Paradise Mayor Jody Jones got the call on Friday: President Donald Trump was coming to her fire-scarred town Saturday for a tour, and he wanted her to join him.
Jones is a retired Caltrans executive who has dealt with governors and other high-ranking elected officials. But this felt surreal.
“If you’re a normal person, you always think, ‘Oh, it’d be cool to meet the president.’ But you think it would be about something positive. Not because your town has just burned down,” she said.
As media cameras clicked, Jones took a sobering walk on a cold and smoky Saturday morning through a burned-out mobile home in Paradise with Trump and California Gov. Jerry Brown.
The Camp Fire ripped through Paradise a week earlier, incinerating an estimated 90 percent of the hillside town outside of Chico. At least 77 people were killed and nearly 11,000 buildings destroyed, most of them residences.
Jones, who had moved to Paradise 14 years ago after she married, lost her home in the fire, as did most local police, firefighters and town officials. It’s left her feeling at times overwhelmed. And it has impressed on her the need for help from state and federal officials.
She was worried, she said. Trump and Brown had been sparring for weeks via Twitter with Trump contending California is failing to thin its forests and Brown saying Trump is not acknowledging the role climate change is playing.
“I felt this nervousness. Are the state and the federal government really open about coming together? Are they on the same page about helping us?”
But the morning gave her hope that the president and governor could put disagreements aside. She was the first to shake hands with Trump when he arrived on the tarmac at Chico Municipal Airport, and she saw that he had been accompanied on the plane by Brown and governor-elect Gavin Newsom.
“They seemed to be friendly,” she said of the trio. “There was no politics (during the walk). I was gratified.”
She said Trump appeared to be very focused on taking in the destruction. “He was shocked,” she said. “He kept saying no one could have anticipated this.”
She and Trump huddled at one moment at the burned husk of a trailer with an American flag draped over it, and she told him her sister had lived in a trailer that was destroyed in the fire.
“He was very sorry,” she said. “I found him to be gracious and warm. He said he was going to help us.”
Jones is now living with her husband in a rented mobile home in Chico. She intends to rebuild in Paradise and is hoping many others are willing to come back and make the city stronger.
But she says she knows she and the town have a long, long way to go. “I’m pragmatic. I look to the future. But this is going to take time.”