Bye bye Paradise

There's a sweet legend about this town: On a blazing summer day in the 1850s, a lumber mill crew with wagon and ox took a break under a grove of tall evergreens. The air was cool, the pine needles fragrant.

"Boys," said the team boss, "this is paradise."

Thus, more than 170 years ago, Paradise was born. From the start, it was enriched with gold mined from nearby hills and lumber harvested from the forests. Over generations, thousands lived and loved here; they built homes and businesses, schools and houses of worship, parks and museums that proudly honoured Paradise's place in American history.

In a matter of hours last week, it all disappeared.

Nearly 9,000 homes. Hundreds of shops and other buildings. The Safeway supermarket. The hardware store. The Dolly-O-Donuts & Gifts, where locals started their day with a blueberry fritter and a quick bit of gossip.

This town of 27,000 literally went up in smoke in the deadliest, most destructive wildfire in California history. The death toll, for now, is 63, but many more are missing. And memories are all that's left for many of the survivors.

Driving past the smouldering ruins of downtown, Patrick Knuthson, a 49-year-old, fourth-generation local, struggled to make sense of what he was seeing. He pointed out places that once were, and were no more: a saloon-style pub, his favourite Mexican restaurant, a classic California motel, the pawn shop, a real estate office, a liquor store, the thrift centre and auto repair shop, the remodeled Jack in the Box burger outlet, entire trailer parks.

At the ruined Gold Nugget Museum, the ground was crunchy and hot, a few birds chirped nearby, and a half dozen soot-covered deer stood eerily still under a blackened tree.

Paradise was a town where families put down roots, and visitors opted to stay. Children could bike to the park, go fishing in the town pond, shoot bows and arrows at the nearby archery range. As they got older, they'd kayak in the canyons or hike in the forests after school.

"We could tell the kids to go outside and play, and be back when the street lights come on," said Kaitlin Norton, whose uncle is still missing. She does not know if her home still stands.

Like all places, Paradise had problems. There were issues with addiction and poverty, but residents felt safe. And while prices were rising, it was still affordable for many in a state where housing costs have soared.

"You would never miss a meal here," said Terry Prill, 63, who often sought lunch and dinner at community churches. "The people are good people. They don't look down at you."

The pace was relaxed. Neighbors waved to each other in the morning, shouting hello as they headed off to work on tree-lined, winding streets and cul-de-sacs. Families kept tidy gardens and planted vegetables, trading their bounty up and down the block.

Louise Branch, 93, says Paradise was a lovely place to retire. "It's a slow town, really. People have yards and dogs," she said. "I especially liked it in the fall when the trees are full of colour."

Parks burst with bright orange California poppies and wildflowers in the spring, and soften with light snow in the winter. At 2,500 feet, on a ridge that rises above deep canyons carved by the Feather River and Butte Creek, Paradise offers cool respite from hot, dry weather in the valleys below.

Spanning the creek was the Honey Run Covered Bridge, built in 1886. It was put on the National Register of Historic Places in 1988 and was the only covered bridge in America with three unequal sections. It, too, is gone.

Glenn Harrington raised two sons in Paradise. He found it so picturesque he started the Visions of Paradise page on Facebook; image after image chronicles the town's history and spirit, its seasonal colours and its many festivals.

Each spring there were Gold Nugget Days, marking the discovery of a 54-pound lump in 1859. The Donkey Derby in nearby Old Magalia would get silly, as locals recreated how miners heaved the famous chunk of gold into town. The highlight was a parade of homemade floats.

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