It’s a required field trip, designed to teach a lesson.
In the coming weeks, the Pacific Gas & Electric governing board will visit the town of Paradise, ordered to do so by a federal court judge who wants them to see firsthand the devastation caused by last November’s Camp Fire.
“We can get a bus,” William Alsup, a San Francisco judge, said. “I think I’m going to go on this tour too.”
The fire was the worst wildland blaze in state history, killing 85 people and destroying nearly 19,000 structures. On Wednesday, the state’s fire agency, Cal Fire, ruled that PG&E equipment started the blaze. Alsup, who is overseeing a criminal case against PG&E for the 2010 San Bruno gas line explosion, issued his order last week for the board to visit Paradise and San Bruno officials.
In making the pilgrimage, PG&E officials will be the latest in a long line of visitors to the Butte County ridge, starting in November when President Donald Trump, former Gov. Jerry Brown and current Gov. Gavin Newsom walked together through the ruins of a mobile home park.
Numerous officials from other cities and counties have visited as well, hoping to take home lessons they’ve learned. Film crews have come to document the scene. Academics and researchers have spent time in town.
And a few people may have shown up simply out of curiosity to see what a destroyed town looks like, officials say. That phenomenon, sometimes called “dark tourism,” can be controversial at times, but invited other times.
Millions of travelers annually trek to sites where trauma and death occurred, such as Hiroshima, Chernobyl, the World Trade Center site, Pearl Harbor, the Auschwitz-Birkenau Holocaust site, or the grassy knoll in Dallas’ Dealey Plaza. The city of Salem in Massachusetts promotes its witch trials history to draw visitors and boost the economy.
But Monica Nolan, executive director of the Paradise Ridge Chamber of Commerce, points out that those site visits are typically curated and involve historic events, not an unfolding drama like Paradise today, where emotions are still raw and work crews are well into cleanup.
Nolan said she encourages visitors to come up for shopping and recreation. But they should stay on main roads. Officials do not want gawkers with selfie sticks getting in the way of reconstruction.
PG&E officials declined to discuss the visit, but issued a statement saying “the judge’s sentence is a welcome opportunity for our new board to engage fully with Paradise and the City of San Bruno. PG&E’s new board members will meet with representatives from those communities and witness the rebuild and recovery work first hand.”
Local Assemblyman James Gallagher, R-Yuba City, who brought some state legislators up a few months ago to tour, said he is pleased by the judge’s order.
“You absolutely have to see the devastation to fully appreciate what happened and all that needs to happen in the recovery,” he said. “Maybe they can get a better picture of where they can play a role in the recovery. I hope they will step up and take that responsibility.”
Sen. Jim Nielsen, R-Tehama, called the judge’s idea wise. “Individuals in positions of authority should be able to visualize and recognize and realize the consequences of things.”
Those who visit will see a landscape of dramatic contrasts. Thousands of destroyed home sites remain much as they were after the fire – dead lots filled with ash, debris, twisted and melted metal, and burned husks of cars. One local official said many former residential neighborhoods feel like a cemetery.
But much has changed in the six months since the fire. The ridge is now crowded daily with workers removing debris, trimming trees and fixing utilities. Hundreds of trucks are hauling rubble off the hillside, sometimes creating congestion on the handful of access roads. A smattering of businesses are open in town, and some homeowners have hired contractors to begin to rebuild.
It’s made visitation complicated.
“There are still significant hazards around Paradise,” State Office of Emergency Services official Eric Lamoureux said. “The fewer the people who don’t need to be up there the better off.”
He said the state recently turned down a requested tour from a foreign delegation because their group was large and didn’t have any particular focus other than general curiosity.
Josie Gibbs, who lives two hours away in Lake Almanor, is among those who have come up to see the area. Her trip a few weeks ago was an emotional journey to pay her respects. She once taught at Paradise Elementary School.
She joined the annual Chico Wildflower bike ride that includes Paradise, girding herself as she pedaled toward her school. There, she got off her bike and stood alone.
“I was dumbfounded by what I saw.” Her classroom and the entire school were gone. “It was super emotional. I really let loose,” she said.
But as she rode through town, she also saw flowers and trees blooming and lots being cleaned. She saw one property where the house had burned to the ground, but someone appeared to be continuing to mow and water the lawn.
“There was more life than I thought,” she said. “More activity. I felt hope.”