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Our Beautiful Town Is Gone

The story of Paradise, California, and the deadliest wildfire in California history    

By Lauren Tarshis
From the September 2019 Issue

Learning Objective: Students will read an article about a devastating wildfire and identify key details that help them understand what people experienced during and after the event. 

Lexile: 600L-700L, 800L-900L
Guided Reading Level: S
DRA Level: 40
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Key Details: As you read, look for the details the author included to help you understand what the people of Paradise went through during and after a fire.

“This can’t be happening.”

That’s what 9-year-old Eleanor Weddig was thinking as she sat in the car with her father. It was the morning of November 8, 2018, and Eleanor was caught in the middle of what would become the deadliest wildfire in the history of California. All across the town of Paradise, thousands of houses were in flames. Trees burned like giant torches. Ash fell from the sky. The morning sky was midnight dark.

“Am I dreaming?” Eleanor kept asking herself. She pinched her leg,  hard, trying to wake herself up.

But Eleanor wasn’t asleep.

Tragically, the nightmarish scene in Paradise was all too real. Within hours, 85 people would be dead. Nearly 14,000 houses would be burned to the ground. Schools, playgrounds, offices, businesses,
the hospital—all would be destroyed.

And now Eleanor, her dad, Greg, and thousands of others were trying to escape before it was too late.

The town of Paradise was born about 170 years ago, just after the California Gold Rush of 1849. A lucky man had discovered gold in a mountain stream, about 100 miles south of Paradise. The news spread, and soon tens of thousands of people—nicknamed ’49ers—were rushing to California, their hearts filled with golden dreams.

Few struck it rich. But many fell in love with the California wilderness, the feeling of wide-open possibility in the American West. They built new towns, places like Paradise.

Over the decades, Paradise grew into a large and bustling town. Kids like Eleanor grew up hiking through the thick forests, fishing in the Feather River, and gobbling up pancakes at Debbie’s Restaurant, a local favorite.

On the morning of November 8, Eleanor got dressed for school and ate her cereal. Down the road, her classmate Lucas Fisher woke up as his mom, Holly, opened the curtains of his room. Across town, Paradise school-bus driver Kevin McKay steered a big yellow bus through the town’s narrow, tree-lined streets.

All seemed normal—except for the plume of smoke rising out of the forest in the distance.

Kevin spotted it around 6:45 a.m., as he drove his first morning bus route. So did Lucas’s mom, as she woke up Lucas for school.

Many people in town saw it. But few were very concerned. Fires are common in the forests around Paradise. Plus, this one seemed far away.

"This can’t be happening.”

That’s what 9-year-old Eleanor Weddig was thinking as she sat in the car with her dad. It was November 8, 2018, and Eleanor was caught in the middle of what would become the deadliest wildfire in the history of California. All across the town of Paradise, houses were in flames. Trees burned like giant torches. Ash fell from the sky. The morning sky was midnight dark.

“Am I dreaming?” Eleanor asked herself. She pinched her leg, trying to wake herself up.

But she wasn’t asleep.

The town of Paradise was born about 170 years ago. It was just after the California Gold Rush of 1849. A man had discovered gold in a mountain stream. The news spread, and tens of thousands of people—nicknamed ’49ers—rushed to California to find gold.

Few struck it rich. But many fell in love with the California wilderness. They built new towns, like Paradise.

Over time, Paradise grew into a large and bustling town. Kids like Eleanor grew up hiking through the forests, fishing in the Feather River, and eating pancakes at Debbie’s Restaurant, a local favorite.

On the morning of November 8, Eleanor got dressed for school and ate her cereal. Down the road, her classmate Lucas Fisher woke up as his mom, Holly, opened the curtains of his room. Across town, Paradise school-bus driver Kevin McKay steered a big yellow bus through town.

All seemed normal—except for the plume of smoke rising out of the forest in the distance.

Kevin saw it around 6:45 a.m., as he drove his first morning bus route. Holly saw it as she woke up Lucas for school.

Many people in town saw it. But few were very concerned. Fires are common in the forests around Paradise. Plus, this one seemed far away.

David Little/MediaNews Group/The Mercury News via Getty Images    

The Growing Cloud

The first sign of the fire was a black cloud of smoke that could be seen for miles around.

Bigger and Deadlier

And it was—about 10 miles away, near the little town of Pulga. Experts now think that sparks from a faulty electrical wire had ignited dry grass on a remote hillside.

Like so many devastating California wildfires, the smoldering brush quickly exploded into a raging wall of flames. Firefighters in Paradise mobilized. One of them was Josh Fisher, Lucas’s dad.

Josh has spent more than 22 years fighting dangerous wildfires. He stared at the growing cloud with alarm. “Man,” he thought, “this one could really do some damage.”

Wildfires have always been a fact of life in California—and across America’s West. But in recent years, America’s wildfires have become bigger and harder to fight. A major reason is climate change, scientists agree. The weather in California and around the Earth has been getting hotter and less predictable. Many of California’s biggest and deadliest fires have happened over the past decade. The last five years were the hottest on record. 

And it was—about 10 miles away, near the town of Pulga. Experts now think that sparks from a faulty electrical wire had ignited dry grass on a hillside.

Like many California wildfires, the smoldering bushes and twigs quickly became a raging wall of flames. Firefighters in Paradise mobilized. One of them was Josh Fisher, Lucas’s dad.

Josh has spent more than 22 years fighting wildfires. He stared at the growing cloud. “Man,” he thought, “this one could really do some damage.”

Wildfires have always been a fact of life in California—and across America’s West. But in recent years, America’s wildfires have become bigger and harder to fight. A major reason is climate change, scientists say. The weather in California and around the Earth has been getting hotter and less predictable. Many of California’s biggest and deadliest fires have happened over the past decade. The last five years were the hottest on record.

Karl Mondon/Digital First Media/The Mercury News via Getty Images

Battling the Blaze

Part of the army of firefighters called in from around the state to fight the fire.

Flaming Birds

Paradise had been threatened before by wildfires. In 2008, about 10,000 people from the town had to evacuate when a massive fire closed in. The town was lucky that time. The fire stopped at the Feather River along the town’s border. It protected Paradise like a watery shield. 

But as Josh Fisher sensed, the November 8 fire was different. It moved with terrifying speed. Every second, it devoured a chunk of land the size of a football field.

Even more dangerous, the powerful wind was picking up pieces of burning trees. Like flaming birds, they flew across the river, igniting fires wherever they landed. By 7:45 a.m., dozens of fires were burning in Paradise. And the main fire was closing in.

Josh called his wife and urged her to quickly drive herself, Lucas, and Lucas’s little sister, Sienna, to Chico, a small city 15 miles to the west. He then climbed onto a fire truck with two other firefighters.

Josh had risked his life fighting wildfires before. But nothing prepared him for what he would face in the hours to come. 

Paradise had been threatened before by wildfires. In 2008, about 10,000 people from the town had to evacuate when a huge fire closed in. The town was lucky that time. The fire stopped at the Feather River along the town’s border. The river protected Paradise like a watery shield.

But the November 8 fire was different. It moved with alarming speed. Every second, it ate up a chunk of land the size of a football field.

Even more dangerous, the strong wind was picking up pieces of burning trees. Like flaming birds, they flew across the river. Fires started wherever they landed. By 7:45 a.m., dozens of fires were burning in Paradise. And the main fire was closing in.

Josh called Holly. He urged her to quickly drive herself, Lucas, and Lucas’s sister, Sienna, to Chico, a nearby city. He then climbed onto a fire truck with two other firefighters.

Josh had fought wildfires before. But nothing prepared him for what he would face in the hours to come.

Randy Vazquez/Digital First Media/The Mercury News via Getty Images    

Devoured by Fire

As the roads filled with traffic, many people had to leave their cars, trucks, and buses and flee on foot.

Beloved Things

By 8:30 a.m., panic was spreading through Paradise, and thousands of people began to evacuate. Parents raced to schools to pick up their children. Kids whose parents couldn’t get to the schools were put on buses. Driver Kevin McKay left one of the town’s elementary schools with 22 children and two teachers on his bus. The sky was black, and now he could see fires burning all around.

“I thought to myself, ‘This could be it,’ ” he remembers.

Very quickly, the few main streets of Paradise became jammed with traffic. Lucas was lucky; he, his mom, and his sister made it to Chico quickly.

But with every minute that passed, escaping by car became more difficult on roads jammed with traffic.

Eleanor and her dad had gone to Eleanor’s school. But they quickly returned home and prepared to evacuate to Chico, where Eleanor’s mom, Nicole, was working. Her father grabbed the computer hard drive and photo albums. Eleanor went into her room. 

“Dad told me to get my most beloved things,” she says.

She chose the stuffed rabbit she’d had since she was a baby and a 3-D printed cat her best friend, Isla, had given her. She tried to bring all her stuffed animals. But there wasn’t enough room in the car—and time was running out.

By now streets were even more clogged. Some roads were completely blocked by burning tree limbs, electrical wires, and cars abandoned by terrified drivers.

Eleanor and her dad inched along in their car. Across town, Kevin McKay’s bus was also crawling through smoke, flames, and traffic. Kevin kept his mind clear as he passed burning houses and flaming trees. He tried not to think about how he and two teachers would keep 22 kids safe if they had to leave the bus. Instead, he thought of his mother and son, grateful that they were safe in Chico. But would he ever see them again?

As the morning ticked by, the people of Paradise were facing up to the shocking truth: Their beautiful town would soon be gone. And with escape routes blocked, many were facing a fight for their very survival. 

By 8:30 a.m., panic was spreading through Paradise. Thousands of people began to evacuate. Parents raced to schools to pick up their kids. Kids whose parents couldn’t get to the schools were put on buses. Driver Kevin McKay left an elementary school with 22 kids and two teachers on his bus. The sky was black. And now he could see fires burning all around.

“I thought to myself, ‘This could be it,’ ” he remembers.

The main streets of Paradise quickly became jammed with traffic. Lucas was lucky; he, his mom, and his sister made it to Chico.

But with every minute that passed, escaping by car grew more difficult. Roads were jammed with traffic.

Eleanor and her dad had gone to Eleanor’s school. But they quickly returned home and prepared to go to Chico. Eleanor’s mom was working there. Her dad grabbed the computer hard drive and photo albums. Eleanor went into her room.

“Dad told me to get my most beloved things,” she says.

She chose the stuffed rabbit she’d had since she was a baby and a 3-D printed cat her best friend, Isla, had given her. She tried to bring all her stuffed animals. But there wasn’t enough room in the car, and time was running out.

By now the streets were even more clogged. Some roads were blocked by burning tree limbs, electrical wires, and cars abandoned by terrified drivers.

Eleanor and her dad inched along in their car. Across town, Kevin McKay’s bus crawled through traffic. Kevin tried not to think about how he and two teachers would keep 22 kids safe if they had to leave the bus. Instead, he thought of his mother and son. They were safe in Chico. But would he ever see them again?

The people of Paradise were facing up to the shocking truth: Their beautiful town would soon be gone. And with escape routes blocked, many faced a fight for their lives.

Courtesy of Josh Fisher 

Josh Fisher on his truck, battling flames to protect hundreds of people taking refuge in a parking lot.  

Grueling Fight

As the fire burned across Paradise, hundreds of people took refuge in a supermarket parking lot, which Josh Fisher and other firefighters were protecting. Josh stood on his truck, battling back flames with a powerful hose, dousing new fires as they erupted. People cried in their cars. The heat was unbearable, the smoke so thick it was like breathing fire itself.

The grueling fight lasted for two hours, until finally traffic cleared enough that firefighters could lead the drivers out of town. It was only then that Josh could call Holly to tell her and Lucas and Sienna that he was safe. 

By that time, Eleanor and her dad had made it to Chico. Kevin McKay, after six harrowing hours, had delivered his 22 students to a parking lot outside of town. All students were reunited with their families.

The fire burned for 16 more days. It would be nearly six weeks before everyone was allowed back into Paradise to see what remained of their homes. Most found only ash and ruin.

As the fire burned across Paradise, hundreds of people took refuge in a supermarket parking lot. Josh Fisher and other firefighters protected the area. Josh stood on his truck, battling back flames with a hose, dousing new fires as they started. People cried in their cars. The heat was unbearable. The smoke was so thick it was like breathing fire itself.

The fight lasted two hours. Finally traffic cleared enough that firefighters could lead the drivers out of town. It was only then that Josh could call Holly to tell her and the kids that he was safe.

Eleanor and her dad made it to Chico. Kevin McKay, after six long hours, delivered his 22 students to a parking lot outside of town. All students were reunited with their families.

The fire burned for 16 more days. It would be nearly six weeks before everyone was allowed back into Paradise to see what remained of their homes. Most found only ash and ruin.

Courtesy of the Weddig Family

Moving Forward

Eleanor misses her home. But she takes comfort in the time she gets to spend with her grandmother’s horse, Topper.

Life Continues

In the months after the fire, the town of Paradise has remained mostly empty. On street after street, the scene is the same: houses burned to ash and twisted metal, burned cars that look like giant fossils.

Like thousands of others, Eleanor’s family lost their home; they live now in a trailer in Chico. Kevin also lost his house. Though the Fishers’ house survived, they can’t move back yet. The town’s water system was poisoned by toxic smoke during the fire.

But life continues. Schools were relocated to neighboring towns. There are playdates and field trips and birthday parties.

Kevin McKay is studying to become a high school history teacher—and still driving a school bus. Lucas’s dad, Josh, continues to fight fires. Nobody knows what the future will bring for Paradise. But many have discovered that the town’s strength didn’t come from the wood and bricks of the houses and buildings.

“It’s the people that make a town,” says Lucas’s mom, Holly. “We are resilient, and I’m certain we will rebuild a beautiful Paradise together. "

In the months after the fire, the town of Paradise has remained mostly empty. Houses are burned to ash and twisted metal. Burned cars look like giant fossils.

Like many others, Eleanor’s family lost their home. They now live in a trailer in Chico. Kevin lost his house too. The Fishers’ house survived, but they can’t move back yet. The town’s water system was poisoned by toxic smoke during the fire.

All the same, life goes on. Schools reopened in nearby towns. Kids have playdates. They go on field trips and have birthday parties.

Kevin McKay is studying to become a high school history teacher. He’s still driving a school bus too. Josh Fisher continues to fight fires. No one knows what the future will bring for Paradise. But many have discovered that the town’s strength didn’t come from the wood and bricks of the houses and buildings.

“It’s the people that make a town,” says Lucas’s mom, Holly. “We are resilient, and I’m certain we will rebuild a beautiful Paradise together.”    

This article was originally published in the September 2019 issue.  


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