PARADISE, CALIFORNIA - A street through a neighborhood in Paradise, California, will run past lot after empty lot, cleared of burned debris. Occasionally, there will be a for-sale sign at the front of a lot, next to the street. A house still standing is an eerie anomaly.

"That's, like, the strange thing that I just can't explain. It's just how a whole neighborhood could be gone except for one maybe two houses, and that's pretty much the story all over town," said Valentin Martinez, who lost his home in the Camp Fire.

Valentin Martinez looks at what remains of his home, where he lived with his wife and son. Fleeing the fire, he was able to save a few things: his mother's and father-in-law's ashes and a few photos. (Elizabeth Lee/VOA)

Martinez's wife does not want to return anytime soon. He does not want to, either, he said, because it is depressing with the community gone.

"To live in a house in a neighborhood where everything else is just gone is just — it would be kind of hard," Martinez said. 

The fire, ignited November 8, 2018, by a faulty electrical transmission line, destroyed approximately 90% of Paradise. It was one of the worst wildfires this century in the United States, killing 85 people and burning more than 16,000 homes in its path, including 14,000 in Paradise.

Looking back

Martinez, with his brother Hugo Martinez, works as a painter and was back in his old neighborhood to paint one of the few houses still standing in the area.

Valentin Martinez's home was just around the corner. Now, there is only brown soil with blackened trees in the background.

As he looked at the empty lot, his memories returned.

"In the very back corner, there [was] a treehouse that my son loved to play in. It's pretty crazy. It's all gone," Valentin Martinez said. "All of our stuff was gone. Like, seeing that was pretty devastating, because we work hard to get all of our stuff."

He and his brother grew up in Paradise. Their family had always said the town, built in the midst of tall pine and oak trees, might be in the path of a wildfire, but they never expected anything like what happened.

A building in Paradise burned by the fire remains, a reminder of the destructive force of the wildfire. (Elizabeth Lee/VOA)

Valentin Martinez said he would never forget the day the fire burned through town. His wife evacuated first, while he went to help his brother pack before leaving town. By then, it seemed almost impossible to get out. As his brother drove, Valentin Martinez recorded video of what is now seared in his mind. Buildings, trees and the ground were on fire, smoke turning the day black as night.

"It was just super scary. The wind was blowing so hard, like, the smoke was so thick, and it was like starting to get to where it was like dark as midnight," Valentin Martinez said. "That's probably about the craziest thing I've ever seen."

"Telling my brother, like, ‘Man, if we're driving on melted tires, we'll get out of here,’ " Hugo Martinez said.

The two brothers made it out, but the trip to safety took more than five hours. In normal circumstances, the drive to nearby Oroville, about 34 kilometers south of Paradise, would have taken only 30 minutes.

"The only things I think we got out are my mother's ashes, her father's ashes and maybe a few pictures, and that's about it," Valentin Martinez said.

The debris of burned homes and trees has been removed, leaving empty lots in a neighborhood in Paradise that was devastated by the Camp Fire. (Elizabeth Lee/VOA)

The brothers had both rented homes in Paradise before the fire.

Hugo Martinez said his wife did not want to return, but he said he would have if rental homes were available now in Paradise. Since most of the houses were burned, he saved up all year and, with additional money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, he recently purchased a home in a town nearby.

As for Valentin Martinez, his wife and 13-year-old son, they are still living in a fifth-wheel recreational vehicle that is parked on a friend's property. They are saving up for their future home.

While they have decided not to return, Valentin Martinez said he was homesick for the Paradise that existed before the fire. He misses the fragrance of a yellow flower that grew on bushes in the summer along the bike trail. He also misses driving around Paradise on a rainy day.

"You never think about how much you miss your home until it's gone. There's a lot of things that I miss about Paradise. I want the town to be built back. I want there to be a Paradise again," Valentin Martinez said.

As houses start to be built, the Martinez brothers expect to be painting some of them, remembering what they and the town have lost.

"I would never forget a day like that or the things that happened, or the people that were lost. I'll always remember them and keep them in my heart," Valentin Martinez said.