Fire burned Paradise to the ground. Now Cal Poly students are helping to build it back up

When Paradise became hell: The story of the Camp Fire in Northern California

The Camp Fire tore through Paradise, California, becoming the deadliest and most destructive in state history. Sacramento Bee staff recount covering the impact of the deadly wildfire.
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The Camp Fire tore through Paradise, California, becoming the deadliest and most destructive in state history. Sacramento Bee staff recount covering the impact of the deadly wildfire.

Months after after the Northern California town of Paradise was destroyed by the Camp Fire, Cal Poly students traveled there to learn what community members value most about their rural town.

The trip was part of an on-going project to reimagine how Paradise can rebuild after much of it was lost.

Cal Poly architecture students in design studios taught by Cal Poly faculty members Stacey White and Kent Macdonald are developing a plan and zoning map for a completely rebuilt community.

The 36 students, with input from community members, will determine where residential, commercial and public uses could be located and create detailed designs for new buildings that serve the needs of Paradise, like a town hall and a courthouse, according to a Cal Poly news release.

At the end of the two-quarter course in June, fire survivors will be able to view a virtual-reality walk-through of the rebuilt town, the news release says. The entire effort is intended to bring survivors hope.

“They are perpetually optimistic to what is possible,” White said of the third-year architecture students.

Montana State University is also working on the project by designing a residential development for 100 families, and Chico State’s College of Engineering, Computer Science and Construction Management students and faculty are researching topics like water quality and environmental issues, as well as the failure of the town’s emergency notification system, the news release says.

“When you go to a community like Paradise, all (residents) hear every day is ‘It can’t be done. It’s not possible.’ All they hear is ‘no.’ A group of 22-year-olds say, ‘What if the answer was ‘yes’ and it looked like this?’ You can’t help but be inspired,” White said in a phone interview with the Tribune.

From left to right, Cal Poly architecture faculty member Kent Macdonald, and students Sophia Smith, Ryan Huddlestun and Foster Westover describe their proposed concept plan for the town of Paradise. Courtesy of Cal Poly

Students researched the town, learning about the nature of the area, history of planning and the history of disaster recovery and resiliency. Then, they developed initial assumptions about what might best serve the community. Those assumptions were then shared with community members, who provided feedback, White said.

In past courses, she said her students have worked on projects in underserved communities, including in Fresno or Bakersfield, for example.

“This is different in that the other communities have been dying slowly from neglect and this was annihilated from a single catastrophic event,” White said.

While design plans in other projects weren’t built to reality, communities have leveraged the plans in different ways.

“It’s really to generate excitement for the potential of the place. Many of these have been less preferable places to live or forgotten in some way. It doesn’t have to be that way,” White said. “Students all fall in love with the potential, and it’s rewarding for everyone.”

After a long bus ride north in January, students met with the communities of Chico and Paradise, Chico State faculty and students, Paradise High School teachers and students, and members of the Camp Fire Long-Term Recovery Working group. They gained deeper insight into the communities by staying with residents of the area, White said.

Paradise High School[3].jpg
Cal Poly students meet with Paradise High School students in a temporary school in Chico during Cal Poly’s trip to Butte County in January. Courtesy of Cal Poly

“It’s so heartwarming, seeing that there are people out there who want to get involved and use their particular tools to help,” said Charles Brooks, a 14-year Paradise resident who lost his home in the fire and is the founder of Rebuild Paradise, an organization meant to assist with job creation and provide support to businesses and residents in Butte County.

While there, students saw first-hand the devastation left by the November fire that killed 85 people and displaced more than 20,000.

“It was a very sobering experience,” architecture student Foster Westover said in a news release from Cal Poly. “Everything was black, and then you’d see a chimney or a child’s bed frame. The experience of seeing that up close — it was eye-opening.”

The students will return to the area on Feb. 21 and 22 to provide updates to community members and will visit again in April. Each student has been paired with a professional firm that offers mentoring and peer-review of the designs.

“If I can go back to Paradise High School and give one of those students hope that this is a town they could go back to, that would be enough for me,” architecture student Sophia Smith said in the news release.

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Monica Vaughan reports on Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo County, oil and wildlife at The Tribune. She previously covered crime and justice in the Sacramento Valley, is a graduate of the University of Oregon journalism school and is a sixth-generation Californian. Have an idea for a story? Email: