After the Campfire: Rebuilding Paradise


On the road to paradise you can see signs of returning. Rebuilding this town nestled in the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas was far from certain after Paradise was lost in the inferno known as Camp Fire.

The 2018 fire killed 85 people and destroyed nearly 20,000 homes and businesses.

In November 2018, a wildfire ripped through Paradise, California. About 95% of the city was lost.

CBS News

Mike Petersen, who runs the Ace hardware store that survived the worst fire in California history, lost his home, like most people here. Now, when he looks around his neighborhood, he sees all the skeptics wrong.

“A year ago, those three houses weren’t there,” he told correspondent Ben Tracy. “A lot of people had doubts about how many people would rebuild. It’s good to see the progress for sure.”

Petersen doesn’t just rebuild; he is building something that he hopes will survive all future fires. He and his wife are about to move into a two-bedroom house that looks a bit like a modern barn. They love the architecture, but the real selling point is that it’s built not burn.

Tracy asked, “Do you feel like you’re going to worry less about your house?”

“Yes,” Petersen replied. “And my insurance company loves it.”

AQ Cabin built in Paradise, California.

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Vern Sneed is the owner of Design Horizons, a company that builds what it calls the Q Cabin, short for quonset hut. It takes its name from Quonset Point, a naval facility in Rhode Island where these corrugated iron-roofed buildings were first constructed during World War II. “It’s incombustible,” Sneed said. “It’s a product that you can’t really light on fire.”

According to Sneed, the Q cabin costs about the same as a house built with conventional 2x4s: “We would have a noncombustible liner here. Then we have our noncombustible liner. Then we have our noncombustible structure. So it you’d have to go through all those incombustible layers before you get inside.”

Scientists say most homes ignite during wildfires because embers get into window frames or between roof shingles. With the Q cabin, these entry points do not exist.

Tracy asked, “I get why you don’t call it ‘fireproof,’ because you can never guarantee it. But is that about as close as you’re going to get?”

“That’s about as close as you can get,” Sneed replied.

Vern Sneed of Design Horizons shows correspondent Ben Tracy the non-combustible materials used in a Q cabin.

CBS News

Of course, getting too close to nature is part of the problem. Communities like Paradise are known as Wilderness urban interface, where the great outdoors collide with someone’s front door. Nearly 50 million homes are now in these wildfire-prone areas.

Tracy asked, “When you see all natural disasters, especially a state like this, and what we know happens as climate change accelerates, is that the future of home building? “

“I think noncombustible housing is the future,” Sneed said.

Rebuild Paradise, California.

CBS News

But the campfire left more than scorched trees and empty lots; it also transformed a lot of people here. “I think people have just let go of their need to control, because we’ve all learned that it doesn’t exist,” said Gwen Nordgren, president of Paradise Lutheran Church. It’s also about rebuilding – a Q Cabin quadriplex that will replace the rectory building that once housed their pastor and was lost in the fire.

“Given what you’ve been through, how does it feel for people to see something being built there?” Tracy asked.

“Well, it’s not just something; it’s something like this“, Nordgren replied. “We’re so excited about this because everything is going to be new and beautiful and fireproof, which is on most people’s minds.

A quadruplex under construction for Paradise Lutheran Church.

Design horizons

They plan to rent it out to four families to generate income for the church, which lost almost half of its members after the fire. But now people are coming back, making Paradise the fastest growing city in California.

Nordgren said, “No one who was here gave up. This is heaven, brother. No one gives up. There’s a spirit in this town that was here before the fire, and is here now, and he never left.”

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Story produced by John Goodwin. Publisher: Ben McCormick.

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