Tahoe resident Genna Masters awoke to a photo on social media one morning this fall: It was the sky exploding over a canyon in Paradise. She thought the shot snapped by a friend looked like the bursting sunrise, which often created spectacular early morning views over the hills and valleys.
But that morning it wasn’t the sunrise.
It was the tragic Camp Fire ripping through the region with the wind behind it, pushing flames from the Northeast near the Feather River Canyon dangerously close to the community of Paradise at an alarming speed. Many had just hours to pack up and leave before their homes burned to ash.
The image hit close to home for Genna. Though she lived for only two years in Paradise while growing up, the quaint community is where many of her fondest family memories took place, as her extended family has much deeper roots there. Three sets of aunts and uncles, and several cousins had homes, families, and businesses in town. One such home, which had been in the family for over 30 years, served as the place the entire clan would return to every Christmas to celebrate.
In the end, all three uncles’ homes were lost, along with one family business. Genna’s uncle who’d stayed the longest trying to protect his home spent several hours brushing pine needles off his roof and clearing brush from the structure to no avail. Later, as he was stuck in traffic trying to escape, he would have to keep getting out of the car to brush away pine needles set aflame by burning embers that had fallen on his car.
This isn’t your average feel-good story. And this isn’t just Genna’s family story, either. This is the story of 54,000 people displaced, 14,000 homes burned to the ground, and over 150,000 acres lost to one of the largest and deadliest fires in California history. This is a story of climate change, of the deadly effects of lost defensible space due to modern development, and of a nation lacking set procedures for relief and aid in crisis. This is a story completed by hundreds of cell phone videos now surfacing as frightened civilians ran for their lives through towering flames in gridlock traffic. At least 86 are dead. Thousands remain homeless. The town of Paradise was nearly entirely burned to the ground.
HOPE FOR THE FUTURE
The 14th Dalai Lama said, “There is a saying in Tibetan that ‘tragedy should be utilized as a source of strength.’ No matter what sort of difficulties, how painful an experience is, if we lose our hope, that’s our real disaster.”
When Genna visited nearby Chico a week after the fire started, ashes were still raining from the sky. “It was kind of eerie, and I wasn’t even in Paradise,” she remembered. Later, after seeing videos of the lost family homes, she recalled the shock of seeing everything literally flattened to the ground.
Genna brought supplies for her family including clothing donated by her girlfriends and dog crates for the local shelter donated by Tahoe residents. Thousands of people were living in parking lots, in makeshift camps. And it wasn’t federal agencies helping with their feet on the ground, it was the community.
“There was a huge encampment in the Walmart parking lot because they didn’t have anywhere to go,” she said. “There were shelters but they were full. FEMA wasn’t really that present until a couple weeks after. It was more the other parts of the community that were coming together.”
It is that exact sense of community that will help these people thrive again one day.
“A lot of people have lived there their whole life,” Genna said. “Once things start to rebuild, I think that will be a sign of hope. I think them coming together as a community and deciding to rebuild will be hopeful for them; that their friends and neighbors are deciding to actually stay.”
In the wake of the fire, the Tahoe community, perhaps realizing parallels in our own vulnerability to a similar disaster, stepped up to help in full force.
“We can relate because this is something that could easily happen to our town because we live in a forested area,” Genna said. “Truckee/Tahoe’s people have such a kind spirit and they are so helpful, not even just when it comes to tragedies like this, but on a daily basis. People are smiling, saying hi, and willing to help their neighbor and their friends, so I’m not surprised that they really came together to help.”
What follows is just a tiny light at the end of the tunnel. It is a glimmer of hope that the people who still have something are willing to give to those who have nothing, and an inspiration that when people work together, positive change is possible.
On the ever-popular Truckee Tahoe People Facebook page, dozens posted offering to collect and drive supplies down to Chico for victims of the fire throughout the month of November.
On Nov. 13, Tahoe Nordic Search and Rescue performed an assist, sending eight volunteer community search and rescue team members to Paradise. Various teams from TNSAR continued search efforts until Nov. 25. A report submitted by Dirk Schoonmaker detailed “the damage in the area was horrific,” but that they did find and rescue a living cat under the seat of a burned truck.
In mid-November, Tahoe Truckee Community Foundation put out a call for homeowners willing to open up homes to evacuees via Airbnb. At the time, over 500 people on the site had already offered to house people for free.
EATS food truck held a donation event on Nov. 18, collecting and donating 100 percent of proceeds from food sales that day to the North Valley Community Foundation. They raised over $2,000.
On Nov. 28, locals including Moonshine’s Amie Quirarte hosted the Camp Fire Relief Fundraiser at Truckee Philosophy, raising $15,000 for relief efforts.
Truckee-Tahoe Pay It Forward teamed up with FiftyFifty Brewing Co. for a raffle to benefit fire victims on Nov. 30. The event raised $6,500 which was donated to the Golden Valley Community Foundation.
And, in the spirit of what we love best in Tahoe, on Dec. 14 Sugar Bowl resort held a Toys4Tots drive, and offered a free lift ticket and rentals to the victims of the fire.
So, while rebuilding has not begun quite yet, all Paradise is not lost. It’s the spirit of hope that makes all the difference.