The Camp Fire Burned Their Home, But Strong Family Ties Kept Them In Paradise


Chelsea Isaacs sits on the couch in her RV with her 2-year-old twin daughters, Harper and Riley, and her mom, Kim, on June 11 in Magalia, Calif. They have been living for almost a year in an RV after the Camp Fire destroyed their home in 2018. A month af
Rachel Bujalski for NPR

Chelsea Isaacs sits on the couch in her RV with her 2-year-old twin daughters, Harper and Riley, and her mom, Kim, on June 11 in Magalia, Calif. They have been living for almost a year in an RV after the Camp Fire destroyed their home in 2018. A month after the Camp Fire burnt their house down, Chelsea found out she was pregnant with a second set of twins with her partner Noah.

Chelsea and Noah Isaacs were busy new parents to twin daughters when they lost their home in the Camp Fire in Paradise, Calif. That same day — Nov. 8, 2018 — Chelsea discovered she was pregnant again; later she would learn it was with another set of twins.

"All of those things kind of created this perfect storm of appreciation for what I've got, but then at the same time this feeling of 'how is this all going to work?' that was really overwhelming initially," Chelsea said.

The family evacuated safely, but their home was destroyed. Noah said just two artifacts mysteriously survived unscathed: his 1956 Studebaker Commander, and the small patch of grass beneath it.

Chelsea's mom, Kim Schwartz, had been living on the Isaacs' land in a tiny house before the fire and was displaced alongside them. Together, the family stayed with friends and relatives in the weeks after the fire as they assessed their options: Should they rebuild or relocate?

Noah and Kim both work in Chico, a city about 15 miles away, and needed to stay in the area. Noah said he and Chelsea considered buying a home in a neighboring town, but it was costly and just didn't feel right. Rebuilding a new house on the same property ultimately proved the better option for insurance purposes, as they could build a bigger structure from scratch at a reasonable rate.

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"Really, as crappy as everything went ... when everything's said and done and we look back, we'll say that might have been one of the best things that's happened to us," Noah said. "And I know a lot of people can't say that."

A year after the fire, only 11 of the 11,000 homes destroyed in Paradise have been rebuilt. Noah credited his cousin, a longtime general contractor, and Chelsea's grandfather, an architect, with respectively providing the industry knowledge and "fair deal" needed to jumpstart the process efficiently.

The Isaacs place an enormous value on family. It's the reason they are able to rebuild in an area that was ravaged by fires, and the reason they want to stay there in the first place.

"I know we couldn't leave this area too far because we have everybody here, all our family's here and that's really important to us," Chelsea said. "Noah has ... people who babysat him when he was a child that he still talks too, and stuff like that. I want my kids to have that."

Chelsea said thinking about her growing family helped her get through this period of uncertainty. The timing was "kind of perfect," she said, because it gave her an opportunity to focus on something other than the fire. And it forced her to keep stress-induced habits, like eating junk food and smoking cigarettes, at bay.

With construction underway, Kim, Chelsea, Noah, and their girls — who were less than two years old at the time — moved into a temporary home. They bought an RV and parked it on a friend's vacant lot in nearby Magalia. Two newborns, both male, joined them in July 2019.

Space in the trailer is limited, but used efficiently. For example, Chelsea's mom Kim Schwartz says there is just enough room for two pack and play cribs at the back of the RV, and she sleeps in the loft.

Schwartz says her family is "exceptional at this situation." They have always been close, and have adapted to their new routine.

Still, life in the RV has its challenges. Privacy is limited, the structure doesn't necessarily feel stable or safe, and it is parked in a relatively remote area surrounded by trees — a fire hazard that makes Chelsea nervous. Beyond that, when her daughters play inside, they shake the thin-walled structure and wake up their brothers, and Chelsea wishes she didn't have to tell them "no" so much.

"At least we have something that's ours again, we're regaining something," Chelsea said. "But then having to adapt to how different our lives had become overnight was ... intense."

The family members say they are thankful for their time in the trailer. It gave them a place to call home in a time of extreme transition. And, as Noah says, it brought them literally and figuratively closer together.

But they won't miss it when it's time to move into their new home in January. They are looking forward to the big things, like making the house their own, and the little things, like having better water pressure.

"I think I'll ... take the things that I've learned here, and the patience that I've had to gain with my kids and with Noah and with my mom, and I'll take those things and use them in the future and credit this time in the trailer to it," Chelsea said. "But I don't know that I'll be like, 'Man, I wish I was ... standing under that trickling shower.'"

Schwartz will move into a track home on a piece of land next to Chelsea and Noah's house. She is excited to have her own place but still be near her four grandchildren, with whom she hopes to arrange monthly individual overnights for quality one-on-one time.

Noah and Chelsea don't know how it will feel to be back in their house, one of the first on their street to be rebuilt. Grocery stores in Paradise won't have everything they need, and as far as they know their kids won't have others to play with in the neighborhood. But returning to their old property feels right, and Chelsea says that if that changes, they will reevaluate.

"You wouldn't be able to pick our yard out of any other yard on the street because they're all the same, just dirt," she said. "But that dirt felt like ours still. It still felt like we weren't done there yet, and it felt in a good way, like we need to be here."

Rachel Bujalski is a documentary photographer based in San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Rachel Treisman is an intern on NPR's National Desk.

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