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Damage was significant at Ponderosa Elementary School in Paradise. The fire destroyed all but two of the small school system’s buildings. 

PARADISE, Calif. _ Phil and Michelle John know they have it better than most.

Their house was among the 11% in Paradise that survived the Camp fire, and they moved home in early April. Their street is largely intact, and many of their neighbors have returned. Even their cat is recovering, having miraculously turned up, half starved and reeking of smoke, a couple of weeks after the fire.

On the other hand: They’ve lost much of their social circle. Their Friday night routine _ burgers with friends at Barney’s or some other beloved restaurant _ has ended. John, their friend from Rotary, has moved to the Bay Area. Sandy, their Realtor friend, relocated to Lake Tahoe. Their golfing buddies have scattered down the hill, to Chico. While some of the old gang will likely return, hardly a day goes by when they don’t learn of someone listing their house for sale.

They miss the trees that made Paradise so beautiful. A drive around town is now a trip through hell, on roads clogged with trucks hauling away the wreckage of burned buildings and car skeletons. Paradise _ their Paradise _ has been wounded.

“My home is an oasis in a bad video game,” Phil John, 66, said, relaxing with Michelle in their living room. “When I’m out in the car ... I expect a zombie to walk out any minute.”

He paused for a moment and added: “I’m not back home. I’m sorry I say that. People get mad at me _ people who’ve lost their homes _ when I say that. I’d give up all my stuff in a second, I’d give up my home in a second, if everybody else had their stuff. I’m hurt by what’s happened to my friends. I’m hurt by what’s happened to my community.”

This is life in Paradise, six months after the worst wildfire in California history destroyed most of this town of 26,000 and killed 85 people. The Johns are among the few thousand who’ve returned to Paradise, and the neighboring communities of Magalia and Concow, trying to re-create what they once had in a place they no longer recognize.

It hasn’t been easy. Returnees must cope with inconveniences large and small.

The simplest errands turn into lengthy chores, as dump trucks and demolition crews snarl traffic. Everyone in Paradise uses bottled water; they can’t drink out of the tap because the town’s plumbing system has turned into a “toxic cocktail” contaminated with benzene.

Almost all of the area’s schools have temporarily moved to Chico and Oroville. The town’s hospital is closed until 2020 at the earliest. The burn zone has two open supermarkets and four restaurants.

As workers in white hazmat suits continue to sift through the toxic rubble, reminders of the tragedy are everywhere. Every evening, after the cleanup crews return to their motels in Chico and Oroville, the people who live here look out at the ruins _ and ponder the emptiness.

“Inside my house, it’s no different, until I look out my window,” said Paradise resident Peggy Mattier, who moved back home in March. “When I look out a window I’m like, oh yeah ... there’s nobody around.”

Some are coping better than others. Mattier is happy to be back home. The Johns plan to relocate eventually, out of sadness and a desire to be closer to their grandchildren in Reno.

It’s been an accumulation of things. Kathi Hiatt’s hairstylist, Debbie’s Place, burned down. Colyer Veterinary, where they took their four dogs, burned down. Their church, Paradise United Methodist, didn’t burn but has closed anyway, at least for the time being. The Paradise Cinema 7 movie theater burned down, “and we don’t even have a hamburger stand,” Alan Hiatt said.

Every trip for groceries, to the hardware store, to the post office is a reminder that 85 of their neighbors burned to death the morning of Nov. 8.

“You can’t go forward because it’s in your face; it’s in your face every day,” Kathi Hiatt said. She compared the situation to having a loved one die and someone “put the coffin in your living room.”

Before the fire, she’d look out her living room window each morning to see foxes and deer. Now she sees porta-potties and abandoned refrigerators and giant stacks of logs. One morning in January, she looked outside and burst into tears.

She told Alan, “I can’t live here anymore.”

That was that. The decision to relocate, after 18 years in Magalia, was heartbreaking but irrevocable. Kathi, 70, said she realized it will take years before the area is rebuilt.

“This isn’t going to happen in our lifetime,” she said.

They aren’t the only ones giving up. For-sale signs are sprouting all over Paradise and the surrounding area. Some people are leaving because they’re afraid fire will strike again, said the Hiatts’ real estate agent, Johnny Klinger. Others are “fed up with California” or simply too overwhelmed to stay, he said.

At the same time, he said the market is hot because of the demand for housing, and prices have jumped smartly. But not everyone has benefited. The Hiatts have had to drop their asking price.

“We’re in the devastated area _ that’s a hard sell,” Kathi Hiatt said.

With so many people dispersed, some believe Paradise won’t recoup its lost population for years, despite town leaders’ pledge to rebuild.

New Orleans is still 20% less populous than before Hurricane Katrina. Sonoma County suffered a population loss of 2,200 in the year after the 2017 wine country fires. Of the 3,000 homes that burned in Santa Rosa, only 275 have been rebuilt and another 1,188 are under construction.

In Paradise _ a poorer community than Santa Rosa _ reconstruction will likely be slow. Although locals are excited that a new home on the east side of town has already been framed, it’s clear that construction on a mass scale won’t start anytime soon. Out of more than 10,000 contaminated lots, only 304 have been scrubbed clean of toxins and readied for rebuilding. The work will continue through early 2020, said Cal Recycle spokesman Lance Klug.

Like many residents, Stewart Nugent, 68, who stayed behind and saved his home and his neighbors’ during the fire, is under no illusions: Paradise won’t return to normal for years.

“It would be nice to go on vacation for about five years and come back and see how it’s doing,” he said while cleaning up a shed in his yard that was destroyed after a worker cut down a burned tree and it accidentally fell on it. “See what they’ve got. See if they’ve got the Jack in the Box opened back up.”

Nicki Jones has already opened her store back up. The owner of Bobbi’s Boutique women’s clothing, Jones watched her old shop burn down and promptly bought a vacant building across the street. Her grand opening in early April was a cause for celebration.

Shoppers have been streaming in from Chico and elsewhere “to support our town,” Jones said. She plans to open a restaurant this summer in the other half of her building.

“I move forward; that’s my way of coping,” she said.

But Jones, as big a cheerleader as Paradise has, isn’t oblivious to the challenges her adopted hometown faces in the coming years.

“It’ll be a smaller town,” she said quietly before turning to help a customer. “A different town.”

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