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Our Beautiful Town Is Gone

The story of Paradise, California, and the deadliest wildfire in the state’s history

By Lauren Tarshis
From the October/November 2019 Issue

Learning Objective: This narrative nonfiction article describes the destruction of Paradise, California, in a 2018 wildfire. Students will identify key details that describe what happened to the town and its residents before, during, and after the blaze.

Lexiles: Beginner, 500L-600L, 600L-700L, 800L-900L
Guided Reading Level: N
DRA Level: 30
Think and Read: Key Details

As you read, look for the details the author included to help you understand what the people of Paradise went through before and after a fire.

This can’t be happening.”

That’s what 9-year-old Eleanor Weddig thought as she sat in the car with her father. It was the morning of November 8, 2018. Eleanor was caught in the middle of what would become California’s deadliest wildfire ever. All across the town of Paradise, houses were in flames. Trees burned like giant torches. Ash fell from the sky. The morning sky was midnight dark.

“Am I dreaming?” Eleanor asked herself. But the nightmare in Paradise was real. Within hours, 85 people would die. Nearly 14,000 houses would burn. Schools, playgrounds, offices, the hospital—all would be destroyed.

Thousands of people, including Eleanor and  her dad, Greg, were trying to escape before it was too late.

In November 2018, a wildfire burned the town of Paradise, California. This is an area where fires are common. But this fire was worse than any other. More than 85 people died because of it. Thousands of houses burned down. So did schools, playgrounds, and the hospital.

This is the story of some of the children and parents who survived.

“This can’t be happening.”

That’s what 9-year-old Eleanor Weddig thought as she sat in the car with her dad. It was the morning of November 8, 2018. Eleanor was in the middle of what would be California’s worst wildfire. Across the town of Paradise, houses were on fire. Trees burned like giant torches. Ash fell from the sky. The morning sky was midnight dark.

“Am I dreaming?” Eleanor asked herself. But this nightmare was real. Within hours, 85 people would die. Nearly 14,000 houses would burn. So would schools, playgrounds, offices, and the hospital. 

Thousands of people were trying to escape. Eleanor and her dad. had to get out before it was too late.

“This can’t be happening.”

That’s what 9-year-old Eleanor Weddig was thinking as she sat in the car with her father. It was the morning of November 8, 2018, and Eleanor was caught in the middle of what would become the deadliest wildfire in the history of California. All across the town of Paradise, thousands of houses were in flames. Trees burned like giant torches. Ash fell from the sky. The morning sky was midnight dark.

“Am I dreaming?” Eleanor kept asking herself. She pinched her leg,  hard, trying to wake herself up.  

But Eleanor wasn’t asleep. 

Tragically, the nightmarish scene in Paradise was all too real. Within hours, 85 people would be dead. Nearly 14,000 houses would be burned to the ground. Schools, playgrounds, offices, businesses, the hospital—all would be destroyed. 

And now Eleanor, her dad, Greg, and thousands of others were trying to escape before it was too late. 

The town of Paradise was born about 170 years ago, just after the California Gold Rush of 1849. A lucky man had discovered gold in a mountain stream, about 100 miles south of Paradise. The news spread, and soon tens of thousands of people—nicknamed ’49ers—were rushing to California, their hearts filled with golden dreams. 

Few struck it rich. But many fell in love with the California wilderness, the feeling of wide-open possibility in the American West. They built new towns, places like Paradise. 

Over the decades, Paradise grew into a large and bustling town. Kids like Eleanor grew up hiking through the thick forests, fishing in the Feather River, and gobbling up pancakes at Debbie’s Restaurant, a local favorite.

On the morning of November 8, Eleanor got dressed for school and ate her cereal. Down the road, her classmate Lucas Fisher woke up as his mom, Holly, opened the curtains of his room. Across town, Paradise school-bus driver Kevin McKay steered a big yellow bus through the town’s narrow, tree-lined streets. 

All seemed normal—except for the plume of smoke rising out of the forest in the distance.

Kevin spotted it around 6:45 a.m., as he drove his first morning bus route. So did Lucas’s mom, as she woke up Lucas for school. 

Many people in town saw it. But few were very concerned. Fires are common in the forests around Paradise. Plus, this one seemed far away. 

Rising Smoke

Earlier that morning, Eleanor had gotten dressed for school and had eaten her cereal. Down the road, her classmate Lucas Fisher woke up when his mom, Holly, opened the curtains in his room. Across town, Paradise school bus driver Kevin McKay steered through the town’s narrow, tree-lined streets.

All seemed normal—except for the plume of smoke rising out of the forest in the distance.

Kevin spotted it as he drove his first morning bus route. Many people in town saw it. But they weren’t too worried. Fires are common in the forests around Paradise. Plus, this one seemed far away.

Race to Escape

The morning of the fire started out like a normal day. Eleanor Weddig, age 9, was getting ready for school. So was her friend Lucas Fisher. A school bus driver named Kevin McKay was starting work. When Lucas’s dad, Josh, saw a big cloud of smoke in the distance, he got worried. He was a firefighter. He knew this could be the sign of a bad fire.

 Josh told his family to quickly drive to a town named Chico, 15 miles away. Then Josh climbed on a fire truck with other firefighters.

The fire was moving toward Paradise. Experts now think it started when an electrical wire burned grass. That burning grass turned into a wall of flames. Every second, it burned through a chunk of land as big as a football field.

In the meantime, Eleanor and her dad grabbed special items from their home. Her dad knew it would burn down soon. One of the things Eleanor took was a stuffed rabbit. Then they left for Chico, but the roads were jammed. Almost everyone in town was trying to leave.

Some parents had to get their children from school first. If they couldn’t get to their kids, the kids were put on a bus to Chico. Kevin McKay was driving 22 kids and two teachers there. It took hours to drive those 15 miles, but he made it, and so did Eleanor and her dad. 

Josh and other firefighters battled back flames with a powerful hose. The smoke was so thick, it was like breathing fire itself.

The fire burned for 16 more days. The beautiful town of Paradise was gone.

Rising Smoke

Earlier that morning, all seemed normal. Eleanor had gotten ready for school. Down the road, her classmate Lucas Fisher did too. Paradise school bus driver Kevin McKay had started his morning route. But then Kevin saw smoke rising out of the forest in the distance.

Many people in town saw the smoke. But they weren’t too worried. Fires are common in the forests around Paradise. Plus, this one seemed far away.


David Little/MediaNews Group/The Mercury News via Getty Images

Sign of Trouble

This growing black cloud in the distance meant a fire was on its way.

Bigger and Deadlier

The fire was far away—about 10 miles away. Experts now think that sparks from an electrical wire had ignited dry grass on a hillside. The smoldering brush quickly turned into a raging wall of flames.

Firefighters in Paradise got ready for action. One of them was Josh Fisher, Lucas’s dad. He stared at the growing cloud, worried.

California has always had wildfires. But they have become bigger and harder to fight. A major reason is climate change, most scientists believe. The weather in California and around Earth has been getting hotter. It’s harder to predict. Many of California’s worst fires have happened over the past decade. The last five years were the hottest on record.

The fire was moving toward Paradise with terrifying speed. Every second, it burned through a chunk of land the size of a football field. Even more dangerous, a powerful wind was picking up pieces of burning trees. They flew across the river like flaming birds, sparking fires wherever they landed.

Josh told his wife to quickly drive herself, Lucas, and Lucas’s little sister to Chico. That’s a small city 15 miles away. He then climbed onto a fire truck with two other firefighters.

Life Goes On

Today, the town is mostly still empty. Some families, like Eleanor’s, live in a trailer in Chico. But life goes on. Schools were set up in nearby towns. Kids have playdates and field trips and birthday parties. 

Nobody knows what the future will bring for Paradise. But people have learned a big lesson about their town. “It’s the people who make a town,” says Lucas’s mom, Holly. “We are resilient. I’m certain we will rebuild a beautiful Paradise together.” 

Bigger and Deadlier

The fire was about 10 miles from Paradise. Experts now think that sparks from an electrical wire had lit dry grass on fire. The smoldering grass quickly turned into a wall of flames. 

Firefighters in Paradise got ready for action. One of them was Josh Fisher, Lucas’s dad. He stared at the growing cloud. He was worried. 

California has always had wildfires. But they have become bigger and harder to fight. Most scientists believe that a major reason is the way our weather has changed. The weather in California and around Earth has been getting hotter. It’s harder to know what kind of weather is coming. Many of California’s worst fires have happened over the past 10 years. The last five years were the hottest on record.

The fire was quickly moving toward Paradise. Every second, it burned through a chunk of land the size of a football field. Even more dangerous, a strong wind was picking up pieces of burning trees. They flew across the river like flaming birds. The pieces sparked fires wherever they landed. 

Josh told his wife to quickly drive their family to Chico. That’s a small city 15 miles away. He then climbed onto a fire truck with two other firefighters. It was time for him to start the hard job of beating back this fire.

Bigger and Deadlier

And it was—about 10 miles away, near the little town of Pulga. Experts now think that sparks from a faulty electrical wire had ignited dry grass on a remote hillside. 

Like so many devastating California wildfires, the smoldering brush quickly exploded into a raging wall of flames. Firefighters in Paradise mobilized. One of them was Josh Fisher, Lucas’s dad. 

Josh has spent more than 22 years fighting dangerous wildfires. He stared at the growing cloud with alarm. “Man,” he thought, “this one could really do some damage.”

Wildfires have always been a fact of life in California—and across America’s West. But in recent years, America’s wildfires have become bigger and harder to fight. A major reason is climate change, scientists agree. The weather in California and around the Earth has been getting hotter and less predictable. Many of California’s biggest and deadliest fires have happened over the past decade. The last five years were the hottest on record. 




Flaming Birds

Paradise had been threatened before by wildfires. In 2008, about 10,000 people from the town had to evacuate when a massive fire closed in. The town was lucky that time. The fire stopped at the Feather River along the town’s border. It protected Paradise like a watery shield.  

But as Josh Fisher sensed, the November 8 fire was different. It moved with terrifying speed. Every second, it devoured a chunk of land the size of a football field. 

Even more dangerous, the powerful wind was picking up pieces of burning trees. Like flaming birds, they flew across the river, igniting fires wherever they landed. By 7:45 a.m., dozens of fires were burning in Paradise. And the main fire was closing in. 

Josh called his wife and urged her to quickly drive herself, Lucas, and Lucas’s little sister, Sienna, to Chico, a small city 15 miles to the west. He then climbed onto a fire truck with two other firefighters. 

Josh had risked his life fighting wildfires before. But nothing prepared him for what he would face in the hours to come.

Beloved Things

By 8:30 a.m., panic was spreading through Paradise. Thousands of people began to evacuate. If parents couldn’t get to school to pick up their children, the kids were put on buses. Driver Kevin McKay had 22 children and two teachers on his bus. The sky was black. He saw fires burning all around.

Lucas was lucky. He, his mom, and his sister made it to Chico quickly. But with every minute that passed, it became harder to escape by car. The roads were jammed with traffic.

At Eleanor’s house, her father grabbed the computer and photo albums. Eleanor went into her room.

“Dad told me to get my most-beloved things,” she says.

She chose a 3-D printed cat from her best friend and a stuffed rabbit. She tried to bring all her stuffed animals. But there wasn’t room in the car. And time was running out.

Eleanor and her dad got into their car and inched along. Across town, Kevin McKay’s bus was crawling past burning houses and flaming trees. He thought about his mother and son. They were already safe in Chico. But would he ever see them again?

As the morning went on, people were realizing that their beautiful town would soon be gone. And with escape routes blocked, many were fighting to survive.


Beloved Things

By 8:30 a.m., panic was spreading through Paradise. Thousands of people began to leave. If parents couldn’t get to school to pick up their children, the kids were put on buses. Driver Kevin McKay had 22 children and two teachers on his bus. The sky was black. He saw fires burning all around. 

Lucas was lucky. He, his mom, and his sister made it to Chico quickly. But with every minute that passed, it became harder to escape. The roads were jammed with traffic. 

At Eleanor’s house, her father grabbed the computer and photo albums. Eleanor went into her room.  

“Dad told me to get my most-beloved things,” she says. 

She chose a 3-D printed cat from her best friend. She also grabbed a stuffed rabbit. She tried to bring all her stuffed animals. But there wasn’t room in the car. And time was running out. 

Eleanor and her dad got into their car. They inched along. Across town, Kevin McKay’s bus was crawling past burning houses and trees. He thought about his mother and son. They were already safe in Chico. But would he ever see them again?

As the morning went on, people were realizing that their beautiful town would soon be gone. And with escape routes blocked, many were fighting to survive.

Beloved Things

By 8:30 a.m., panic was spreading through Paradise, and thousands of people began to evacuate. Parents raced to schools to pick up their children. Kids whose parents couldn’t get to the schools were put on buses. Driver Kevin McKay left one of the town’s elementary schools with 22 children and two teachers on his bus. The sky was black, and now he could see fires burning all around. 

“I thought to myself, ‘This could be it,’?” he remembers. 

Very quickly, the few main streets of Paradise became jammed with traffic. Lucas was lucky; he, his mom, and his sister made it to Chico quickly. 

But with every minute that passed, escaping by car became more difficult on roads jammed with traffic. 

Eleanor and her dad had gone to Eleanor’s school. But they quickly returned home and prepared to evacuate to Chico, where Eleanor’s mom, Nicole, was working. Her father grabbed the computer hard drive and photo albums. Eleanor went into her room.  

“Dad told me to get my most beloved things,” she says. 

She chose the stuffed rabbit she’d had since she was a baby and a 3-D printed cat her best friend, Isla, had given her. She tried to bring all her stuffed animals. But there wasn’t enough room in the car—and time was running out. 

By now streets were even more clogged. Some roads were completely blocked by burning tree limbs, electrical wires, and cars abandoned by terrified drivers.

Eleanor and her dad inched along in their car. Across town, Kevin McKay’s bus was also crawling through smoke, flames, and traffic. Kevin kept his mind clear as he passed burning houses and flaming trees. He tried not to think about how he and two teachers would keep 22 kids safe if they had to leave the bus. Instead, he thought of his mother and son, grateful that they were safe in Chico. But would he ever see them again?

As the morning ticked by, the people of Paradise were facing up to the shocking truth: Their beautiful town would soon be gone. And with escape routes blocked, many were facing a fight for their very survival. 

Karl Mondon/Digital First Media/The Mercury News via Getty Images

Battling the Blaze

Part of the army of firefighters called in from around the state to fight the fire. 

Battling Back Flames

Hundreds of people took refuge in a supermarket parking lot. Josh Fisher and other firefighters battled back flames with a powerful hose. People cried in their cars. The heat was unbearable. The smoke was so thick it was like breathing fire itself.

It took two brutal hours for traffic to clear. Finally, firefighters could lead the drivers out of town.

By that time, Eleanor and her dad had made it to Chico. After six hours, Kevin McKay had delivered his 22 students to a parking lot outside Chico. They were all reunited with their families.

The fire burned for 16 more days.


Battling Back Flames

Hundreds of people took refuge in a parking lot. Josh Fisher and other firefighters battled back flames with a powerful hose. People cried in their cars. The heat was unbearable. The smoke was so thick it was like breathing fire itself. 

It took two long hours for traffic to clear. Finally, firefighters could lead the drivers out of town.  

By that time, Eleanor and her dad had made it to Chico. After six hours, Kevin McKay had delivered his 22 students to a parking lot outside Chico. They were all reunited with their families. 

The fire burned for 16 more days. 

Grueling Fight

As the fire burned across Paradise, hundreds of people took refuge in a supermarket parking lot, which Josh Fisher and other firefighters were protecting. Josh stood on his truck, battling back flames with a powerful hose, dousing new fires as they erupted. People cried in their cars. The heat was unbearable, the smoke so thick it was like breathing fire itself. 

The grueling fight lasted for two hours, until finally traffic cleared enough that firefighters could lead the drivers out of town. It was only then that Josh could call Holly to tell her and Lucas and Sienna that he was safe.  

By that time, Eleanor and her dad had made it to Chico. Kevin McKay, after six harrowing hours, had delivered his 22 students to a parking lot outside of town. All students were reunited with their families. 

The fire burned for 16 more days. It would be nearly six weeks before everyone was allowed back into Paradise to see what remained of their homes. Most found only ash and ruin. 

Randy Vazquez/Digital First Media/The Mercury News via Getty Images

Destroyed by Fire

As the roads filled with traffic, many people had to leave their cars, trucks, and buses, and flee on foot.