Credit: Paradise Retirees

It’s been one week since the Camp Fire ripped through the small mountain town of Paradise in Northern California.

It’s also been a year since the Tubbs Fire devastated Santa Rosa, the flagship city in Sonoma’s Wine Country.

Not only do these events share the unfortunate distinction of being the two most destructive wildfires in California history, they have a connection to me personally. Santa Rosa is my hometown, where my mom, stepdad and brother still live, and Paradise is right outside of the city where I went to college, and one of which I am very familiar. Both of these places, now forever marked with tragedy, also helped me to grow as a young person. Now I’d like to share my story of how these two towns, and their people, impacted my life.

I moved to Santa Rosa in the summer I turned 15, after spending my entire childhood in Fresno. I had lived for more than a decade in a ranch-style house on Ellery Street, with the same friends, classmates and neighbors for years. It was a community I could leave the front door unlocked and run around at night until the lights came on. To say I was comfortable was a huge understatement.

When my mom, newly married to my stepdad Stan, broke the news that she wanted to relocate back to Northern California to be closer to family, I was beyond upset. I remember thinking like any selfish teenager: How could she do this to ME in the MIDDLE of high school? But she convinced me that it would be a new adventure, so I tried to keep an open mind.

A short time later, I arrived in Santa Rosa not knowing a soul. I remember locking myself in my room and sulking for weeks. My mom, feeling responsible for my misery, insisted on driving me around our neighborhood and stopping the car whenever she saw kids close to my age to try to make me new friends. It was a nice gesture, but too forced. On orientation day, when I sat alone and found myself without a mandatory locker partner, I cried — and for many weeks afterward.

But with time, of course, things got better. I made friends, I fell in love, and did all of the things teenagers typically do. Santa Rosa grew on me. I also went from someone who didn’t like change to embracing it. Looking back on that time in my life, I’m thankful now for having had that challenge when I was young to make me comfortable with putting myself out there.

But after leaving Santa Rosa at 19 with a new-found love for adventure, I rarely came back, other than to see my family. I became more disconnected as the years past, which I now regret. However, when the Tubbs Fire happened and my family found themselves evacuated twice, the memories came flooding back as did the feeling of how much I cared for that city and the people in it. I saw years of my life go up in flames that evening in October. Like the homes of many of my friends and their parents in Coffey Park and Fountaingrove. And the restaurant I went to for prom — gone. And the country club that hosted my 10-year high school reunion — leveled. A year later, while not completely healed, Santa Rosa is at least on a path to recovery.

When I left Santa Rosa, it was to transfer to Chico State — a university that both of my parents graduated from and encouraged me to go to as well (albeit begrudgingly at first). Chico is a beautiful college town in what felt like the middle of nowhere. I moved into a co-ed dorm — Esken Hall — having never had shared a room with anyone or been away from home for more than a few weeks. In Chico, I became an adult. I learned how to pay my own bills, take care of myself, and found my passion for journalism. And that’s what led me to Paradise.

I had two jobs in Paradise during my tenure at Chico — the first of which was as a nanny for two small children (a boy, 2, and a girl, 4). The mother worked in a downstairs office in their 10,000 sq. ft. home — she and her husband owned a local company building log cabins. It was my first taste of motherhood, and I wasn’t particularly good at it. My primary job was to keep the kids away from mom while she worked, but since they knew where she was in the house, they ran to her side almost nonstop. So I tried to distract them by taking them outside or playing movies on their VCR. But after multiple viewings of “Beauty in the Beast,” they grew restless and would run to their mom, who would see them coming and let out a big sigh. After a few short months, she fired me in the nicest way possible — for not being “the right fit.” And she was right — I wasn’t. But I also learned from my early parenting mistakes.

My second job in Paradise was at the twice-weekly local newspaper, the Paradise Post. It was my first professional internship — and my first shot at being a “real” reporter. I learned how to cover city council meetings, public schools and breaking news. And when I called in sick the day of my 21st birthday, after an epic night out at the Chico bars, my colleagues took it in stride and ribbed me upon my return to work. They were a great group of people, that were more than happy to teach this green reporter the ropes. And now I have to wonder if they — and their houses— perished in the Camp Fire. And the newspaper building, and the stately log cabin home of a once young family — I’m pretty sure all of it is gone.

As I reflect now on the sadness I feel thinking about the wildfires devastating two places that helped shape me as a person, at the same time, I find myself feeling grateful. While I can only empathize with the horror of what the wildfire victims may be experiencing, when I think of Santa Rosa and Paradise, I am thankful for the memories. In my case, Paradise will never be lost — it helped me find me.

First shift: PR professional | Second shift: Wife and boy mom | Find me at: elisabongiovannismith.com

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