“Grab it and go.”
A twin brother and sister leave Paradise for a second time.
The first time that Nicholas and Kirsten-Grace Baker moved away from Paradise, California, they did so with approximately 35 minutes’ notice. On the morning of November 8, 2018, Nicholas rolled out of bed, took a shower, and noticed that his family’s entire back deck was coated with an inch of ash. A mile away, Kirsten-Grace, his twin sister, arrived at school and discovered that only three of her first-period classmates had shown up. As she sped back home, the sky turned lava red, and she noticed hundreds of cars crawling through evacuation traffic pointed in the opposite direction. “I’m driving right into the apocalypse,” she said out loud, to no one in particular.
At home, the family grabbed everything their circumstances allowed. Cats and clothes and photos and stuffed animals and books and old chests full of trinkets rendered suddenly priceless. Because Kirsten-Grace was always logical — “the brainiac,” Nicholas calls her — she approached the situation with tidy practicality. “I had a jewelry case, and I thought, I can’t just grab all of these necklaces,” she says. “They’re all gonna get tangled up with each other.” She took three and left the rest to burn. Nicholas tore through his bedroom in an unsuccessful search for his childhood security blanket. The Bakers pushed their four cars into traffic and left home for good.
For several weeks after the fire, they stayed with a friend in nearby Bangor. Then they moved to a student apartment near Chico State with one vinyl couch and sterile white walls. Often, they invoked a passage from the Book of Jeremiah: “For I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” Nicholas got it engraved on a dog tag. They also used another, punchier catch phrase, something they could mutter to each other every time they went back into the nightmarish melt that had once been their Paradise: “Stupid Fire.”
The Stupid Fire erased their home and darkened their moods. Among survivors, the Stupid Fire hijacked typical greetings — “Hello” or “How are you?” — and plugged in something more somber and philosophical: “Where are you now?” Nicholas believes the Stupid Fire had something to do with why his father asked his mother, Karla, for a divorce around Thanksgiving. It placed emotional booby traps around things the family had once considered mundane: They sobbed, suddenly and without warning, at movies; the grocery store, with its neat rows of vegetables and cheeses, became too much to handle.
“To get to the spice aisle, I had to walk by everything that I lost,” Karla says. “I’ve lost this pan. I’ve lost the cookie cutter. Oh my gosh, I’ve lost the recipes. It’s not just your kitchen, your house. It’s those itty-bitty tangible items.”
Donations helped. But charity, even with the best intentions, is often clumsy in practice. The Bakers were given more clothes and toothbrushes than they ever could use. They had access to a seemingly endless supply of Q-tips. Meanwhile, other essential items, such as coat hangers and garbage cans, were nearly impossible to find. One afternoon, when Karla went to a Target store in Chico to buy underwear, she found a stack of near-empty shelves. “Good-hearted Samaritans were buying the underwear and then giving them to people,” she says. “But if you wanted to go buy your own underwear, you couldn’t.”
Finishing their senior year of high school, the twins looked for order wherever it was available. Kirsten-Grace filled her time with AP classes and the yo-yo club. Even though Paradise High School wasn’t significantly damaged, officials were forced to rent an office building near Chico’s airport to use as a replacement campus. Classrooms at “The Fortress,” as students came to call it, were separated by thin, 6-foot-high dividers. Depending on the location, they could sometimes see the heads of the taller teachers bobbing back and forth as they taught. “We all had permission from our teachers to listen to music during tests just to drown out the noise, because there was talking everywhere,” Kirsten-Grace says.
Nicholas, who is 6-foot-5, found relief in his final year on the Paradise High School basketball team. More than ever, the game’s consistency was a comfort: Its rules and routines hadn’t burned up in the fire. He often texted his coaches, asking them to unlock a gym for him — just him — on evenings and weekends.
Yet the Stupid Fire was nothing if not persistent. “We had games where we were, quote, ‘the home team,’ ” Nicholas says. “But we never played at Paradise. For us, it was always an away game.” Nathan Johnson, one of his coaches, recalls a practice over the winter in which he asked the roughly 18 players on the team to work on free throws. The drill lasted a few minutes; afterward, Johnson walked around the gym to ask how it went.
“Kids were horrible with free throws,” he says. “I go, ‘How many guys last summer had a basketball hoop within a hundred yards of their house that they could practice on?’ They all raised their hands. I said, ‘How many do now?’ One kid raised his hand.”
The second time that Nicholas and Kirsten-Grace moved away from Paradise, it was on a hot night in late August. They had driven in two cars from Castro Valley, a Bay Area suburb where they’d been staying for about a month. The idea was to say goodbye before heading off to college later that week. Karla and Kirsten-Grace rode together; Nicholas came alone because, sometimes, when he enters the town, the emotions hit him like a sucker punch.
The dirt lots that used to be the Bakers’ neighborhood run up and down Bonnie Lane, not far from what’s left of the town’s main drag. The rubble and ash that were once their home was bulldozed several months ago, and their next-door neighbor, who worked for decades as a linesman for PG&E, moved with his wife to Arizona. Meanwhile, a family across the street is eagerly rebuilding. On a hill behind the Bakers’ property, beyond what used to be a dense line of evergreens, there’s a small community of people dry-camping in RVs. Up and down the block, some residents have coated their land with a stiff layer of mulch designed to slow erosion.
Growing up, Kirsten-Grace used to love watching surgeries on television, as Nicholas, who is petrified of needles, cowered elsewhere. She appreciated the process, the precision, the certainty. But here in Paradise, standing in a patch of dirt that used to be her bedroom’s reading nook, she finds the rebuilding disconcerting. “It’s like seeing something half-done, and I want it to either get done or stop.”
The twins both knew they’d leave Paradise someday. Nicholas, who as an adolescent had developed a reputation as a loudmouth, hated how that label stuck to him like a stain. “I was obnoxious,” he says. “And that didn’t help me growing up.” Kirsten-Grace, despite being named Missette Butte County, Miss Teen Butte County, and Miss Butte County, wanted something bigger.
Their dorm rooms, at Westmont College and Vanguard University, both feel like blank slates: white cinder blocks, heavy doors, cheap desks. Nicholas is playing basketball and planning to get a bachelor’s degree in kinesiology at Vanguard. He likes thinking about how the body’s muscles fit together, how certain things affect other things: “When one’s off,” he says, “it affects the rest of them.”
Kirsten-Grace is entering Westmont’s pre-health program and has already landed an on-campus gig as a statistician for several of the college’s sports teams. Her job is basically to watch games and use numbers to make sense of their chaos. She thinks she’s going to be good at it.
This time around, they both had ample time to pack. Nicholas isn’t bringing much stuff, because stuff doesn’t really mean much to him anymore. Kirsten-Grace, on the other hand, planned extensively. She split her most-prized possessions — artwork from a friend, a board where she collects stickers — into two piles. She’s bringing one to Santa Barbara and leaving the other as a sort of backup in Castro Valley. She’s doing this “because clothes can be replaced. It’s the other stuff that you really get upset about if something were to happen.”
Under her dorm-room bed, she keeps a clear tub with a pinkish lid. Inside is her college paperwork and her passport “and anything important that I need to bring with me,” she says. Each night before going to sleep, she drops in her wallet and student ID. If something happens, “and I have time to grab it, I just grab it and go.”