Paradise restored: Volunteer group aims to aid fire recovery with permaculture

As the sun broke on a cool fall morning in rural Butte County, the chatter of clanking dishes, small talk and barking dogs filled the air.

Volunteers emerged from their tents and prepared for the day as the sun rose over trees blackened by the 2018 Camp Fire – the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California history, which destroyed the town of Paradise and its surrounding communities – claiming 14,000 homes and at least 85 lives.

Almost one year after the fires, the scale of the devastation is still apparent. Rusted cars lay abandoned on the side of the road and giant piles of charred scrap metal, threatening to further pollute the soil with toxic runoff at every rainfall, are never far from view.

Despite the daunting cleanup ahead, Matthew Trumm, founder of local organization The Camp Fire Restoration Project, has taken matters into his own hands.

Back in spring, Trumm and his small team pulled together the country’s first Ecosystem Restoration Camp. It’s a semipermanent volunteer camp that serves as an educational hub for restoring the land using permaculture, a form of landscape design that mimics the natural world.

These unique camps have been popping up around the world in places affected by overfarming and climate change – though Paradise is the first community to utilize the camps for disaster response.

The second iteration of the Paradise camp, which opened last Saturday and runs through this Sunday, will continue to focus on rehabilitating community spaces.

“What we decided to do this time was to redesign this camp so that it was a lot more self-sufficient, and took a lot less input from our organizational crew,” said Trumm, who conceded that the organization had initially taken on too much work.

This time, Trumm and his team enlisted the help of the Permaculture Action Network to kick off the week with one of their flagship events, a “Permaculture Action Day,” featuring live music, food, and educational workshops. They also partnered with the Paradise Revival Festival, a locally organized event marking the almost one year anniversary of the fires.

After much preparation and hard work, the week of restoration was set to begin at a beloved site in the heart of the community, the Norton Buffalo Hall, a forested plot of land where a community center and two public gardens once stood.

Jennifer Petersen, who was born and raised in Paradise and lost her family home to the fires, is the garden chair of the Paradise Community Guilds, the local group which co-owns the land at Norton Buffalo Hall. She quit her job in 2014 to spend more time with her kids, began volunteering at the center, and never looked back.

“We came here every Wednesday and worked in the garden together. It was really cool, there was a really great sense of community,” said Petersen, who hopes to eventually convert the whole lot into a sprawling permaculture garden.

Petersen said she had been practicing permaculture on her own property for years and believes that many of her plants were saved because of it. “I was amazed at some of the things that came back,” she said. “After studying permaculture, I just see things differently now. I see the way everything interacts with each other and how they can all benefit each other if it’s properly done.”

When the day to begin work finally arrived, the restoration team hauled in two hand-built composting toilets, sorted hundreds of donated and borrowed tools, and installed a solar-powered stage for live music. Booths and tents were arranged around the large crater where once stood the community center. Music filled the space and fragrant smells wafted from the mobile wood-fired pizza oven that would provide free pizzas to volunteers throughout the day.

“Permaculture action days have a particular vibe, and this is pretty much it, good music, good people, projects going on all day. This is just fun for me,” said David Grefrath, one of the organizers of the event who got involved with PAN and CFRP after doing Hurricane Katrina relief work in New Orleans.

Much like an open-air festival, the event featured a constant stream of musicians, culminating in a performance by Rising Appalachia – a group of traveling folk musicians who have an international fanbase. Prolific American writer Miriam Simos, who goes by the name “Starhawk” and is best known for her book “The Spiral Dance,” hosted a workshop in the shade of the tall oak trees. Catalyst Bio-Amendments, a laboratory-based in Nevada City, came to test the soil health and donated a cubic yard of biological soil – a nutrient-rich compost worth $750 dollars a yard. Meanwhile, over 100 volunteers descended on the site, led by experts in woodworking, landscaping, and permaculture.

“Just seeing all these people, especially people who came from so far away to do this for us, it really gives me hope,” said Petersen, who added that most of her neighbors don’t plan on moving back for fear that the land will remain toxic for decades to come.

“I’d love to say that the future looks bright for Paradise, as long as we think about how we want to rebuild our infrastructure and do it in a more sustainable way,” she said.

A recent bout of PG&E-induced power outages in response to increased fire risk has also served as a dose of reality for the remaining residents in the area, most of whom were without power for several days.

“This latest power outage has really made me think about power in general and how I use it. Maybe I don’t want to be dependent on someone else for those kinds of things,” said Petersen.

For Trumm and his team at The Camp Fire Restoration project, the ultimate goal is to establish a more permanent camp in the area, which will require sponsors and land. Up until now, their projects have been limited to the benevolence of local landowners who are willing to host the temporary camps.

“Between now and the spring we’re looking for more sponsors and partners to help expand our organizational capacity,” said Trumm.

The fall Paradise camp is currently hosted by Sol Sanctuary, a family-owned nonprofit organization based on farmland just outside of Paradise. Work is set to continue until Sunday, Oct. 20 on various sites in the area.

All are welcome to attend and participate in the camp and are encouraged to bring tools, gloves, musical instruments and enthusiasm.

For more information or to sign up for the fall camp, visit the Camp Fire Restoration Project website. For regular updates, visit the CFRP Facebook page.