‘End where we began’: Paradise teens graduate after wildfire

PARADISE, Calif. — Paradise these days is surrounded by piles of crumpled garage doors and melted ovens. The roads teem with dump trucks, and most street corners are clogged with signs advertising debris removal services or pleas to identify unclaimed pets.

But Thursday night — six months after a wildfire destroyed most of the California town and killed 85 people — the lights came on again at Paradise High School’s football stadium. A class of 220 seniors looking to build a new future received their diplomas amid the rubble of their past lives.

Of the 980 students at the school, about 900 lost their homes, Principal Loren Lighthall said.

“We’re able to end where we began,” said 18-year-old Lilly Rickards, who lost her house in the fire and has been sharing a bed with her 26-year-old sister in a small apartment about 15 miles (24 kilometres) away in Chico.

Paradise High School sits across the road from a cemetery, next to a church. The church and nearly every other building around it are gone. The school’s parking lot, where seniors have decorated parking spaces with bright colours, sits empty behind a chain-link fence. But the buildings, and the football field where graduations have been held since at least the 1960s, are still intact.

For students from a multigenerational town with deep roots, the school became an anchor after the fire .

“The fire could burn just about every physical object under the sun, but it couldn’t touch the connections we have built over that lifetime,” senior class president Garrett Malcolm told the crowd. “We will always carry the name and spirit of Paradise with us. Not because of its death, but because of its life and what it stood for.”

At Thursday night’s ceremony, the field was covered with students in green and white gowns — green for the boys and white for the girls. Students entered the field in pairs, meeting at the stage for photos.

Some added mini performances, including confetti cannons, kissing couples and two boys who carried pizza boxes and shared slices, arms entangled to feed each other.

For many, the ceremony is not just a goodbye to high school, but to their town. Most of its 26,000 residents have left, settling throughout the region. Steve “Woody” Culleton, a former mayor, estimates between 800 and 2,000 people now live in Paradise.

Ben Dees and his twin sister, Katie, are moving to St. George, Utah, this summer. They could have already been there. But their mother, Julie Fairbanks, agreed to stay in the area through July so they could graduate and spend time with their friends.

“I’m just waiting it out, sleeping on a twin-sized mattress on the floor — but at least it’s a bed — so that they can stay with their friends and be here as long as they can,” Fairbanks said.

“I’m just so proud,” she said. “They are my only kids. … Everything is the ‘first’ and the ‘last’ for them. And then going through all this, I’m just so proud that they got through it.”

The November fire destroyed more than 13,000 homes and killed 85 people. Since then, the high school has held classes at an office building near the Chico airport that was once used by Facebook.

The school has the second-highest math scores in the county. There are seven valedictorians, defined as students who took at least eight college-level classes and earned A’s in all of them. And school officials say they have the only National Merit Scholar in Northern California this year.

“We didn’t just crawl across the finish line bloody and broken. We exploded through it and exceeded all expectations,” senior Nathan Dailey said.

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