To an outsider, it may have looked like an ordinary fall festival, with pumpkins, music, food and a kids zone. But the Paradise Revival Festival, held October 12 in Paradise, California, was so much more than that. It was an opportunity for a traumatized community to come together for healing, workshops, and recovery nearly one year after the most deadly and destructive fire in California history.
For many of the 600 attendees, it was the first time they’d seen their friends and neighbors since the Nov. 8, 2018 Camp Fire raged through the town, killing 85 people, destroying more than 150,000 acres and incinerating 11,500 — or 90 percent — of the area’s homes.
When the transmission line went down, nature became kindling. “Climate change might not have been the spark, but it set the conditions.”
The festival was created by Allen Myers, a filmmaker who grew up in this small, rural town, about 90 miles north of Sacramento. As a child, he learned to fly fish and pan for gold in the crystal clear waters of the Feather River. The natural world shaped him. Though he’d moved away by the time the fire swept through town last year, consuming his childhood home, the devastation drew him back.
He wanted to offer his experience as a filmmaker to document the aftermath. In the process, he recognized that he had more to bring to the table, and began meeting one-on-one with survivors to help them meet their basic needs. As those needs evolved, so did his work. “That’s when I moved towards community organizing, seeing the need and importance for the community to come together and be in conversation and mourn with each other,” he says.
Making a statement about solar
While the festival offered a chance for community members to reconnect, it was also an opportunity to make a statement. For Myers, solar power was one of those statements. In recent years, climate change has been contributing to the frequency and duration of wildfires, including the Camp Fire. Because of that, he wanted to avoid using a power source that in turn contributes to greenhouse gases and global warming.
Not to mention the obvious: The Camp Fire was sparked by a Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) transmission line. On the day of the conflagration, the weather was unseasonably warm, dry and windy. When the transmission line went down, nature became kindling. “Climate change might not have been the spark, but it set the conditions,” says Myers.
In the months leading up to the festival, Myers put out a call on social media seeking a solar energy company to power the festival. That call was answered by Footprint Project, a partner of Arcadia Power that supports sustainable disaster recovery and deploys renewable energy systems to supply power to people in need. As seven bands from the town played — many of whom had lost instruments in the fire — the Footprint Project powered the stage.
In a not-so-coincidental twist, in the days leading up to the festival, PG&E turned off power around the region due to dry, windy conditions in order to reduce the risk of wildfires. Power was restored by the time of the festival, but Myers was thrilled that he didn’t need to use it, thanks to the Footprint Project. Following the festival, the Footprint Project’s mobile solar station went directly from long-term recovery support in Paradise to active relief efforts in American Canyon, where it’s providing off-grid energy to those impacted by the Kincade Fire.
Around Paradise, it’s impossible to miss the signs of devastation. Residents still can’t drink the water, and so many businesses and homes have been leveled. The population is a fraction of what it was, having gone from about 26,000 to just over 2,000 residents. Still, hints of renewal are appearing. A new restaurant — Nic’s — has opened in Paradise, and new houses are showing signs of completion around town. Some people who left are choosing to return, and those who never left are learning to accept a new normal.
Unfortunately, Paradise’s “new normal” is one that communities across the country and world are increasingly facing as natural disasters become more frequent and powerful. That’s why the town of Paradise is committed to ensuring any rebuilding that happens is done with resilience in mind. And truly rebuilding sustainably and resiliently will require an integrated, cross-sector effort that begins with a sincere commitment from the local community. There are no silver bullets to making a town completely disaster-proof.
Myers doesn’t expect to see any kind of change happen quickly. But he believes that there are new opportunities for the residents here to shape the future of the town. After the fire, an urban design firm called Urban Design Associates walked the town through a visioning process and helped develop a community recovery plan. The sessions have given Myers a sense of optimism that with intentional rebuilding, they can work towards an even better future — one that they all want, as a community.
He thinks back to the day of the fire, and he recalls seeing video footage of cars surrounded by flames picking up strangers on foot; waiting in line patiently to get out of town; driving back into the danger zone to help their neighbors. Those images may always haunt him. But they also give him hope.
“Every time I think about it. it gives me chills. The whole town was a hero that day. Everybody stood up and made sure others got out,” he says. “When people ask me, ‘What’s your hope for Paradise?’ I tell them I hope that that neighborly love continues.”