New life, old scars: the cautionary tale of Paradise

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French photographer and environmentalist Max Riché travelled to the devastated town of Paradise to find out how the remaining residents attempt to find new life amongst the ruins of California’s largest wildfire

In November 2018, the town of Paradise in Butte County, California, was hit by the Camp Fire, one of the most destructive and deadliest wildfires to strike the state in recorded history. Eighty-six people died, thousands were evacuated, and by the end, only 5 per cent of the town’s buildings remained. Two years on, some of the residents have returned to the destruction, hoping to rebuild their homes, lives and town.

Max Riché is a former engineer who now works as a documentary photographer and environmentalist. He is also the founder of Climate Heroes, a multimedia platform championing those fighting for the environment and mitigating climate change. When Riché heard about the Camp Fire, he headed to Paradise in order to document the town a year on, spending 10 days with the survivors. “I wasn’t there to photograph burning houses,” he explains. “I was there to go into another layer of the story, a more psychological and human side of it.”

From the series Paradise, 2020 © Max Riché

Riché’s ongoing series Paradise plays with time, the town seen before, during and after the blaze. By using a mix of portraiture, landscape, still life and infrared imaging, Riché creates a narrative that looks forward and back. Families rebuild homes as trees stand blackened, churches provide food for the vulnerable, hollowed-out cars sit against a fire backdrop. Riché uses infrared film which allows him to capture heat signatures normally invisible to the human eye. With this, he is able to demonstrate the flames’ effects. “What I wanted to do was have flashbacks into the fire,” he explains, “and then have those portraits and objects that symbolise the traces of something that happened in the past, to blur the lines. I wanted to give a glimpse into what they saw at that moment.” Although the flames went out months ago, the ghosts of the wildfire can be seen throughout the series, alongside the faces of those who escaped.

There is no single answer to why those returning are doing so. With the constant danger of another fire, 20,000 residents have moved away to new homes, leaving some 5000 to rebuild the town. Any sense of community Paradise had before the fire has become fractured, and social disparity divides the town. Those with insurance rebuild their houses exactly as they were, complete with gardens and swimming pools. Many are not so fortunate.

From the series Paradise, 2020 © Max Riché
From the series Paradise, 2020 © Max Riché

“There aren’t any trees any more in front of my future house – I can watch the sunset every day from my porch if I feel like it.”

Two of the survivors Riché met are Jim and Angela McCurdy. The couple lost everything in the Camp Fire, apart from Jim’s carpentry shed. Taking the spared workshop as a sign, the couple returned to rebuild, living in a trailer part-time with Jim making furniture for other returning survivors. “You have to make do with the fact that you lost everything you have, and then make it work,” Riché says. But Angela cannot stay in Paradise long because of her post-traumatic stress disorder, so the couple also have to rent a place in the neighbouring town of Chico for now. As funds quickly diminish, Jim and Angela are racing to finish rebuilding their home before the money runs out. If they don’t, they will have to leave Chico and move into the trailer permanently. Resiliently, Jim looks at the positives: “There aren’t any trees any more in front of my future house – I can watch the sunset every day from my porch if I feel like it.”

With a career-long focus on the environment, Riché sees the events in Paradise as a cautionary tale. For many who live there, the fire is not in the past. The scars, both physical and mental, have not all healed. With deadly fires occurring more frequently, the tragedy of Paradise is not an isolated incident. Riché believes that “we don’t really listen to nature. We don’t understand any more what is good or not”. What happened in Paradise could happen anywhere. He sees the town as an exercise in hubris – an attempt to rebuild, carry on and remake in the face of an unforgiving and indifferent environment.

From the series Paradise, 2020 © Max Riché

Since Riché visited, Paradise has been hit by yet another fire. He was contacted by the families he met, asking him to come back and tell their stories. With the Covid-19 pandemic, returning has become difficult, yet Riché has plans to continue the project when he can. “There is still a lot of work to be done there about how people are going to rebuild their houses and live together,” he says. “How are they going to reinvent this town?”

Isaac Huxtable

Isaac Huxtable joined the British Journal of Photography in October 2020, where he is currently the Editorial Assistant. Prior to this, he studied a BA in History of Art at the Courtauld Instititue of Art, London.