Orange County homes were saved from the fire this time. Images of Paradise lost circa 2018 give us cause to imagine what could have been—and inspire a pause to give thanks.
Photos by Brett Hillyard
California has four seasons, the old saying goes: earthquakes, mudslides, fires, and riots. As of now, it looks like the 2020 fire season is behind us. And not a second too soon. Five of the top 20 most destructive fires in the state’s history took place in 2020. More than four million acres of the state burned, which is two times California’s previous modern-day record.
Compared to other parts of the state, Orange County dodged a bullet. But, for a day or two in late October, it seemed it might be OC’s turn. The Silverado Fire threatened canyon communities and North Irvine, eventually burning some 12,466 acres. And the Blue Ridge Fire blackened 13,694 acres along the county line, putting Yorba Linda neighborhoods on the fire line.
Two Orange County Fire Authority firefighters were severely injured while battling the Silverado Fire. They are reported to be improving, having survived multiple surgeries. But they remain in critical condition.
As many as 120,000 residents were under evacuation orders during the two fires, with 7,152 homes at risk of destruction. The value of those homes was estimated at $6.4 billion by Realtor.com, as reported by OC Register’s award-winning real estate reporter, Jonathan Lansner.
Ultimately, the Silverado Fire damaged nine homes and destroyed three structures. The Blue Ridge Fire destroyed one home, while seven others were damaged. That’s thanks to the 1,000 firefighters battling the Blue Ridge Fire and 750 firefighters protecting people and property from the Silverado Fire.
A few other elements were in play as well. The Silverado Fire “started on the outskirts of master-planned Orange County, where the roads are smooth and wide, communities were built under the state’s most recent fire code, and the largest regional firefighting force in the world was at the ready and just a phone call away,” as a Los Angeles Times story puts it. It also helps that our housing-adjacent hills, while dry, are more brush and grassland than forest, limiting the severity of the fires when compared to Northern California.
So far in 2020, 32 people died, 37 more were injured, and 10,000 structures were destroyed in some 9,279 California fires.
The most severe fire in the state was the August Complex fire, which killed a firefighter, destroyed 935 structures and burned 1,032,648 acres. That’s about two and a half times larger than the previous biggest fire in the state.
Prior to 2020, California’s previous record wildfire year, 2018, saw a total of 1.96 million acres consumed by flames. In November of that year, the 153,000-acre Camp Fire destroyed the town of Paradise, killing 85 people. That remains California’s deadliest blaze, and the worst wildfire in the U.S. for the previous 100 years.
The Camp Fire started on November 8, 2018, burned for two weeks, and was contained on November 25, thanks to the efforts of more than 1,000 firefighting personnel.
On December 17, photographer Brett Hillyard visited the town. These are his thoughts and photos.
My fellow film photographer Hugo JinXu and I made the nine-hour trek to the town of Paradise. What we saw and experienced was life-changing. The town of Paradise was closed to the public until December 17, 2018 (that is what I was told by the locals in the nearby town of Chico).
As some of the first civilians to visit the town, these are images of what we saw. The photographs don’t do justice to the scale of destruction. Cars were burned at the spots where they were parked and the only recognizable objects still standing were the brick chimneys and BBQs.
Seeing people’s valuables turned to dust was incredibly sad.
This experience also brought to my attention what is really valuable. It’s easy to put so much emphasis on collecting toys and working through life to acquire more stuff, while missing out on the experiences that might be passing us by while we get distracted working to buy another garden gnome.
The things are not important—people, family time, memories, and experiences are what make life rich. I’m not discrediting the loss of people’s homes, and certainly not the lives lost.
I’m just reminding myself of what is most valuable.
The scene was out of an apocalyptic movie. Everything was ashes—kids toys, antique stores, mechanic shops, motorcycles, fast food restaurants. I noticed the juxtaposition between the burned and the untouched, like a scorched pickup truck parked outside of an open automotive store, a garden gnome sweeping in the middle of a blackened neighborhood.
To make a monetary donation to support the injured OCFA firefighters and their families with the costs associated with the long healing process:
Fallen Firefighters Relief Fund
Created October 28, 2020 by Orange County Local 3631 as a fundraiser “in support of two firefighters critically injured while protecting our community battling the Silverado Fire.”
Wildland Firefighter Foundation
You can choose “yes” to dedicate the donation as a gift to someone, then, for example, you can specify the two firefighters critically injured at the Silverado Fire.
To send cards or letters to support the two men and their families:
Attn: Injured OCFA Hand Crew Firefighters
1 Fire Authority Road
Irvine, CA 92602
Credit to wildfiretoday.com for the support information.