PARADISE – Inside the Brennans’ house on the northern edge of town, it’s almost as if the fire never happened.
There’s electricity, filtered water and satellite TV. The mail comes every day but Sunday, and the garbage is picked up every week.
But when family members look out the window at a neighborhood of charred rubble and twisted metal, they’re sometimes overcome by a profound loneliness.
“I feel like I’ve been left behind,” said Elaine Brennan.
Months after California’s most devastating wildfire killed 85 people and leveled the town of Paradise, many former residents find the thought of returning here unbearable. But others, whose homes escaped destruction, have come back to a life of surreal contrasts.
Neighborhoods devoid of residents now bustle with the activity of workers felling blackened trees, hauling away debris and replacing downed power lines. In the town’s commercial district, businesses have reopened, but residents are surprised to encounter other shoppers amid deserted aisles.
The stories of those who are returning to Paradise, those who would like to return and those who refuse to return are complicated by income, age and mental health.
A number of former residents are too traumatized to set foot in Paradise and have settled elsewhere. There are those who would like to use their insurance payouts to stay, but can’t secure housing in Butte County’s fiercely competitive market. Many retirees have decided they don’t want to spend what’s left of their golden years rebuilding a home.
Others returned to Paradise very soon after the fire, parking RVs and trailers in burned-out lots. For many who wanted to stay in the area but couldn’t find housing, this was their only option.
Four-fifths of Paradise’s housing stock was destroyed by the Camp fire, and the Brennans’ taupe country-style home is among the few in their neighborhood that survived.
The decision to move back, however, wasn’t an easy one for the family.
Josh Brennan, a 45-year-old state game warden, couldn’t wait to return to the property and the babbling brook where daughters Rachael, 14, and Danielle, 9, would catch crawfish and trout in the warmer months.
Elaine Brennan, on the other hand, didn’t want to leave their rental in Chico. The 46-year-old state recycling specialist was not ready to live among the ruins of her community. Give it a year, her husband said.
During those first days back home at the end of January, Elaine would find herself dumbstruck by their luck, and then by guilt, as she performed the most ordinary tasks. “I shouldn’t be doing this,” she’d think as she pulled a frying pan out of the cupboard. Almost everyone she knew had lost their kitchens.
Without friends and family nearby, the Brennans’ quiet life in Paradise has become even quieter, yet more hectic. Josh and Elaine spend much of their day battling with their home insurance company, which has yet to reimburse them for the $30,000 they spent to have their place professionally cleaned. Before doing so, their home was so saturated with the smell of smoke that they couldn’t spend more than a few minutes inside without suffering headaches and sore throats.
Not knowing what would become of the education system in the town that once had 27,000 residents, the couple enrolled their girls in Chico schools in December. It used to take Josh five minutes total to drive them to and from school. Now it takes three hours.
The girls are doing surprisingly well, their parents say. But sometimes, when the family is driving through the 18-square-mile town, the kids will abruptly go silent. They’ve noticed something – the Fosters Freeze, gone. The street where Grandma’s house once stood.
Elaine finds herself on the brink of tears in these moments, but she holds them back. She doesn’t want the girls to see her upset. She wants their lives to feel as normal as possible.