When Shelley Price left for Chico for work at 7:20 a.m. on Nov. 8, she saw the smoke rising from the Feather River Canyon—on the side of Paradise where her parents lived.
“I called them immediately,” she said. “There was already ash in their yard.” By 8 a.m. her folks were evacuating and she was texting her husband Brian, who was at their home across town.
“I was thinking, ‘There’s no way the fire’s coming here. They’ll get it out. It’s a whole town,’ Brian said. “Then I heard an explosion, and went outside and it was like pure black everywhere. All I grabbed was the computer and the dog. … I hit Skyway and there was no turning around. It was five lanes going down a two-lane road.”
The home they’d purchased in 2016 was soon gone. All that survived on their property on the west side of Paradise was a small shed with a few stored items—bikes, some Christmas décor.
Sitting at the dining room table in their lovely newly built house, the shed is visible outside the window, as is the fifth-wheel RV the couple lived in with their dog Mango—and eventually their newborn son, August—while they waited for the new home to go up on the adjacent parcel they purchased from their next-door neighbor.
After the initial cleanup, the couple would visit their property on weekends for picnics with their dog, and right away they made the decision to rebuild there. “I think it was pretty early on, in January or February, where we were like, ‘We really like our land’,” Shelley said.
“There wasn’t much of a conversation,” Brian added. “We just both wanted to stay.”
“We really liked Paradise. Schools were still standing. Grocery stores were still here. The parks were still here,” Shelley said. “It was sort of the obvious choice that felt right for us.”
After 8 months living in an apartment in Chico, the Prices were on their property for nearly two years (in the RV and then a large loft constructed in a fire-scarred barn on the former neighbor’s lot) before their new home was finished.
According to the most recent numbers provided by the Town of Paradise, 1,963 homes and 420 units of multi-family housing have been built since the fire. Another 681 permits for houses and 148 for multi-family units have been issued.
For the Prices, life has returned to some semblance of normal, they said, but it is a different life in Paradise now.
“Lots of friends left, but we’re making new friends,” Shelley said. “Now we have a kid, and so I’m in the Moms of the Ridge club up here.”
They say the fire did change them, but not necessarily for the worse.
“I think early on we made a choice to have a positive outlook. I remember living in my sister’s house that week thinking, ‘This is happening to us no matter what’,” Shelley said. “Also … when it [came] down to it, so many people helped us. I helped people. It did renew my faith in people being kind. Now, my perspective on material objects and what’s important in life is a little different. I know what’s a luxury and what’s a necessity. I know it’s [about] our experiences together.
“But I do have to admit, there is some anxiety, and stress and pressure that’s been put on our life because of this. We’ve both been in a lot of therapy the past three years,” she added.
If there was another wildfire, would they choose to remain?
“We’ve talked about this before. If fire ever did happen again,” she said, “we’d probably do something different.”
Winter of despair; spring of hope
Big Mo on Shark Tank?
It’s been a tumultuous five years for Maurice Huffman (aka local bluesman Big Mo) and his family. Their Camp Fire recovery has taken a many turns—from the ruins of their Paradise-based military surplus business to temporary warehouses and temporary houses; and from several tours of Europe to reconnect with vendors to a sound stage in Culver City to take part in the ABC reality show.
Yes, Mo and his son Miles both appeared on the Oct. 6 episode of Shark Tank to pitch their StormBag invention—a one-pound canvas bag filled with a moisture-absorbing material that expands to 35 pounds when water is added, providing a convenient alternative to cumbersome sandbags for dealing with flooding
Millionaires Mark Cuban and Lori Greiner offered to invest—$200,000 for 30 percent stake—but when I met father and son at their Chico warehouse a few days later, Maurice admitted that before the show aired, both sides mutually agreed to not do a deal. “I know, it’s weird. It was great advertising. [We both] realized that we were better off without the deal.” The bag business might be going a little too well in wake of the episode. A note on the StormBag website (stormbag.co) reads: “We are approx. 100 days behind on fulfillment. Thank you for your support following our appearance on Shark Tank. We are doing our best to catch up and will ship orders in the order they are received.”
The StormBag operation takes up one small corner of the new home of Swiss Link military surplus, in a two-warehouse complex in south Chico. The newly remodeled permanent space is packed with an eclectic array of goods—from wool blankets and steel fuel cans to official Italian Air Force officers’ club porcelain dinnerware—and it appears the business has fully settled into its new home.
After the Camp Fire, all material evidence of the Huffman family’s nearly three decades in Paradise was wiped out. Maurice and his wife Robin (former town council member) lost their home, a music studio, two businesses—Mo Sound and all of its live-music sound equipment, and Swiss Link and the contents of its 40,000-square-foot warehouse—and three rental properties, one of which housed Miles and his wife Huan.
Maurice says he considered rebuilding the business in Paradise, but he said, “We just couldn’t find a place. Everything was still smoldering, and we had all these employees. We had to do something. There were some [shipping] containers on the water that had showed up. So we had to have a place. I had to do business right now.”
All but one of his employees had also lost their homes, so they set up temporary shop in a shared space, just to get orders fulfilled and some cash flowing. Then, not long after, the pandemic hit, and things really took off—for awhile. “Business went crazy during COVID,” Maurice said. “We have a lot of emergency supplies—food, gas cans. It went insane. Then the supply chain collapsed, and we went from having too much business to no business.” Prices for containers of goods spiked as much as ten times higher than normal.
In the last year or so, things have settled down to “normal,” Maurice said, which he credits to the support of his son, who shifted from his graphic design career to partnering with his dad.
“I couldn’t have done it without Miles. When he decided join me, that gave me all the energy I needed. He’s the real hero,” he said. “He now runs the business. He got us into the new century with all the new toys.”
The two Huffman families also chose to relocate their homes in the valley. Miles and Huan moved to Chico, and Maurice and Robyn found a new home on six acres just outside of Corning.
“When I go back [to Paradise] to visit, I realize what I missed was home, and my community and my family, and my friends and everything. And it’s not there anymore,” Miles said. “I have a new home now, and I got a new community now. I love it here. My wife and I are in a good spot.”
While Maurice says he loves his new property—especially for his dogs—and is happy that his business is back and employees are taken care of, he said he misses going into a restaurant or coffee shop in Paradise and knowing everyone in the place. “I didn’t know how important that was for daily life, to have that community. … That is worth so much,” he said. “[But] everybody left. They had no choice.”
Camp Fire 5-year commemorative events:
Nov. 4, 8-11 a.m.: Pancake breakfast (Aquatic Park)
Nov. 5, 10 a.m.-1 p.m.: Community daffodil planting (Paradise Community Park)
Nov. 6, 4-8 p.m.: Street Eats and Local Beats (with food trucks, Big Mo & the Full Moon Band and more at Paradise Performing Arts Center)
Nov. 7, 6-8 p.m.: Paint Your Paradise (Terry Ashe Recreation Center)
Nov. 8, 10:30 a.m.: 85 Seconds of Silence & sealing of community time capsule (Paradise Community Park)
RSVP at makeitparadise.org