Arlene Harms at the baby grand piano in what used to be her home in Paradise. (Courtesy of Dawn Harms)
It was 1960 when a young couple from La Verne in Los Angeles County moved north to Paradise. There were fewer than 10,000 people in the town then, tucked high in the pines between Chico and the Plumas National Forest.
Arlene Harms, 89, remembers it well. "We lived there when there were no stoplights. I mean, there was nothing in Paradise when we first moved there. That’s why I loved it, of course."
Her husband, Ellis Harms, landed a job as principal of what was then the only elementary school in Paradise. That’s gone now, burned down.
"I can’t believe it," Ellis says. "It was built by WPA [Works Progress Administration] in 1935, and it’s gone. The church that we came to Paradise for as well is gone."
Everything’s gone, including any family photos, films or recordings not digitized. Randomly, they have an oil painting of the house given to them by a friend, and that’s what they show me to give a sense of what it looked like before the fire.
With three kids — Gail, Neil and Dawn — the family started in a two-room cabin. Then they built a bigger home, with an impressive stone fireplace. The cabin became an art studio for Ellis, where he made ceramics. Arlene saw both burn down on Nov. 8, when the Camp Fire tore through.
"It’s wiped off the map. I still can’t ... can’t get my arms around it, you know?" Arlene says.
"We knew it was very vulnerable. In fact, we always worried about a fire. But we lived there since 1960 without any calamity, so then you get used to it," Ellis says.
"The town as a whole felt bigger than it was because these two had been there forever," says grandson Casey Harms, who's up from Santa Barbara to help in the wake of the fire. "It felt like they were the mayors of the town. Everybody knew who they were."
Their daughter, Dawn, was 3 years old when she rode a tricycle around what was then a construction site. She put her handprint in the cement of the carport, and it was one of the things I was asked to look for when I headed, before the public evacuations lifted, to the site where 7125 Clark Road used to be.
I couldn’t find the handprint. The fire was so hot when it passed here that it liquefied the asphalt on the ground — where you could see the ground, given that everything was littered with debris. Some of Ellis’ ceramic pots survived. They were fired in a kiln, after all.
Also still standing: the spiral staircase that used to lead up to the carport, where the family put mattresses, so they could sleep under the stars. Now the staircase leads nowhere.
Arlene had been in the hospital and then rehab for two months before the fire, recovering from a salt deficiency. She got home from rehab the day before the Camp Fire hit.
On that awful morning, Gail was with her for the transition home, and able to shepherd her to a restaurant less than half a mile from the house. Firefighters made a stand there, saving a clutch of Paradise locals who took refuge at the Optimo Chinese Restaurant.
Arlene is going to need medical support, and Ellis is 92. So the family has found a place for Arlene and Ellis in an assisted living facility.
"We’re having to adjust to the idea of assisted living. You know, we lived in our own home. All of a sudden, we now have to think of living with all those other old people!" The family laughs at Ellis' joke.
Chico is closest, but all booked up. So Sacramento it will be. "This is as good a place as any, and it’s close to our son. And close to all three kids, actually. Neil is in Citrus Heights. Gail is in Marysville. Dawn is in San Francisco," he says.
"My parents’ house was the central location for Christmas, Thanksgiving, birthdays. That’s where we went," Dawn says. "So we just have to rethink it. I was lucky to be there for 56 years in that beautiful home. And now is a new chapter and we are lucky that they are still here with us."
Dawn is looking at Ellis and Arlene as she says this. They’re all sitting in Neil’s living room, a little disoriented but alive, and grateful.