PARADISE, CALIF. - At the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains in Northern California, the deadliest fire in California history burned a year ago and destroyed 90% of the town of Paradise. The fire killed 85 people.
Over the course of a year, much of the burned debris has been removed. Many of the burnt trees have been cut down. Empty lots remain where homes used to stand.
Paradise resident Lori Hornback walked through one of the empty lots, with only a gray concrete slab left of what was once her family homestead. As she looked at the brown dirt and empty space around her and remembered what used to be here, her heart broke.
"This is where I brought my kids home. That's where they learned how to ride a bike," said Hornback as she fought back tears.
Most of the fire survivors are scattered, living in other towns and cities. That is what Hornback misses most.
"You lose your house. You lose your church. You lose your shopping center where you knew everybody, and your post office, your everything is just gone," she said. "And you — because nobody is there anymore. Your neighbor now lives in L.A. Your other neighbor now lives in Tennessee. You know you'll never probably ever see them again. It's more than just losing your home. It's losing the whole community."
There are a few people, however, who have moved back to Paradise, now living in mobile homes on their empty lots and dreaming of a day when the town is vibrant again.
Hornback and her two grown children and their families had all lived in different homes in Paradise when a fire caused by electrical transmission lines burned through town on Nov. 8, 2018.
"I ran out without any shoes, ran out without anything because things were exploding all the way around us," Hornback said.
After evacuating their homes, she and her family first sought refuge in a shelter for two days.
Then, the Hornbacks met a stranger, a cattle rancher who invited them to stay on her property. Hornback said seven people lived in her travel trailer for four months on the rancher's property. The rancher, whom Hornback described as their hero, shared Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners with them and even gave them Christmas gifts.
"She came to our aid whenever we needed help the most," said Hornback, who now considers the rancher a part of the family.
Eventually, Hornback's family bought a house in Paradise that had been spared by the fire. Twelve people now live under her roof, including her two grown children, grandchildren, in-laws and other relatives.
At first, she did not want to return to Paradise, but she later changed her mind, partly because her daughter Brittani Richardson wanted to come back with her children.
"This is where we were raised. This is where everything was so familiar to us. We knew where the closest store was (and) the closest hospital. This is where we were raised. Paradise is where we belong," Richardson said.
'Heart' of their family
Hornback agreed, describing Paradise as their "heart." The town was nestled in a forest of tall trees. While some trees still stand in Paradise, there are now also wide-open spaces.
Jon Hornback, Lori Hornback's husband, said, "Lori and I chose to stay because we felt like we needed to do something here. Yeah, we needed to be part of this."
Jon Hornback, who owns a construction company wants to be a part of the rebuilding process. He, his son-in-law and others who work with him are literally restoring the town with their hands.
Jon Hornback said one of the houses they are working on received the first permits to rebuild after the fire. The work these days of hammering and sawing has become personal, he said.
"You know, I live here. This is my town. It's part of me. You know it's in my heart," Jon Hornback said. "You want to be part of the repair."
Lori Hornback added, "I'm actually very proud of the speed of the town that's recovering because you know we worked together."
With much of the trees burned and gone, Lori Hornback said she has quite a view of the ridge and valley around her from the upstairs porch of her new home. At sunset, she can see an expansive sky that is brilliant pink and orange. At night, she can see the stars.
"All these trees will come back, and it's beautiful up here and it's just peaceful. It's (the town) going to be better (and) beautiful, and everybody's going to be stronger. We're resilient," she said.