Photo by: Wayne Lawrence
PARADISE, California — The fence outside Mary Rae Nieland’s home features a large, silvery curiosity that resembles an amoeba with a squiggly tail.
People mistake it for yard art. It’s not. It’s all that remains of two snowmobiles burned on her property last year in the worst wildfire ever to tear through California.
Nieland, 68, lives in a 1940s farmhouse on an acre and a quarter studded with red oaks and Ponderosa pine. She keeps fruit trees and nut trees, and her flower garden — azaleas, camellias and roses — is a riot of color.
In every direction, in places where neighbors lived, there are empty lots. At a lot across the street, there’s a giant heap of sawed logs, awaiting a trip to the mill.
But Nieland’s home still stands. It was spared. She had a premonition that a wildfire was coming, so she took precautions.
Her antiques business in Paradise also survived, though it was damaged by smoke and soot. Attic Treasures is a 10,000-square-foot emporium where vendors sell vintage jewelry, collectibles, furniture, saddlery — things from antique toys to horse blankets.
The store reopened in January, after it was cleaned up and mopped up and electricity and water were restored.
Nieland herself survived a harrowing escape from burning Paradise, and her health suffered. “I’m really good now,” she says. “All the trauma is behind me.”
For months after the Camp Fire, her hands trembled. She would try to make a phone call but forget a familiar number. “Fire amnesia,” she calls the mental fog, remembering, “I couldn’t think straight for five or six months — I felt like I had Alzheimer’s.”
A recurring nightmare made sleep fitful: She was lost in a strange place, trying to get home.
The summer and early-autumn days that preceded the inferno had been very warm. It barely rained. Canyons around Paradise were overgrown and tinder-dry.
Every summer the state’s stubborn drought or near-drought conditions had Nieland fearful of a fire and asking herself, Will it be this year or next year?
“This is going to sound weird,” she says, seated on a bench outside her store. “I just knew the fire was coming months before it came. I was obsessed with it. So I started preparing.”
Leading up to the cataclysm, the electrical utility warned that power would be cut off if winds were high. The alert prompted Nieland to pick up the pace of watering down her home and orchard. She had three truckloads of decorative rock placed around her home, to create a buffer zone to ward off flames and radiant heat.
She ran sprinklers so often that, for a couple of months, her monthly water bill soared as high as $190, up from about $65.
On the morning of the fire, as burning pine needles and embers fell from the sky, she affixed a sprinkler to the roof of her two-story house, turning the water on full blast.
She left in her pickup truck with medications, jewelry and photo albums. Her boyfriend trailed her in his pickup. For hours traffic was at a standstill because roads were blocked by fallen, burning trees and utility poles. When her boyfriend realized he had forgotten his wallet, he disappeared in the smoke to retrieve it from her home. She wouldn’t see him again for hours.
Fire came from the clouds
The approaching fire, she says, sounded “like a monster growling and hissing, because of the wind. I thought it was Armageddon, honestly. How often does one see fire come from the clouds? Everything was burning. Everything.”
In all, her flight from her Paradise home to Chico lasted almost five hours. Normally it’s a 20-minute trip.
Nieland, who is divorced with children and grandchildren, was shaken badly but relieved to find out that her relatives and boyfriend were safe.
Once Attic Treasures was back in business, customers flocked in and snapped up dishes, kitchen utensils, furniture and comfort items, such as stuffed animals.
Foot traffic was heavy. Customers “needed to see something of their town that didn’t burn,” she says. “They just wanted to see something normal."
Today her business continues to thrive, though a widespread, precautionary electrical power shutdown by utility PG&E in northern California last week forced her to shutter her antique shop for four days. Heavy winds led to concerns that downed power lines could spark another fire.
Nieland says she’ll never retire since work keeps her young and has a new sideline: After the fire she joined the board of the destroyed Gold Nugget Museum, wanting to help bring back her town’s Old West heritage.
Outside her store, window boxes brim with red leafy geraniums. Nieland points to other signs of life: New homes are rising, and almost daily, another manufactured residence is hauled up the main drag, known as the Skyway.
The woman with a strange foreboding before the Camp Fire roared up the canyons is optimistic that in another two to five years, Paradise will be back. “It still has the same vibes and energy it had,” she says. “Regardless of the fire, it still feels beautiful.”