Looking over the scorched-earth plot of land along Neal Road in south Paradise where his mobile home was just two weeks ago, William Hammond wonders whether he will rebuild.
This is the second time Hammond’s house has been burned down by a wildfire.
Ten years ago, a strong north wind pushed the flames of the Humboldt Fire across his road and torched his property.
Now, on Thanksgiving morning, here he is again, walking the length of this patch of pines and junipers with an insurance assessor, pointing out where his home, his sister’s home and his niece’s home stood days ago.
A lemon tree near the road remains unscathed, fat with fruit. The metal playground next to his sister’s house is also untouched, the tire swing still attached. His nephew had to leave behind his gold S500 Mercedes, and the hood is scorched. The side mirrors and headlights are melted, pouring down in frozen plastic drips.
Hammond says there’s no use looking through the charred houses — last time, there was nothing left worth the bother.
“I was pretty traumatized by the first fire, it (made) my blood run cold,” he said. “On the other hand, I have an inkling of what I’m going to go through. … You (have) got to go on, what the heck else are you going to do?”
Between renting “a shoddy old house in Chico for more money” and owning a new house, the decision is clear to him. He’s rebuilding.
In the meanwhile, Hammond’s boss at Fanno Saw Works, a local manufacturer of pruning blades and equipment, has a spare house in Chico that Hammond’s family was able to move into soon after the evacuation. It was the same house Hammond moved into the first time his place was destroyed. But it’s completely empty of furnishings.
His family has a lot to be thankful for, Hammond said. They all got out. They’re alive, though as the Camp Fire came through, it wasn’t a certain outcome. The Hammonds received a robocall from the sheriff’s department, but “man, the fire came just so fast we were just lucky to get out of there,” he said.
“It was just raining soot like snowflakes, the sky was dark red like nighttime,” he said.
Traffic was already bad, said his sister, Susie Hammond, when they left. It took two-and-a-half hours to drive the seven mile stretch out of Paradise and out of harm’s way. The Camp Fire has killed 83 people as of Wednesday night, and is California’s deadliest and most destructive wildfire.
The Hammonds said they are survivors, and always believed they’d get out. Susie Hammond has cheated death 41 times at least, said her son, Cameron Scism. That’s how many times she has had surgery for her various illnesses — Lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia.
Scism takes care of his mom, a certified healthcare administrator, living just steps from his sister and his uncle. It was already a stressful time for his family, Scism said, especially when his mom recently had a heart attack. She is supposed to have surgery again in the next couple months.
“This morning I broke down before I took a shower and started crying and praying because I want to go home. I want my own house. I want my own kitchen,” Susie Hammond said. “It’s really hard, because we feel very displaced and lost but I’m trying to keep it together for my grandkids and for my brother and for my son so we have some kind of semblance of tradition, so we don’t lose that family.”
And so the turkey was in the oven by 1 p.m., cooking in a disposable tin foil tray. In another foil tray, yams were topped with marshmallows, ready to be broiled.
The deviled eggs turned out so good they didn’t need the “touch of sugar” she usually puts in them.
She passed the plate around the living room, where the family would eat Thanksgiving dinner sitting on their newly-purchased futon and bed, or maybe just standing up in the kitchen. This year’s Thanksgiving is like every years, and nothing like it.
“Want a deviled egg?” she asked her grandson Landon Griffith. “Yeah.” “I knew you would.”
He took a bite.
“They’re hecka good. Thanks grandma,” he said.
Across Chico, thousands of free meals are being offered to other evacuees of the Camp Fire, at shelters and churches and at some local businesses. It will be a quieter affair tonight at the Hammond’s new Magnolia Avenue home.
Hammond and his family said they’re glad to be under a roof, not in a tent or in a motel or in a car, but someplace on their own terms.
William Hammond will probably rebuild his home — when he packed a duffel bag of clothes before fleeing the fire, he made sure to grab his check book and the floor plan of his home. It’s a narrow structure, but with an incredible view from the deck overlooking the canyon.
On clear days, without smoke or fog, he can see the Sutter Buttes in the distance.
The rest of his family is less sure.
His sister and nephew are thinking of moving somewhere else, maybe Oregon. The nursing home Scism worked at forced him to resign after he said he needed time to find a place to stay and buy new clothes for work.
He said there’s not much left in Paradise for him and his mom. That’s a conversation for another time.
Susie Hammond is focused now on how she’ll get the turkey out of the oven without the foil tray crumpling in on itself.
Tomorrow, she said, they will buy a Christmas tree.