USA – PARADISE, Butte County — During a weekend trip to visit friends in Oroville in early April, Mihai Suciu and his girlfriend took a side trip a half hour north to Paradise, the Butte County forest town that was all but leveled when wildfires swept through the western slopes of the Sierra in November. Having watched news reports showing the scorched remains of entire neighborhoods and rows of melted automobiles, Suciu, an amateur photographer from Huntington Beach, was curious to see the damage.
“I just wanted to witness it and see the scale of it,” Suciu says weeks later. Over a couple of hours, he took dozens of photos. “I didn’t even feel good doing it. But at the same time, I felt it’s important to document — just to show it that this is not nice, this is not pretty, but it’s real.”
The mix of morbid curiosity and compassion that drove Suciu to visit Paradise has inspired a wave of similar visitors — disaster tourists, they’re called — to make pilgrimages to the site of the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California’s history. Alongside them have come other outsiders: Academics, government officials, news media, documentary filmmakers and truckloads of construction workers have arrived in droves, casting the quiet community in an uncomfortable spotlight.
Locals often spot them wandering the wreckage, taking photos, sometimes even sifting through the scorched belongings of residents who have either been displaced or died in the fire. To a town still in the throes of grief, a place many came to for refuge, the sight of strangers treading through the burn scar can feel viscerally like stepping on an open wound.
“It feels very invasive,” says Heidi Madery, who lives in Magalia, a hamlet up the road from Paradise that was spared the worst of the Camp Fire. “While I understand it, and I don’t want you to forget about us, it feels invasive.”
In California, cities recently damaged or decimated in the state’s increasingly brutal wildfires have played host to similar visitors. Encounters like the ones in Paradise have been reported at the Coffey Park neighborhood in Santa Rosa as well as Malibu.
Just six months removed from the Camp Fire, visitors have already flocked to Paradise, and they’ve expressed their interest in a wide variety of ways.
Grammer says the pieces are meant to evoke the shadows of atomic bomb victims seared into the ruins of Hiroshima. They have garnered a warm reception from locals and outsiders alike. The Chico Enterprise-Record newspaper published a guide-style map of the murals.
Other behavior, however, has touched a nerve. Three cleanup workers were fired by their construction company after posting insensitive images of the devastation on social media. During an annual bike ride fundraiser through the region in April that drew 3,500 cyclists, riders new to the area pulled off the road to snap selfies by a burned-out gas station and other charred remains — conduct some locals found distasteful.
Most Paradise residents chose to settle there because it is quiet and out of the way. But locals have found themselves on display to all types of unfamiliar faces. Academic researchers are streaming in from universities around the world to pull soil samples, measure moisture content or conduct interviews for forthcoming white papers about the effects of trauma on a communitywide scale. Insurance appraisers, construction workers and cleanup crews are combing through the rubble. It can be difficult for locals to comprehend what’s happening to their town, even while they watch.
“How do you distinguish the dark tourists from the people who need to be here? What makes them different?” says Paradise Town Council member Melissa Schuster, who lost her home in the Camp Fire. “It’s been a challenge since day one.”
Several documentary filmmakers have descended on the Ridge as well, including a crew commissioned by National Geographic and helmed by Hollywood director Ron Howard. Camera crews roam freely and shoot liberally. “It’s not horrible, but it is tedious,” Madery says.
Butte County officials and academics now face a management problem: how to prevent outsiders from inadvertently reopening wounds the community is trying to heal.
On a sunny weekend in May, the main arteries through Paradise were filled almost exclusively by dump trucks hauling loads of rubble. Cleanup crews in bright plastic suits removed debris and raked the dirt in plots. Neighborhoods decimated by the Camp Fire were bright with golden poppies and green ground cover as a historically wet winter gave way to spring and summer, when tourism hits its peak and the threat of wildfire looms large.
Community leaders held meetings to chart a path forward. In a place where the barriers separating private and public space have disintegrated, they are grappling with complex questions: Is it OK for outsiders to ask survivors about their experience? How does a town strike a balance between encouraging tourism and dissuading gawkers? Is there a right way to visit? Similar questions emerged last winter, after wildfire and ensuing mudslides ravaged the area around Montecito, and Santa Barbara and Ventura paused tourism promotions.
“There’s no playbook for this,” Schuster says.
Chico State researchers and local tourism bureaus are crafting materials to prepare visitors for their experience and instruct them on proper etiquette. Explore Butte County is drawing up a sheet of Camp Fire FAQs it plans to distribute to local hotels and disseminate to visitors as a way of answering sensitive questions before they’re asked.
“People want to see the devastation,” says Carolyn Denero, executive director of Explore Butte County. The list “is a way of saying, ‘Here’s a better way to visit. We know you want to support us, but please don’t get out of your car and take a selfie in front of someone’s house.’”
After fielding inquiries from 45 universities keen to study the fire’s effects on Paradise, Chico State educators drafted a list of “guiding principles” for incoming researchers and recovery workers. It emphasizes gaining informed consent from study subjects as well as the need to reduce the burden on residents of answering painful questions.
“We’re not putting up barriers, we’re creating a path or a trail for them to get done what they need to get done,” says Megan Kurtz, a lecturer in Chico State’s Department of Recreation, Hospitality and Parks Management who helped write the guidelines.
There’s talk of establishing a permanent exhibit to educate visitors about the fire and its long-term effects. Kurtz has in mind a “resiliency center” that would incorporate information and images from the Camp Fire, research conducted in the region in the aftermath of the fire, and elements promoting personal healing through forest therapy.
“This would be a place where people can come and learn about why this happened and how it happened,” Kurtz says. “We don’t want residents to be scared of where they live.”
Kurtz imagines the center at some point exporting its knowledge to other fire-prone and fire-affected areas of California. “I want people to experience this and learn something from it and be able to see the humanitarian side of it — that these were people’s lives,” Kurtz says. “This is not an attraction at Universal Studios for you to see what a town that’s been burned down looks like.”
On a recent Saturday morning, Grammer stepped back from a clean white wall on the side of an administration building at Paradise High School, rattling a spray can in his hand. After photos of his murals went viral online, Comcast commissioned him to create a permanent mural at the school during a cleanup event the cable company was financing.
This would be his 18th mural in the area. “At this point, I’m burned out, emotionally,” he says.
He recounted what initially drew him to want to visit Paradise after the Camp Fire. Areas besieged by disasters have always had a strange appeal, he says.
“When I hear a devastating story or learn about something that’s been destroyed, I see an image in my head and feel like I have to paint that,” Grammer says. “As soon as I saw the chimney (of a destroyed home in Paradise) on Facebook, I had to go paint it.”
Seated at a picnic table watching Grammer paint, Madery remembered trying to reintegrate into her normal routine after the fire swept through. “Early on, we couldn’t make it through town,” she says. “We’ve done a lot of driving around town trying to desensitize ourselves. It’s always a welcome sight to see the murals.”
Grammer glanced at an image on his phone showing a young woman clutching her shoulder and surrounded by bright blooming flowers — the image he was transcribing onto the wall at the high school. “This one is special because it’s gonna last,” he says. “Hopefully it’s going to bring inspiration to students — hopefully just giving them hope that there is a future here, that there’s beauty in Paradise.”