On Wednesday morning, with the skies dimmed by the smoke from nearby wildfires, Paradise, California, resident Mary Ludwig got out of bed and started filling laundry baskets with personal belongings.
Ludwig grabbed some clothes, a handful of keepsakes and took a few framed pictures off the walls, including one of her parents’ engagement, her kids’ graduation photos and some of their artwork.
“It was so much like November 8,” she said of the scene outside, referring to the day in 2018 that the Camp Fire – the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California history – nearly wiped the town of Paradise off the map.
On Wednesday, Ludwig, her boyfriend and her 20-year-old son fled as a new series of wildfires threatened to undo whatever progress has been made since the Camp Fire consumed more than 150,000 acres, destroyed 18,804 structures and killed 85 people.
Several fires, including the Bear Fire, are raging not far from Paradise. Together, they make up what’s been dubbed the North Complex Fire, which has consumed about 250,000 acres. But even those are just a handful of blazes currently burning in California, Oregon and Washington state.
While fires have not been reported in Paradise, the town issued an evacuation warning on Wednesday morning, urging residents to gather their belongings and prepare for the possibility that they’ll need to leave. The warning was lifted on Thursday morning, with officials citing Cal Fire, which said there was currently no threat to Paradise. But town officials asked residents to “remain vigilant for changes.”
Even though Ludwig wasn’t under an evacuation order, she decided to head for the city of Chico. After escaping from the Camp Fire two years ago on a school bus with more than 20 students, she knows one thing: “I can never be trapped like that again.”
“Nothing is worth my life, my son’s life,” she said.
As the country marvels at photographs of orange skies in the Bay Area, those who lived in Paradise at the time of the Camp Fire are concerned about the threat of more fires and dealing with those fears.
“I try to be really strong and think, ‘OK, I’ve got this,’” Ludwig said. “Then you smell smoke and get a phone call and it triggers PTSD you thought you had mastered.”
Ludwig was fortunate that she didn’t lose her home in the Camp Fire. But despite pleas from family and friends to leave town for good, she’s determined to finish her career in Paradise for her second-grade students who have had their education disrupted again and again.
Still, the wildfires weigh on her, regardless of her perseverance.
“Will I ever be able to put that day behind me?” Ludwig wondered.
A march to put life back together
Kevin McKay, the “hero” school bus driver who drove Ludwig, another teacher and 22 stranded students to safety almost two years ago lost his home and all his belongings in the Camp Fire.
He’s since moved to Chico, about 20 minutes from Paradise, where he’s still employed as a bus driver, though Covid-19 has closed schools.
The smoke has been bad for weeks, he said, thanks to lightning fires in the area. McKay said that solar panels he put on his house are producing only 20% of the power they used to.
On Wednesday, McKay woke up to skies blackened by smoke and ash coating everything, he told CNN, “very much looking like the Camp Fire, like Paradise.”
“It’s unnerving to say the least,” he said.
“Since 2018, it’s been a march to kind of put life back together,” he said. “We’ve had Covid now, and there’s social discourse and unrest all over the nation. And then the fire comes back and just there’s a bunch of anxiety I didn’t realize was there.”
Friends and relatives in fire zones have asked for his advice and help in storing belongings.
“There’s just this kind of relentless punishment that kind of keeps coming,” he said. “To rationalize it, all I can say is Mother Earth is definitely fighting back here.”
“Mentally,” he added, “it’s a stress.”
‘Emotionally, I’m a wreck’
Nearly two years ago, Anastasia Skinner was driving through the flames to escape Paradise when she went into premature labor. Fortunately, she was helped by a paramedic, who she named her 5th child after.
But the family lost their home, and they have moved around several times since then, eventually settling in Magalia, a community just north of Paradise, where they purchased a home. But now that work has dried up for her husband, Skinner said the family has put the home on the market.
Skinner fled Magalia on Monday with her six children, seeking refuge with family in Nevada. Her husband left Paradise on Wednesday under red skies.
The family has received phone calls from friends asking if they’re OK, Skinner said. She tells them they are, “But emotionally I’m a wreck. I cannot sleep. Everyone is scared of a fire being like before.”
Skinner said she and her husband regret returning to the area. Before the Camp Fire, Paradise was a town where “everyone knows everybody,” she said. But it’s different today – those who could afford to left town, but others are still struggling to get back on their feet.
Still, Skinner manages to see the bright side, such as the fact that she has her daughter who was born a month after the fire broke out.
“Two years later I can admit, everything went the way it had to be,” she said. “I’m not at all sad. I still have the baby.”
CNN’s Paul Vercammen contributed to this report.