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Survivors of California’s deadliest wildfire haunted as new blaze nears: ‘I can’t do it again’

Former residents of Paradise hoped their new home would keep them safe. But this summer’s blaze threatens once again.

Desiree Maurer stands at the place in Westwood, Calif., she called home. Maurer relocated to Westwood after the 2018 Camp Fire in Paradise, Calif. (Kyle Grillot for The Washington Post)
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Stacey Hoffman has barely slept the past week, as the Dixie Fire edged closer to her new home in Chester, Calif. She spent nights by the window, haunted by her hellish escape from the 2018 fire that razed thousands of houses, killed at least 85 people and destroyed her community of Paradise in 2018.

She left briefly — for a motel in Paradise, where she thought she might be safer. But work quickly brought Hoffman back to Chester, she said. She sobbed the whole ride home.

“I didn’t want to have to run for my life again,” the 39-year-old said Tuesday, as the Dixie Fire burned across the lake from her town. “I can’t do it again.”

Dozens of families forced from Paradise and surrounding communities about three years ago have resettled in small towns around Lake Almanor, about 40 miles away, finding comfort in stunning wilderness and shared pain among survivors. But as California’s biggest blaze of the year raged toward that haven this week, they relived a nightmare. Their repeat trauma underscores wildfires’ growing, climate change-fueled threat in the West.

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“We accepted that it could burn again,” Jack Montgomery said of his house in the woods near Chester, a lakeside community of little more than 2,000 that reminded him and his wife of Paradise before the fire. “We just never thought it’d be this soon.”

Holly Ratliff, a single mother of three, fought to stay in the town she grew up in even if it meant that on some nights she did not know where she would sleep. (Video: Alice Li, Whitney Leaming/The Washington Post)

This time, former residents of Paradise said they were prepared. Stifling smoke, bright orange skies and fears of another displacement kindled dread. Awful, precise memories of the Camp Fire flooded back: A smell like burned chicken. Propane tanks exploding around people like gunfire as gridlocked traffic inched away from a disaster that caught Paradise off guard.

With evacuation orders still limited, each family has its own calculus about whether and when to leave. Some people fled early to avoid bad air. For one couple, echoes of the Camp Fire became unbearable when embers the size of quarters rained down. Others are not budging, hoping an army of firefighters, the lake and better luck will keep them safe.

“I’m just so tired of fleeing and running for my life,” said Dan Breland, who has decided to remain in Susanville in his recreational vehicle.

Dixie is the latest trigger to send him back into counseling and onto medication, Breland said, as Northern California’s continued wildfires cause his post-traumatic stress disorder from the Camp Fire to flare. He had just five minutes to evacuate in November 2018 — and as the flames consumed the trees near his home, he said, he was seconds away from losing his wife, their then-16-year-old son and their dog, Meatball.

He managed to carry them over to an RV, he said, and they fled. For Breland, it feels like devastation “follows wherever I go.”

Memories from 2018 also take a toll on Hoffman, who recalls a school bus filled with children stuck in fire-engulfed streets; a cacophony of honking and cries for help; and most of all, her son’s question: “Mom, we’re going to die in this, aren’t we?” She evacuated the area with fresh wounds from a cancer surgery, she said, her voice breaking as she described the details. At one point, her father’s truck — trailing behind her — seemed lost in the flames.

Hoffman and her family made it to nearby Chico, but their lives were upended. Her son spent his birthday and Thanksgiving in a travel trailer, she said. The hospital where she once worked was burned to the ground, and her still-standing home only fueled her survivor’s guilt.

“I wish that it just would have been an empty lot, and I could have just walked away and not had to have spent a year there,” she said. “Why do I have a house to go to? I’ve had people ask me, ‘What is so special about you?’ ”

Moving eventually to Chester, she said, she found an outpouring of support from a community where “it doesn’t matter where you come from, it matters who you are.” It seemed perfect.

Then the Dixie Fire exploded, prompting evacuation “warnings” advising Chester residents to pack for a quick exit and get out now if they may need extra time. “You don’t know what the right choice is, don’t know what’s going to happen,” Hoffman said.

On Tuesday, she thought she could finally get a good night’s sleep after an encouraging sign: some afternoon rain. But the broader future seems grim. The Camp Fire “was just the beginning,” she said. “That was just a warning.”

With the Dixie Fire 23 percent contained as of Wednesday and the cause under investigation, officials said the inferno of well over 200,000 acres threatens more than 10,000 homes but has not injured or killed any civilians. Authorities say extreme drought and “historically low” moisture levels are making a massive emergency response harder.

Desiree Maurer’s voice shook Tuesday as she recounted going to get a cup of coffee and encountering the “whole village popped up overnight” to fight Dixie: crews, porta-potties, rows of firetrucks. Cal Fire, the state fire agency, says more than 5,000 people are assigned to the wildfire.

“I seen all that and just started crying,” said Maurer, 48, who landed northeast of Lake Almanor in Westwood after escaping Paradise with her partner and six Jack Russell terriers.

For many Camp Fire victims, the Lake Almanor area had been a place of recovery, with a support network and regular meetups for survivors. One time, they got a “taste of home” with catering from the Chico location of a beloved Mexican restaurant that burned down in Paradise. A real estate agent started a local Facebook group for those who fled the Camp Fire and shared with them her own story of crushing loss: Her parents and husband died in a 2001 plane crash.

“This is a community that understands,” said Paradise exile Montgomery, 67. Losing his house again would hurt, he said, but most of all he is scared to lose a painfully rebuilt sense of belonging.

He said he and his wife are staying with a friend, another former resident of Paradise who made a new home hours north in Crescent City, Calif. It is a reminder that while the town may be destroyed, its bonds are strong. Montgomery said his wife and the friend are part of a now-far-flung Paradise book club that meets over video.

He knows from the Camp Fire how a blaze can sweep in near-instantly but said he is increasingly hopeful the Dixie Fire will stay at bay.

If things get worse: “We did it once,” he said. “We can do it again.”

Some former residents of Paradise say they cannot imagine leaving California even as the pressure from wildfires grows.

“We chose to move back to where the trees are,” said Randy Wright, who settled with wife Heidi in the Lake Almanor Country Club community. A sign declares their new home “Almost Paradise.” Like their close friends the Montgomerys, they have worked to re-create the sense of kinship they felt in their torched old town — where they lived for 47 years and had nephews, nieces, grandchildren, cousins and parents.

Unless an evacuation order is issued for the Dixie Fire, the Wrights said, they will “ride out the storm” by the lake.

“This is hard to go through. … But for me, it is a place that is home,” Wright said.

For other families, recent blazes have stoked doubts. One woman said the Dixie Fire will probably speed her and her husband’s search for a new living situation. Another couple moved months ago.

After the Camp Fire spared their house but not their neighborhood, Mike and Bobbi Kemp found a new paradise way up in the mountains of Greenville, a short drive from Lake Almanor. They wanted a healthier environment for their then-4 year-old daughter, Evalyn, who has Angelman syndrome, a genetic disorder that compromised her lungs.

“We’re in a good place,” Mike said at the time. Bobbi said they felt blessed to find their “permanent home.”

That all changed with a series of fires: the Walker Fire in 2019, the North Complex Fire in 2020 and then the Copper Fire, right by their house. When the sheriff told the family to leave, Mike stayed to create a firebreak and spray down the house. Bobbi left with the children to stay in a friend’s cabin. The smoke lingered for months.

“With no AC, we were trapped in our home and literally felt like we were suffocating,” Bobbi said. “We had a feeling it was going to get worse, and we didn’t want to live in constant fear.”

The family packed up again and moved in December to Williamstown, Ky.

They say the new owners of their old home in Greenville have evacuated the area.

“It’s heartbreaking,” Bobbi said.