A celebratory crowd around him, lifelong Paradise resident Jason Buzzard stepped to the counter at Town Hall on Thursday to become the first Camp Fire victim to pull a building permit for a new home on the fire-ravaged hillside.
Officials called it a milestone moment in their efforts to resuscitate the town of 27,000 after 90 percent of its structures were destroyed by the wildfire that tore through the Butte County hills in November.
For Buzzard and his wife Meagan, it is an act of faith and determination.
Five months after they were burned out of their Ramada Lane home, the pair will rebuild a slightly larger house on the same footprint and move in in about eight months.
“We all had a few months to reflect on what we lost,” Buzzard said, “but now it is time to move on. It is time to spin it forward.”
There was no question about returning. He grew up here. And his 11-year-old daughter Grace will too. He knows his family will live with fire risk, but says he believes November’s massive wildfire was a “one-off event.”
“Paradise is home,” the real estate agent said. “I hope it comes back stronger. I want to encourage everyone to rebuild.”
Paradise officials said that they plan to begin issuing building permits “with increasing frequency” in the coming weeks.
“This first building permit is a sign of the resilience and perseverance that our residents have in coming back to Paradise.” Paradise Mayor Jody Jones said. ”The ball is rolling.”
The fire, which killed 85 people, has prompted questions about ongoing extreme fire danger in hill towns throughout California. Paradise officials, however, say they believe they can rebuild with more modern fire-resistant construction standards, modern infrastructure, and better fire safety redesigns, such as more road capacity in and out of town in case of emergency.
Barry Long, a consultant with Urban Design Associates, said the new town will be designed to have less ready fuel for fires, including fewer trees, less landscaping, fewer propane tanks, and a stronger emphasis on defensible space around homes.
The county’s Butte Strong Fund will provide homeowners up to $3,500 per property to help pay permit fees, Jones said.
The hoped-for growth boom may be slow, though. The fire forced many in the area’s workforce to move away, which could lead to a construction labor shortage worse than Sonoma and Santa Rosa experienced after the 2017 North Bay fires. And state officials are only in the first few weeks of what will be a year-long debris cleanup process.
The fire, which PG&E acknowledged last month was likely started by its power equipment, destroyed more than 11,000 homes in the town, and nearly 19,000 structures in total in Paradise, Concow, Magalia and Pulga.
An estimated 580 lots have been fully cleared so far, CalRecycle officials said Thursday. Most of those, however, still need to undergo final soil testing before state officials will release them to local officials and homeowners.
Only 21 town residents have applied for building permits to reconstruct destroyed homes. The mayor said she was among those who intend to begin building this spring. Her property has not yet been cleared of debris.
City officials have scheduled a series of community meetings in April to discuss how to rebuild the town.
Debris removal operations are on pause this week due to heavy rain. It’s the second such break since work began in February on the main removal effort. State officials say work is expected to resume April 1, weather permitting.
“We are still on track to complete the mission within the one-year time frame,” CalRecycle spokesman Lance Klug said.
Butte County and the town of Paradise sent notices last week to 941 property owners who have not yet signed up for state-sponsored or private debris removal, informing them they must do so by April 15 or face possible fines.