Lonely living

As people slowly return to the Ridge, community finds its new normal

Stewart Nugent fought the flames from his house, to the left, but the Camp Fire claimed most of the rest of his neighborhood in central Paradise.

Stewart Nugent fought the flames from his house, to the left, but the Camp Fire claimed most of the rest of his neighborhood in central Paradise.

Photo by Meredith J. Cooper

On Tuesday (Dec. 31), Stewart Nugent celebrated more than just the impending new year and the anniversary of meeting his wife, Heidi. It was also her homecoming; she returned to their Paradise home that day for the first time since fleeing Nov. 8.

Nugent, on the other hand, had stuck around, protecting their house and that of a neighbor from the Camp Fire’s wrath. After being brought to Enloe Medical Center for a dislocated shoulder suffered while fighting the blaze, he was reunited with Heidi at an evacuation center. He convinced her to let him return, though, so he could stave off looters and ensure all his hard work hadn’t been in vain. After a grueling eight-hour hike through the disaster zone—to avoid roadblocks—he made it back to their house in central Paradise.

Since then, till Tuesday, he’d seen his wife just once, when the evacuation order was lifted and he was able to join her at a hotel in Willows for a night.

“I’m glad she came home. Now I have someone to talk to,” he said Tuesday from their living room, adding with a laugh, “The cat was about to start talking to me.”

Such is life for many who have returned to their homes on the Ridge after the fire.

Everything is quieter, Nugent said. His is one of only a handful of homes on his street that survived the fire. The neighbors whose house he helped save have yet to return for good, though they do come by to leave food for one of their cats, he said. The other homes immediately surrounding his perished.

“I’ve talked to most of my neighbors,” Nugent said. “Two out of five of them will be rebuilding.”

The Nugents’ section of town was not open to the public until mid-December, over a month after the fire. He was literally stuck without services—aside from the kindness of workers in the area who knew he was there and dropped off necessities like food and water—and without in-and-out privileges. But, bit by bit, life is returning to normal—or, at least, a new normal.

“The power came back on one month and one day [after the fire],” he said. “That brought a tear to my eye. We got natural gas back on Saturday [Nov. 30]. [Potable] water—maybe we’ll get that by the end of March.”

Wanting to encourage Heidi’s speedy return, Nugent bought his own water tank and motor. One good day’s rain filled the whole thing, he said. Otherwise, he has it delivered.

The main downside to the quiet, Nugent said, has been the eeriness of nightfall. Sometimes he’ll hear a car idling down the street and know it’s not a neighbor.

“I walk outside and they see this grumpy old man and they turn around and leave,” Nugent continued, “but I’ve heard stories about people having their boats hauled off, their travel trailers….”

Around Christmas time, businesses started to reopen. “I’ve been to two grocery stores—one in Magalia, and Save Mart in Paradise; and there’s a gas station at Wagstaff and Skyway,” he said. The ability to buy perishables like milk and butter—and have a fridge to store them in—was relieving.

“Everybody’s got a story—you can’t go anywhere without someone trying to tell you their fire story,” Nugent said. Not that he was complaining; just having a place to reconnect with neighbors and friends provides a sense of community that had been lacking since the fire. “Everyone in the supermarket has a smile on their face.”

Those smiles were evident during a visit to Save Mart on Clark Road Tuesday afternoon. The aisles were mostly full of nonperishables, while the butcher station was not staffed and the produce section remained sparse. All the staff members were bundled—there was no gas service yet at the supermarket—but people were clearly happy to be able to stock up at their neighborhood store.

For Cindi Sheldon, it offered an opportunity not only to buy necessities without taking a trip to Chico, but also a chance to catch up with people she hadn’t connected with since the fire. After buying a few groceries, she chatted with one of the Save Mart employees for about 15 minutes before heading to her car.

“I hadn’t seen her yet, so I didn’t even know how she was doing,” Sheldon told the CN&R. The sense of normalcy that reopened businesses like Save Mart offer customers is “what everyone needs,” she added.

It was clear by watching the grocery store employees’ interactions with customers that Save Mart is providing much more than just food and household items. Coffeemakers in front offer free coffee, and a bank of microwaves have been set up for those, like the store itself, that are still without gas.

Sheldon returned to her Magalia home when Pentz Road was opened to all traffic, she said. Much of her neighborhood survived, and many of her neighbors also have returned. It’s hard, though, to determine what life on the Ridge will be like down the road. For instance, Sheldon’s workplace, Colyer Veterinary Services in Paradise, perished in the fire, and she’s not sure yet if it will reopen. She’s since been able to find work at a veterinary clinic in Durham, but not all will be so lucky.

“It’s good to be back at home,” she said. But there is a caveat: “As someone whose house is standing, it’s awkward because almost everyone you know lost everything.”