Memorializing the deadly Camp Fire 1 year later: ‘Yes we’re alive, but we’re not the same’

Gabrielle Paluch

Palm Springs Desert Sun

Published 2: 57 PM EDT Nov 2, 2019

PARADISE, Calif. — Donna Patterson says she’s “one big walking trigger.” 

In the year since her death-defying escape from her home in the town of Paradise, she has suffered from insomnia, fears of crowds, inability to concentrate, fatigue, anxiety and a variety of other symptoms she refers to as “fire fog.” She has been unable to find a mental health care professional with the ability to take on new patients: They’re all booked, or overwhelmed themselves. 

She says she’ll mark the anniversary of the deadliest fire in California history — which broke out Nov. 8, 2018, and claimed 85 lives — avoiding the memories. 

“It hasn’t ended yet, that’s what nobody wants to talk about,” Patterson said. “Yes we’re alive, but we’re not the same. How are you supposed to celebrate that?”

Tattoos to memorialize the Camp Fire 

Patterson isn’t alone. Survivors of the Camp Fire are struggling to find ways to reclaim pieces of their lost lives, process grief and trauma, and memorialize the disaster.

Ink Majors Body Art tattoo parlor was among the first businesses to re-open this year in Paradise. Tattooist Major Montana says he has done more than 100 tattoos memorializing the fire, including two designs incorporating Ponderosa pines, the once-ubiquitous trees that fueled the firestorm. 

As he works with his clients to personalize tattoos, he has become a sort of impromptu therapist to his clients.

“Once they start explaining what they want, the story of what happened to them on that day comes out,” Montana said, saying that sessions often last hours longer than it takes to finish the tattoo so he can hear their whole story. 

“A lot of people don’t want to talk about what happened to them because they’re afraid it’ll be too much, so I’ve often been the first person they really get to tell.” 

Montana says he suffers from survivor’s guilt, and often feels overwhelmed by the losses his clients recount. Still, he knows he is helping people process their grief.

“They feel they have changed inside, and want something to remind them of how they changed,” he said.

Chico-based tattooist Zac Black has been so busy inking the skin of so many displaced Camp Fire survivors he’s lost count. Among them was a group of seven nurses who evacuated patients — including a newborn by C-section with her mother — from Adventist Feather River Hospital in a thick cloud of ash and smoke, only to realize the ambulance in front of them had caught fire. Their outlook was so bleak, some made final phone calls to loved ones. In desperation for survival, the group broke into the nearest garage to harbor their patients, began clearing brush, and watering down the building. 

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One week later, they were sitting for Black in his shop, 12 Volt Tattoo.

“I think it helps people process because it gives people a reason to ask them about what happened to them that day,” Black said. 

Tattoos are just one of many ways people are finding to process their emotions in wake of the fire.  

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A phoenix of keys

The weekend of Nov. 1, the town of Paradise has planned three days of official anniversary ceremonies. Preparations have been underway for months. Mayor Jody Jones will attend along with her husband, Ron, who says he looks forward to “being drug around to everything.”

Along Paradise’s main thoroughfare, Skyway, now lined with newly reopened businesses alongside burned-out shells of buildings and empty lots, a parade of 85 flags will honor those who died in the fire. 

Further up Skyway, there will be services at the town’s oldest building, the Magalia Community Church, a wooden structure dating back to the 19th century which sits astride a collection of RVs and one of the last incomplete debris removal sites.

Some events are intended to bring a sense of normalcy back to the remaining residents. On an empty triangular lot, the town will break ground on a new Camp Fire memorial in Hope Plaza, a public monument to the blaze complete with a reflection sanctuary, interactive panels, and a metal sculpture of a Ponderosa pine etched with names of the deceased. And as the community did before the fire, residents will ice skate and share community meals.

It also will be a first homecoming for some. 

It will be the first time Jessie Mercer’s elderly father returns to Paradise since their home burned down. 

When he escaped the fire by car, he brought nothing more than his keys. Not even his dentures. 

Mercer wondered if there were more people in Paradise with keys that no longer have locks to fit. She began to put collection jars out in public places, explaining she intended to turn them into a sculpture. Keys that had once unlocked cars and bicycles, diaries, homes of people who had died, classrooms, several fire hoses, and even a bank. Some arrived by mail from people who had moved out of state.

For Mercer, it has been particularly powerful to receive keys from pastors.

“The most precious thing in the World to them was being able to unlock a door to a place that gave people sanctuary,” Mercer said. “You realize how important that one key was to people. Each key represents turkey dinners, and memories.” Over the past year, she has amassed 18,000 keys, which she has used to construct a phoenix sculpture.

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“For 12 months, people have been hurting, and those are 18,000 stories of loss,” she said.

Mercer’s father will be there when her sculpture is unveiled during the town’s official celebrations.

The unveiling will be a proud moment for Mercer, but on her father’s behalf, because his return to their destroyed town will be such an achievement. 

“If I have any grief myself it’s that I can’t fix my dad. I can’t make him the creative goofy person he used to be. I can’t figure out what’s best for my own true family.”

No memorials at school

Mercer has also been teaching therapeutic art classes in her mobile art studio at the schools in Paradise. During a recent exercise, she asked students to draw an invention that would fix a problem they had right now.

“They all were angry at PG&E,” Mercer said, describing the different methods students devised to keep the company away, including a big wall to block it, or a UFO to abduct it. California’s largest power utility company, PG&E, was blamed for not properly maintaining the high-voltage transmission line that ignited the blaze. PG&E has also been the target of outrage over recent preemptive power shutoffs aimed at preventing more fires.

That emotional minefield demonstrated in art class is one reason Sheila Craft, assistant superintendent of Paradise Unified School District, said the school will not memorialize the fire. 

“Our activities will be forward-looking,” Craft said, explaining that despite difficulties, they were trying their best to have a normal school year. “Their school year has been interrupted enough.” Due to power outages, students missed more than half the school days in the month of October. On some days, there was no power at school and classrooms were cold. Because of the fire, enrollment is down, and students are missing 49% of their peers.

The Butte County Office of Education has created specialized counselor positions that offer daily support in classrooms. Jake Fender, a Butte County representative for behavioral health, oversees the program. “It’s important that the students have a safe place,” Fender said, explaining that it was difficult to expect kids to keep up with curriculum this year.

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In the days, weeks and months after the fire, counselors reported an increase in self-harm behaviors, bullying, fighting and heightened emotions. For serious, clinical issues, Fender’s teams make referrals.

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County health services offer group therapy and other counseling for adults, too. “A lot of marriages have been ending. It has torn people apart,” Fender said. “Everybody handles it differently.”

Butte County’s behavioral health department has published a list of triggers impacting survivors of the fire, including power outages, smoke or smoke-like clouds, traffic, or changes in temperature.

Triggers can be anywhere, even in a name

When Don Dorfmeier named his food truck Inferno Pizza in early 2018, the reference was innocuous, a nod to his wood-fired oven. 

After six months in business in Chico, he decided to try his luck in Paradise, 20 minutes away. It was the morning of the Camp Fire. Stricken escapees in their cars descending from the mountain saw his truck at the bottom of the clogged escape-route, Skyway, and were agog.

“People were asking me if I knew what was going on, wanted to know if I had done that on purpose,” Dorfmeier said of his truck’s name. “But of course not. I had no idea.”

In recent weeks and months, Dorfmeier has been doing a lot of business in Paradise, which sorely needs food trucks like his since the fire wiped out most of the town’s restaurants. 

“People freak out about it sometimes, but I try to explain to them that I named it that because of the oven,” Dorfmeier, who is often covered in soot, said. “It’s sad when people are triggered by the smell of my truck.”

Now, his truck acts as a sort of unintentional memorial to the Camp Fire. Inferno Pizza will be among the food trucks present at the remembrance celebrations in Magalia, the community north of Paradise that was partially destroyed by the fire.

For Patterson, the thought of food trucks and games in Magalia is too much to bear. She still counts being in Paradise among her triggers. 

“Just the thought of being on Skyway when lots of other people are going to be there is terrifying,” Patterson said. Her feelings of anxiety in the town she once called home have strained her personal relationships with people who don’t share her anxieties.

“Some people think home is a place, but I think home is where the people you love are. Forget everything else,” Patterson said. “Why would you want to remember the day you almost died multiple times?”

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