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A California town wiped out by a wildfire is still recovering five years later

Sandy Forde feels like she has aged 20 years.

"It's just been a lot of stress," she says with a wry smile. "A lot has happened."

Her life was turned upside down in early November 2018, during one of the driest autumns on record in the Sierra Nevada, when the deadly Camp Fire swept through her hometown of Paradise, California, killing 85 people and destroying nearly 19,000 structures. It was the most expensive climate disaster in the world that year.

"There are some positive moments," she says. "My family made it out alive."

But Forde's family home, a two-bedroom, two-bathroom mobile home, was completely lost.

Five years later, she is still mostly living in a camper van on her burned-out lot, hoping to get a new home next year.

"My heart goes out to the people on Hawaii right now, because we can completely understand," Forde says. "I mean, we didn't have to jump in the ocean, but it was very difficult to get out of that mountain during the fire."

Only a third of Paradise has repopulated five years later

As Paradise marks five years since one of the deadliest wildfires in American history (only the Maui fires in August of last year were more deadly), many residents of this rural region of Northern California are still dealing with trauma and struggling to rebuild.

The slow and costly recovery that is still ongoing in Paradise can be a lesson for survivors in Lahaina, not to mention the many other recent wildfires on the mainland, such as the Marshall Fire in Colorado and the Hermits Peak Fire near Las Vegas, New Mexico.

Before the fire, which was sparked by downed power lines on National Forest lands northeast of the town, Paradise had a population of about 26,000 people. Now, it is estimated to be about a third of its pre-fire population.

Depending on who you ask, this is either a monumental achievement, considering that 90% of the town was leveled, or it is an example of how recovery from a major disaster can be long and painfully slow, even with billions of dollars in federal and state aid.

Paradise was affordable, but that is changing inevitably

Paradise was an island of relative affordability in expensive California. It also had become dangerously overgrown with thick stands of pines and underbrush, partly due to lax zoning and previous forest management decisions.

In the 1950s and 1960s, it was marketed as a "place in the pines" for retirees from the Bay Area, about three hours to the south.

Forde plans to stay in her camper van this winter as long as she can. She will be able to stay with family if her pipes freeze, as they did earlier this year. She is grateful that she has found more stable work as a house cleaner in the meantime.

"It's a slow process anyway, because when you're starting from scratch, you can only do what you can do at the moment and work your way forward," Forde says.

In the weeks and months immediately following the Camp Fire, survivors were eager to return home.

Soon, they became frustrated and angry at the slow pace of even the simple removal of fire debris.

Then, over the course of months, the scale of what lay ahead began to sink in.

It took nine months to remove all the hazardous toxins and debris before the first homes could be rebuilt.

From the start, recovery in Paradise has faced many challenges, due to its predominantly elderly and low-income population. Many have been forced to leave in search of affordable housing.

"I'm not sure Paradise will ever have 26,000 people again," says Ryan Miller, a geography and hazards expert at the University of California, Davis, who interviewed Camp Fire survivors as part of his doctoral project.

What the future holds for Paradise

It is still too early to say what the future holds for Paradise. Some residents are hopeful that the town will eventually return to its former glory. Others are resigned to the fact that it will never be the same.

Forde, for her part, is just trying to focus on the present.

"I'm just trying to take it one day at a time," she says. "I'm just trying to get through the winter."