Paradise Burned to the Ground. Now It’s Another Hot Housing Market

In January 2020, Elizabeth Milbauer’s house caught fire. No one was home at the time, but the house was a total loss due to smoke damage. After the insurance payout and moving in with her mother for seven months, she and her family bought a new house not far from the old one in Lodi, California, a city of some 65,000 people outside Stockton.

A Navy veteran and financial analyst, Milbauer still wrestles with the fact that the house fire was, in retrospect, a sort of blessing. Well-insured, the family had the resources to buy a brand new house and replace any losses, even upgrade. Milbauer picked out everything for her new home, each piece of furniture, appliance, and tile. In almost every respect, she says, the family came out of the fire better off than it had been before.

After moving in, Milbauer spent nights decorating the new space. Once the kids went to bed, she would move furniture and photos, or hang decorative pieces in different places, sometimes until the early hours of the morning. But while the inside of the house was constantly changing, the outside, and Lodi, were still the same, a classic California suburban community with houses close together and streets she didn’t feel comfortable with her two sons playing in. So Milbauer and her husband Brian, a paramedic, started house shopping again.

“I would say we started looking because we realized that we finally had everything we wanted inside of the house, but we had nothing that we wanted outside of it,” Milbauer told Motherboard in a recent interview. “I just want to be able to wake up and look out of a window and like what I see.”

Elizabeth Milbauer with her son

Elizabeth Milbauer and her son Elliot in their new Paradise home. Photo: Aaron Gordon

Milbauer created a basic Zillow filter with no price restrictions just to see what was out there: More than five acres, three bedrooms and two bathrooms. Then, if she found a property she liked—that wasn’t outrageously out of her price range—she looked for the nearest coffee shop as a sign of “life and vibrancy.” Next came searches for hospitals, schools, and jobs nearby.

It didn’t take long for her to find a house she fell in love with, and one surprisingly affordable given their budget of around $500,000—hardly a princely sum in California’s housing market. Nestled on a ridge in a northern California forest, the house was just minutes from a pristine lake with a bald eagle nest, scenic hiking, and abundant nature views. It was also just a few minutes’ drive from a town the Milbauers took to immediately, a place with the community feel they desired while also having lots of opportunity to start their own business. The town is named Paradise.

If you have heard of Paradise, California, it is likely because in November 2018 the town burned down. The Camp Fire wildfire swept through Paradise—then a town of some 25,000 people, about a quarter of whom were 65 or older—causing an urban inferno survivors described in apocalyptic terms and which was the subject of multiple emotionally devastating documentaries. 85 people died and 87 percent of the town’s homes were destroyed.

In the years since the fire, media coverage has largely focused on two separate but related questions: How will the town rebuild? And is it possible to do so in a way that potentially makes it less susceptible to another cataclysmic fire? These were and remain important questions. But as the U.S. housing market, and California’s in particular, continues to make home ownership in many places financially untenable to huge swaths of residents, Paradise—a place that recently burned down and could well burn down again—has become yet another semi-rural, bucolic town experiencing a housing price boom, one that’s actually outpacing adjacent towns and cities.

Paradise is still in the early rebuilding stages, but to the people moving there, it offers something other places do not, something that is worth the risk despite the ever-present reminder of what could be lost.

Since the fire’s immediate aftermath, who would move back to Paradise has been an open question. Some were determined to rebuild a place they loved. Others were too traumatized to ever set foot there again.

Katie McConnell, a PhD candidate at Yale School of the Environment, has been doing some of the only research into the human migration impacts of wildfires, and the Camp Fire specifically. It’s an under-studied subject, McConnell says, because wildfires typically devastate vast areas of wilderness but relatively few human-made structures, typically fewer than 2,500 a year, although there has been an exponential increase in buildings destroyed in wildfires since 2017. It’s a trend experts like McConnell warn is likely to continue as climate change makes wildfire-inducing conditions more frequent and extreme.

As a result, experts don’t have a great understanding of what people tend to do when a wildfire destroys their town, which in itself is a rare occurrence. For one study, McConnell interviewed members of 24 households who decided not to move back to Paradise. Most, she found, were retired and didn’t want to spend years rebuilding a home when they didn’t even know how much longer they had to live.

Even those whose homes miraculously survived worried what the future would hold. Sheri Palade, a local realtor, has lived in Paradise her entire life. She managed to evacuate the morning of the fire and her house somehow survived. She told me about this while sitting in the Paradise Starbucks with her friend and fellow realtor Doug Speicher, also a lifelong Paradise resident, who lost his house in the fire (but not his Toyota 4Runner, which he abandoned on the side of the road next to a half dozen other vehicles only to later find all the vehicles destroyed except for his).

GIF credit: Peter Hansen

“I remember, within a couple days of the fire, we found out her house was standing,” Speicher recalled, “and it was like, ‘Oh my God, who is ever going to want that house?’” Because, as he remembered thinking, “Who wants to live in a town that’s burned out?”

“Yeah, it was like we lost our life savings,” Palade said. They both thought Palade’s surviving house would crater in value.

But, as it turned out, they were wrong. “It’s worth more,” Palade laughed.

Almost four years after the fire—four unpredictable years of a pandemic, the rise of remote work, an inflationary housing market, and the emergence of wildfires across the western United States as a bleak annual tradition that now threatens some 80 million people’s homes every year—Paradise is rebuilding, faster than some imagined it could. The town has granted 2,139 building permits, according to its website keeping track of the rebuild on a weekly basis, with 1,358 having received certificates of occupancy. Plus, the town received grant money for major infrastructure improvements like fiber optic internet and burying some power lines and sewers under the street.

Paradise

Credit: Aaron Gordon

Paradise also has an understandable newfound zeal for fire prevention measures, including so-called “defensible space” requirements that require property owners to clear the land around the house of dead vegetation, brush, and tall grass, among other measures. Accordingly, tree removal and other types of landscaping have become big business in Paradise. There is open debate about how effective such measures, as well as the town’s effort to buy and clear vulnerable properties around the ridge, would truly be in a cataclysmic scenario like the Camp Fire or even less catastrophic but still dangerous wildfire scenarios. Regardless, however effective such expenses would be in making Paradise fire-resistant, all that building and land-clearing comes with contractors, subcontractors, and jobs to support them.

Speicher and Palade testify to the boomtown feel and how it contrasts with Paradise’s pre-fire vibe. Paradise experienced its first growth spurt in the 1960s and 1970s when its population quadrupled to more than 20,000 people in about 15 years and the town was officially incorporated in 1979. Much of the new population relocated from the more expensive coastal areas of the state which were rapidly losing their rural pockets to suburban development in the postwar years.

It’s easy to understand why thousands of families chose Paradise. It is indisputably gorgeous. The town gets four seasons but a mild winter usually without much snow. Until the fire, it was a picturesque mountain town that ceased to be rural in the mid-20th century and afforded such conveniences like local grocery stores, hardware stores, restaurants, and a hospital. But, thanks in part to dense pine tree cover, it never felt suburban. Countless hiking, mountain biking, kayaking, and other outdoor activities are close by.

And, most importantly, it was affordable to families without salaries from one of California’s booming industries like aerospace, military defense contractors, or tech. In her interviews, McConnell asked those who left why they had moved to Paradise in the first place.

Paradise trees

Paradise’s dense tree cover is now sporadic, providing new views. Photo: Aaron Gordon

“A lot of people moved there because it was a place where they could own a home while not having a tech job salary,” she said. “You can be a builder or custodian or a teacher, earning a middle income, lower income salary, and still own a home. And I think that’s almost impossible in probably much of the rest of California, much of the rest of the U.S. West at this point. And so I think the trade off then becomes, like, yes, you can live here, it’s a beautiful place to live, you can buy a home. But there’s also sort of a known fire risk.”

At the time of Paradise’s population boom, the term “wildland urban interface” did not exist in the U.S., but Paradise was a perfect example of the now-widely recognized wildfire management concept. The U.S. Fire Administration describes WUI as “the zone of transition between unoccupied land and human development.” To many prospective homeowners, including many of the ones I spoke to in Paradise, that is essentially the selling point, the best of both worlds.

They were hardly alone. In his 1997 book World Fire: The Culture of Fire on Earth, Stephen Pyne tracked this migration. Between 1950 and 1990, the U.S. added 100 million people, more than the entire U.S. population in 1910. Most of those people went to what the Census Bureau calls metropolitan statistical areas encompassing virtually all exurban development around a city. Those areas expanded into the wilderness. By 1987, such areas accounted for 16.2 percent of the U.S. land, up from 5.9 percent in 1950.

Pyne’s assessment of the people who live in these areas was blunt. “Their income comes from elsewhere, as do their values and expectations. Typically they want urban amenities but without an urban setting. They expect urban services such as sanitation, police, education, and fire protection but not urban bureaucracies, taxes, and hassles. They want a rural setting without having to rely on a rural economy. They want the best of both worlds, and are willing to fall through institutional cracks to get them. They assume that fires occur elsewhere. And when fires do strike, often they expect that someone else will fight them.” From the perspective of fire protection, he calls these “intermix” environments “the worst of all worlds.”

At least some people who lived in Paradise understood this. “I grew up here the whole time knowing the town could burn down,” Speicher said. “Every year we had fires in the canyons. It’s always been at the forefront of my mind.”

When the fire did come, it was worse than anyone imagined the worst could be. Some buildings like the Palade house and the Starbucks survived, but the vast majority did not. The destruction was so complete that the entire shape and feel of the town changed. Empty lots abound. Many tall pines survived with the canopies never having burned. But others did burn. A once healthily shaded community is now sun-drenched. Suddenly, some lots had new, sprawling views of the canyons.

Gradually the scope of the rebuilding project came to view. Damaged trees had to be cut down and removed by the tens of thousands before they fell onto roads or temporary homes. And, of course, businesses and homes had to be rebuilt.

The money didn’t come flowing in right at first. “It was very slow at the beginning. People were skeptical. Contractors were skeptical,” Palade said. But, right around the start of the pandemic, that dynamic gradually changed. Contractors and, soon, prospective homeowners started to see opportunity in what was once devastation.

New Paradise home

A variety of new housing sizes and styles are going up in Paradise, some more affordable than others. Photo: Aaron Gordon
New Paradise home

Photo: Aaron Gordon

With the boomtown comes boomtown prices. Paradise used to have significantly cheaper homes than Chico, a city of about 100,000 people about a 15-minute drive down the canyon from Paradise, not to mention Sacramento (about an hour away) or the Bay Area (two to three hours). But, in the last two years, the gap has steadily narrowed to the point where there isn’t much price difference between Paradise and Chico anymore for the same house square footage, although Paradise lots still tend to be larger.

Driving around the town now, it is hard for the fire to not be at the forefront of the mind. Most lots are still in some state of clearance, vacancy, or rebuild. The trees that remain standing are mostly bare below the greened upper canopies. Stray details like closed iron gates guarding an empty lot haunt the landscape. Most houses look new because they are.

DSCF6115.jpeg

Burned fence gates closed to empty lots are ghostly reminders of what once was. Photo: Aaron Gordon

But what has changed is the relative risk Paradise presents compared to other areas of the country. Coastal regions are more at risk of extreme flooding—of houses literally falling into the ocean—than they were during Paradise’s first population boom. Larger areas of the western U.S. are at extreme fire risk, not just especially fire-prone areas like Paradise. And extreme, deadly heat threatens places like Portland and the rest of the Pacific Northwest that until recently have rarely experienced triple digit temperatures.

“Almost everyone in this country is living in hazardous areas, and for many people, that’s not a first order concern for them,” McConnell said, adding that she sees similar attitudes dominate on coastal cities where people are moving to places like Miami despite facing existential threat from climate disasters. “I just want to push back on the idea that people are uniquely choosing to overlook or ignore fire risk when I see that happening, frankly, in a lot of coastal very large cities as well.”

The broader societal events since the fire like the pandemic, housing price inflation, and rise of remote work all contribute to a town that is rebuilding even as it finds out what kind of place it will soon become.

There are 145 listings on Zillow for lots and finished homes in Paradise as of this writing, compared to 200 in Chico, a city with some 20 times Paradise’s current population.

Finished home listings sometimes allude to the fire without mentioning it directly. “Tall evergreen trees that are still standing,” one listing for an 1,800 square-foot 3 bed, 2 bath for $559,500 says, before advertising the fire insurance cost ($876 per year) before any other attribute about the house. Many lot listings mention a “prior home” that existed there before: “Driveway still intact. This is a wonderful home site. Come and be part of rebuilding Paradise!”

It is rarer to directly mention the Camp Fire, as this lot formerly with a 3,000 square-foot home on it for $157,000 for two acres does (“Prior to the Camp Fire there was a 3 bedroom/2 bathroom, 3,056 square foot home located here. Lot has been cleared and hazardous trees removed, but still with an abundance of evergreen trees and foliage.” But, more commonly, listings for new homes—such as this one for a 1,500-square foot farmhouse-style 3 bed 2 bath for $475,000—read like a home listing any other place in the country, as if there is nothing noteworthy about the land at all. But even these listings provide overhead view photos in Zillow that can’t help but make one wonder what happened to the place and why the surrounding lots are so empty and trees scarred. “Come to Paradise and build your dream,” another says.

paradise homes

Homes for sale in Paradise. Photo: Aaron Gordon

Because of the sudden and extreme disruption the fire caused, it’s difficult to easily determine who is moving back to Paradise and where they lived before the fire, a dynamic highlighted by the anecdotes Palade and Speicher have from selling hundreds of properties there. Some people swore they would never move back to Paradise after the fire, cashed out and moved away, only to find they missed Paradise and returned. Others look in Paradise knowing nothing about the area only to find out about the fire while they’re house hunting. “Now, we’re like experts in how to deal with people’s emotional roller coasters,” Speicher said.

Jacquelyn Chase and Peter Hansen, professors at California State University, Chico, have gotten closest to answering this question by tracking building permits. They found that in the first two years after the fire, most building permits were granted to the same person who owned the land pre-fire. But starting in 2021, more permits started going to new owners. That trend continued for the rest of 2021 when Chase and Hansen did their study. Overall, 44 percent of the permits issued have been for people who did not own the parcel at the time of the fire.

That trend of more and more buyers coming from out of the area matches the estimates Palade and Speicher offered. Of the properties she sells in Paradise these days, Palade estimated 75 percent of the buyers did not live in Paradise at the time of the fire. Speicher said 50 to 70 percent.

“I think that there’s not a lot of gray, it’s black and white,” Palade said about whether prospective buyers think the town could burn down again. “Either they absolutely think it and they’re not wanting any part of it or they’re like, ‘What’s the problem? It’s fine.’”

Construction in Paradise

Photo: Aaron Gordon

In disaster migration research, McConnell says people who all have a shared behavior—such as not moving back to the town they lived in or moving to a town that just suffered a natural disaster—tend to have other similarities, too. For example, many of the families she interviewed that didn’t return are elderly (so were nearly all of the deaths in the Camp Fire). And, they took the opportunity of the fire to move to a politically conservative state such as Idaho which they felt better reflected their values.

Likewise, McConnell added, there may be shared traits among the people moving to Paradise, ones that McConnell said “are part of this larger process of population change after a fire that’s really interesting but not well documented.”

The sign next to Taylor Tanner’s front door says “Home Sweet Home.” As she waved me in on a 63-degree and sunny spring morning as her four-year-old son Easton watched TV, she told me it didn’t take long for Paradise to feel like that.

“The people at the grocery store knew my husband’s name within the first week,” Tanner said. “My son just had his birthday last Saturday and my coworker came over. There were tons of kids here, 14 kids. And she said, ‘Didn’t you just move here? How do you know so many people?’ I don’t know.”

The Tanners moved to Paradise in August from Texas. Due to her husband Kristofer’s job as a power lineman, they relocated several times in Texas, with the most recent stint in west Texas. Taylor, who works as a dental hygienist, was looking forward to leaving the area because there were few opportunities for the outdoor activities they love. She also found it hard to make friends, always feeling distant from the rest of the community.

Taylor Tanner house

Taylor Tanner in front of “Home Sweet Home.” Photo: Aaron Gordon

When Kristofer became an instructor at a technical school for power lineman, they had a choice of where to live next among the school’s locations: Boise, Idaho and Oroville, California. Taylor meticulously compared living costs of both areas as well as schools, job opportunities, recreational areas, and other prospects. Ultimately, they settled on Oroville, and Paradise specifically. Housing prices were essentially the same—Boise has undergone its own pandemic housing price boom—but there were many more on the market to choose from in Paradise. Plus, she could make more as a dental hygienist in Chico than in Boise. And while Boise also has mountains for great mountain biking and hiking, Paradise is only a few hours from the coast, Sacramento, Reno, and other destinations, whereas Boise felt relatively isolated.

But, driving through in April 2021, they also fell in love with Paradise specifically. Not just for what the town currently is, but what it will be. “The town has so much potential,” Tanner said. “It’s a big thing for us.”

Fulfilling that potential is what brought Jen Goodlin back, too. She grew up in Paradise but lived in Colorado Springs with her family at the time of the fire. Her brother lost his house, so she came back to help. Even amidst the devastation, she said it still felt like home. “Just the whole sense and feel of the town was very strong.” Her husband, likewise, saw the opportunity in Paradise and the “potential in the area over the long term,” as Goodlin put it.

As we hiked down a canyon, Goodlin compared Paradise to Colorado Springs, which she described as “very nice.” Among its pros, her kids could walk to school and there was a Super Target about a mile away. But she also felt “a shift in how I wanted to raise my children. When you hear people complaining about the trash company changing, I can try and parent away from that, but if you move somewhere hardship has happened, there’s natural learning for my children…Like, the trash company doesn’t matter. The town just burned down.”

The Goodlins bought a vacant lot and set about building on it. When I visited in late April, the frame was up. The family is living in a trailer on the property until the house is ready, an experience she says has hopefully taught her kids “how to live with less and appreciate more.”

After moving to Paradise, Goodlin took a job with The Rebuild Paradise Foundation, a nonprofit that helps with guides, grants, and advice. Goodlin has recently started her own survey about why people are moving to Paradise, but didn’t have enough responses yet to draw any preliminary conclusions.

People like the Goodlins, Tanners, and Milbauers may have their individual reasons for moving to Paradise, but there is an undeniable link between not just them but everyone else in the town: Despite the risks, they all chose to be there because it is different where they came from.

In his book on fire, Pyne recognized a fundamental paradox for those living in the wildland urban interface. “Narrow roads to sheltered homesites, rustic wooden houses with shake-shingle roofs, lush vegetation dripping over walls and roofs, distance from prying officials and taxes—all this is why the exurban communities were created,” he wrote. “To render them fireproof is to begin to re-create the environments from which the residents fled in the first place.”

Sitting in a lounging chair by a window overlooking the tall pines, a hummingbird fluttered by the window as Milbauer took in her new home. The sun filtered through the trees and through the window, a beam of light illuminating the corner of the bedroom. As her son Elliot played Kirby in the living room, I asked how Milbauer felt heading into her first fire season in the new house. The area immediately surrounding her home did not burn in the Camp Fire, for reasons some people ascribe to decent forest management and others to blind luck, the same luck that saw Palade’s house or Speicher’s car survive when everything around them didn’t.

“It’s not like it won’t happen again,” Milbauer said. “Anything could happen again. But this town is more aware,” she thinks, “the same as we are aware for any house fire, for any trauma.”

“It just seems regressive to choose to be afraid to do something that will make you happy,” Milbauer said. “So, we’re happy here.”

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