, which was first presented to the council in August by Dana Gajda, past president of the Paradise Rotary Club and member of the club’s foundation board, and Greg Melton of the Chico-based Melton Design Group architecture firm, would include both a “reflection sanctuary” honoring the dead and a “hero plaza” paying tribute to first responders and other aid providers.
Designs include a basalt obelisk monument and a water fountain forming a wall of water in the reflection sanctuary. Trees also would be planted. The project’s price tag is estimated at $1.5 million, which Gajda told the council on Tuesday would not include any taxpayer money. Long-term maintenance also was proposed to be paid for by outside groups.
Melton estimated an 18-month timeline to complete the project, with design tweaks possible over the next several months as the memorial is further introduced to the public.
But while the project’s design was met with praise from the council, its location and the relative lack of public input became sticking points for Crowder and Zuccolillo.
Crowder said he’s heard from constituents who noted concerns regarding parking and pedestrian traffic.
“I know it complicates things when you open it up to public input or what have you, but I think we need to get some input from the residents on at least the location,” he said.
Zuccolillo echoed him.
“This is going to be our memorial,” he said. “This is our 9/11 [monument] to the town. … I would just like to see it in a spot that A) kind of encompasses all that, and B) it’s what the community wants.”
Councilwoman Melissa Schuster said she views the memorial as a gift to the town, and it’s a shovel-ready project.
“It’s up to us to demonstrate to the residents and businesses thinking about coming back to Paradise that the town will not hinder their progress over small things that can be addressed within the process,” Schuster said, adding, “I don’t see the downside to allowing the group at their expense to beautify the space in our town that has been an eyesore for many, many years.”
A ceremonial groundbreaking for Hope Plaza is slated for Nov. 8. The event had been scheduled before the council’s supportive vote on Tuesday.