June 14, 2008

The Web Offers a Window Into Paradise's Burning

Three weeks ago, I told a story about how Northern California fires had once chased my family and me from our home, as evacuation orders had our family of seven packing our belongings and heading to the central valley floor, not knowing what we'd find when we returned. This weekend, the fires came back to Paradise, where I lived from 1994 to 1999, and where my family spent 10 years. But this time they weren't stopped at the town limits, and the fire has consumed more than 70 homes, so far scorching more than 23,000 acres.

Over the last 24 hours, I've turned to the Web to learn all I can about this tragedy, and through the various tools out there on the Web, from newspaper Web sites to user submitted photography, recorded video, and even a streaming broadcast of the county's public safety scanner, to learn what has happened. And the news is not good.

Firefighters Take to the Air to Fight the Blaze

While this blaze, dubbed the "Humboldt Fire", hasn't gained the national attention given the San Diego fires last year, or even the awareness we saw in the Bay Area for the fire last month in the Santa Cruz mountains, the effects are just as devastating. While I haven't called Paradise home for almost a decade, we've gotten word over the last day or so that friends' homes have been wiped clean from the earth, their life's dreams and possessions erased in a flaming fury.

The two main sources of news have been the area newspapers, including the Chico Enterprise Record, where I once wrote as a staff intern back in 1995 and 1996, and the smaller, hometown Paradise Post.

See KCRA Sacramento's Report on the Blaze from Friday

Photos from the Enterprise Record have been circulated through the Associated Press, and show stories of loss, heroic efforts from those fighting the blaze, and agony. The Enterprise Record also asked those effected by the fires to submit their own photos, and both collections feature hundreds of first-party accounts. At one point, nearly 10,000 of the town's 30,000 residents were asked to evacuate, and of the three roads out of town, only one was left open, with none who left being able to return.

A PDF map of those homes burned shows the flames came within a mile of where I spent my 8th grade to 12th grade years. And while the family who now lives in our home appears to have been safe, other friends were not so lucky.

My younger sister, writing on our family blog, posted last night:
"The Rogers and the Sterlings both lost their homes. The Greers are still not able to stay at their home and are in (Yuba City). The Halls are okay, as is Tiger Tail. All of Wayland is supposedly gone."
The Rogers family and The Sterling family were both friends and members of our church. Tiger Tail Lane, which my sister references, is where our home was, luckily escaping the flames again. Tonight, my mother added a new note:
"The Sterlings are apparently devastated -- it took them 20 years to build their home."
The Sterling's youngest son, Rob, is currently serving a two-year mission for the church, and it now becomes a trial for the family to see if they tell him, or when they can tell him, without distracting from what they consider extremely important work.

This kind of personal detail makes what otherwise would be yet another sad story full of statistics on homes burned and acres torched just that much more real. I can check the CDF's report and see that the blaze is now 45% contained, has cost $5 million so far, employing nearly 4,000 fire personnel. I can see stories that say it will be fully contained by Monday, and that the threat to Paradise has decreased, but clearly, for some it is already too late.

I'm watching on the Web, but I can't help but feel powerless.