Annie Stearns can't find her keys. She last saw them on Wednesday morning, but now it's Thursday afternoon, the first day of school at Paradise High, and there's still no sign of them. For most people this would be a significant annoyance, a day-ruiner even. But Stearns, 37, who became the Bobcats' athletic director just three months before the deadliest American wildfire in 100 years turned this town into a patch of gray dust, handles it by laughing and announcing to anyone in earshot:
"Hundred bucks to whoever finds my keys!"
She's alive, after all, and so are the 200 athletes she's responsible for. Keys? They can be replaced. Who cares if every door and gate on campus is closed to her? At least there is a campus. She remembers too clearly that its existence was in jeopardy on the morning of Nov. 8, 2018. She had woken up that day to an orange sky so striking that she took a photo of it while driving her son Jackson to preschool. "Look at how beautiful, Jax!"
Within an hour, that sky had gone black with smoke, and a flurry of bright-orange embers, as big as basketballs, fell around her as she stood outside the Paradise High gym. She watched new fires start where the embers landed, sprouting new tentacles on the monster that Stearns says struck the town "more like a tsunami than a fire."
The Camp Fire—so named because it started near Camp Creek Road in nearby Pulga—killed 85 people and destroyed 18,793 structures and 153,336 acres. It reached the edge of the high school's campus, but went no farther. It turned a town of roughly 27,000 people into an apocalyptic ruin now inhabited by only 3,500 or so Paridisans, who, 12 months later, are still searching for belongings, or some semblance of what once was, or both.
In August kids returned to Paradise High for the first time in nine months. Athletes practiced their respective sports, preparing for their first home games since the town had . . . homes. The intervening months had changed the very meaning of that word.
What is home? Is it a physical place, with a roof? Or can home be the sensation of meeting your teammates in the end zone after a touchdown, embracing them and patting their helmets? There aren't many traditional homes, with flooring, windows, pipes and shingles in Paradise anymore. More than 80% of the housing was destroyed in the fire. The other kind of home—the enduring, invisible connections between neighbors, even that one you didn't particularly like until the day he threw open the door of his pickup and yelled Get in—remains.
Paradise High is Annie's home. (No one calls her Mrs. Stearns or Coach Stearns—and never her given name, Anne.) She has spent more time at the school over the last five months than at her house in Chico, 15 miles down the hill, where she lives, officially anyway, with her husband and two young children. A native of nearby Cottonwood (pop. 3,316), the former college volleyball player has always loved a good fight, but the Camp Fire thrust her in to the ultimate mismatch. "The first meeting we had right after the fire," she recalls, "the coaches and administrators, we're all sitting there asking each other, 'What do these kids need? What do they want?' We decided we wanted to give them hope. We can't give them facilities, or games or even practices, but we're not gonna tell them No."
And so began a months-long crucible of meetings and hugs and crying and 16-hour days. "Then more meetings," Stearns says. The hugs continued too. The crying has mostly dried up.
Today her sandy blonde hair is twisted into a messy bun, and she's wearing the smile that for the last nine months has seemed out of place to some people, but to her athletes has been a source of strength. She credits those around her for the improbable comeback within Paradise athletics. Chief among these reluctant champions, she says, is Rick Prinz, the school's 60-year-old football coach, who on Nov. 8 rolled his 1941 Ford pickup out of his garage and shoved it more than two miles down the hill that led out of town, its gas tank empty, as flames licked the paint that Prinz and his late father had applied when restoring it decades earlier. Prinz had planned to retire after last season. Instead, he has propelled the football program, just as he did that old truck.
She credits track coach Seth Roberts, one of Prinz's best friends, the guy he used to meet for coffee every morning before school. Roberts, 60, hoisted 90-year-old Annette Spuhler onto his back and carried her down the mountain for almost four hours to help her get to safety. He has kept the hopes of the Bobcats' young runners alive in much the same way.
She praises rival schools, like Chico High, whose cross-country team helped Paradise runner Gabe Price qualify for states after his house was incinerated the day of the sectional meet. The Chico runners paced Price and encouraged him as he competed alone two days after the fire, racing himself and the clock. When he finished under the required time, his new friends in the CHICO tank tops embraced him as they would a teammate. That sure felt like home. The same feeling was present at the soccer match on Nov. 28 against Anderson High, whose players loaned uniforms and shin guards to the visitors. The Bobcats then pulled out a 2–1 victory that left their coach, Barry Avakian, in tears, his clothes still reeking of smoke.
The structure of Paradise High was undamaged by the fire, but the campus remained off-limits for seven months because the water supply had been contaminated and toxic dust blanketed the property. On Dec. 3, school resumed 13 miles away inside a series of converted shops within the Chico Mall. Then in January, students and teachers relocated to a building near the Chico Municipal Airport. For weeks there were no walls between the classes, which allowed the kids in Mrs. Partain's English course to talk freely with those in Mrs. Krinsky's biology lab, who passed notes to friends in Prinz's P.E. class.
About 600 students attended what they called "the airport school," with an equal number taking online classes. Every student survived the blaze but not every home had, and so news of their whereabouts ranged from, "I heard she's at her grandma's in Oroville," to, "No idea where he went."
"We didn't have anything," Stearns says. "It felt like so many people were telling us to give up. That sports weren't important. I set up shop at Chico High—had a little counseling room there—and I remember seeing family after family walk into the office to enroll their kids. An email came out [from Paradise's school district] that said, You should all enroll at PV [Pleasant Valley High] or Chico as soon as possible. I lost my mind!"
Stearns defiantly scheduled basketball practices at Chico High in late November, not knowing how many kids would show up. "At the first practice there were like, five girls," says junior guard Sophia Scribner. "We were playing before school even got started at the mall. Those practices were the first normalcy I felt [after the fire]."
For the next three months Paradise's hoops teams, boys and girls, practiced on 18 courts across Butte County, usually late at night, the only time slot available.
The softball team didn't have it any easier. When workers came to remove the charred trees at the edge of the home diamond, one of the pines toppled into the stadium lights, which crashed onto the pitcher's mound. The kids had already lost their gloves in the fire. Their bats were silver puddles in what used to be their bedrooms. But Stearns found them a place to play at a nearby school. "I didn't even want to go [to practice]," says senior infielder Madison Middleton. "We didn't have anything. I wanted to give up, but my dad—he played sports here and coaches football here—he said, 'You have to go. You have to get on the field with your friends.'"
And so it went, as winter became spring, with every Paradise sports contest a road game, with displaced Bobcats converging from their far-flung temporary homes to participate.
Campus was still closed on June 4, the date of the senior picnic. Gabe Price and his track teammates were the first students to show up on the bank of Big Chico Creek, where the sun's rays streaked through the maples and elms as students splashed in the chilly water.
The Prices live in Redding now, 85 miles north of Paradise, so Gabe couch-surfed with friends that week—mainly with fellow senior Jacob Weldon. Gabe, Jacob, Jared McKay and Patrick Roehling had run 3:19.86 to set a Northern Section record in the 4x400 relay the previous month, beating their rivals, the defending champs from Foothill High, by 5.29 seconds.
"It'll be cool to bring my kids back to Paradise one day," Gabe says, "even if doesn't get rebuilt, and tell them, 'Me and my friends set a record here after our town burned down.'"
It's impossible not to wonder if Gabe might have advanced further in state competition if everything his family owned—including his favorite spikes—hadn't been turned to cinders, if he'd been able to train consistently and rest his 6-foot, 160-pound frame in his own bed instead of on a lumpy sofa or someone's floor. Would he have achieved his dream of running at Baylor?
It is 9:30 a.m. and the temperature is already in the upper 90s. Gabe, Jacob and their friend Matthew Singler, the tall, starting centerback on the soccer team, are talking about girls, about the kid who got knocked out in boxing class. They take turns lying facedown on the grass so Matthew can crack their backs with a quick, two-handed press to the spine.
About 100 seniors attend the picnic, only 10 of whom woke up that morning on the same mattress they had fallen asleep on Nov. 7, 2018. Most of the displaced are in surrounding towns—from Sacramento to Reno to San Jose. Some are as far north as Washington, as far south as Texas, as far east as Florida.
Exactly four years earlier, English teachers asked each member of the class of 2019 to write a letter to him- or herself. One of those teachers, Virginia Partain, 65, is sitting under a tree handing them out to the seniors. "I kept these letters in my classroom, and I am so glad," she says. Her house, and everything else on Libby Road, is gone.
"Some freshmen," she continues, "just write 'HAHAHA, I didn't do the assignment' and put it in the envelope and seal it. I don't force them to write something.
"Four years later, though," she says, "they always regret it."
Which might explain the handful of sullen young men who sit alone while their classmates read intently. Partain watches from a distance. She has taught at Paradise High for 19 years. Before that she was a psychiatric nurse, "which came in handy this past year," she says. After graduation, she will retire. In her free time she will paint. She aspires to have her own art show by the time she turns 70. Stearns has commissioned her to create athletic murals for the school.
When they're done reading, a few seniors walk over and embrace her. Some weep. When they disperse, Partain says, "Four years ago these kids wrote that they wanted to leave Paradise. Now they can't believe they wanted to leave. They love what they had."
At 14, Ezra Gonzales scrawled his letter on borrowed paper: how is life is it going good was high school anything like you thought it would be
how was football was it what you wanted
did you give it your all
He did indeed, becoming a three-year starting guard for the Bobcats, and earning a roster spot this fall at Butte College, where Chico native Aaron Rodgers played in 2002.
don't forget about the people that got you here and how far you have come . . . this is your 9th grade self from the past telling you have a great life cuz the fun part is over now let's get out there and take on the world
Matthew Singler, the soccer defender, filled his letter with specific goals—become a captain on my travel soccer team . . . go on a church mission and then go to college to become a doctor . . . Keep working hard no matter what is happening or going on!
His best friend Gabe's letter struck a more personal tone:
Freshmen [sic] year has been a roller coaster . . . The main social event for me was getting/losing my first girlfriend . . . I'd like to say I won't get a girlfriend till college, but knowing myself, ha ha I know that's not gonna happen.
(This prediction proved accurate.)
The athletic part of Gabe's freshman year, he wrote, was almost a dream. He ran the second fastest-heat [at] nationals for the 1600 with a time of 4:42. One day he wants to run 4:30, he wrote.
(Two months before the picnic, Gabe clocked a personal-best 4:30.37 at the 2019 Chico Invitational.)
In the end, with all the effort put down, I am hoping for a full ride to a good Mechanical Engineering school. But most importantly, I want to make sure that I am a mature believer in God. . . .
Gabe made it to college (he'll run at Christian Brothers University in Memphis), and he says he has accomplished that last goal, too, although right now the "mature believer" is using his plastic fork to fling berries into Jacob Weldon's mouth from across a picnic table.
Jacob had never run track until Gabe talked him into it their sophomore year. "That worked out well," says the section champ and co-owner of that record. (Jacob, the quietest member of the relay team, declines to share the contents of his envelope other than, "I gave myself a dollar bill for some reason.")
A Bay Area documentary crew—one of several that has been a frequent presence since last fall—sets up at the edge of the water. A playful senior grabs the microphone, jabs it in a friend's face and asks the question they've all heard a hundred times. "Did your house burn down in the fire?" Then, in mock apology: "I'm sorry, was that too on the nose?" A dozen seniors laugh at the joke, which only those who have experienced tragedy like this one can understand.
"It's all they want to know," explains the senior, who, predictably, understandably, declines to give her name to a reporter. "They want to know if we were impacted." When the press encounters a kid whose home survived the fire, such as Ezra Gonzales, "they find a way to kind of move on and look for someone else," he says, pantomiming a reporter going to the next person in line. "'Did your house burn down?'"
"The media became part of our new normal," Ezra continues. "At first you're like, Holy crap there's a camera in my English class. We're gonna be in a documentary! . . . Eventually the cameras withered into the scenery. If I see a camera now, I don't even bat an eye at it."
Stearns doesn't mind the media attention, but takes issue with those "who come and go and just want to do that little blurb and not really care about us. They just want to get the worst story. That fed into us not wanting media around anymore." One national press outlet, she says, distributed a flier to the kids that asked, Who has the worst story of getting through the fire?
"I mean, Ew. Right?"
"Who's house we staying at tonight?" Gabe asks his friends at the picnic table. Paradise kids don't need to ask permission from their parents to have a sleepover. Every viable home seems to have an extra air mattress, couch or sleeping bag.
"We can drive up to Redding and stay in our trailer!" Gabe jokes. The guys laugh, but Gabe kind of needs an answer. The sun is dropping, Redding is 90 minutes away and he doesn't have a way to get there.
The coaches and teachers are packing up. The kids are meandering, towels around waists, to their dusty pickups and dented two-door compacts. The track seniors decide to take one last dip. Gabe tackles a distance runner, smacking her face into the water. Biology teacher Ambrosia Krinsky doesn't flinch. "Country kids play hard," she deadpans. Gabe and the girl are laughing when they surface. She slaps him on the arm so hard it leaves a pink handprint.
As they dry off in the sun, Gabe and his friends decide to sleep under the stars, the most permanent things they know.
On May 28, Paradise's faculty returns to campus for the first time since the fire. The intermediate school is gone, so the high school now also serves middle school students. In a week, basketball, volleyball and football practices will be in full swing.
"God, it's good to be home," Stearns says. "I love having a gym that I'm not fighting other people for!" Glancing at her coaches' practice schedules on her phone, she adds, "Except now we have our own coaches fighting for the gym!"
That includes Stearns, who is now leading the girls' volleyball team after the former coach left Paradise's crumbled chimneys in his rearview mirror and started fresh somewhere else. Her first victory was persuading one of the veteran players to stay at Paradise instead of transferring. "Who says public school teachers can't recruit?" she jokes.
Initially, Stearns wasn't going to cut any of the girls who came out for the team, "but then I got weird and competitive and I cut five girls the other day," she says. "Afterward, driving down the hill, I turned into this blubbering mess. I called and told them I was an idiot."
Those five players had never played volleyball, so she is forced to spend time on the most basic skills. "All this team wants to do is play Queens [a competitive scrum of shrieks and diving and passing] or scrimmage," Stearns laments.
So she lets them go. She interrupts them to run an instructional drill for 10 minutes, then lets them play some more; followed by another quick lesson in remedial volleyball. This cycle repeats for two hours, after which the team is a pink-faced, low-fiving, sweaty mess. "Mission accomplished," Stearns says.
Seriously, guys. My keys. Nobody's seen them?"
The bell just rang, ending the first day of school.
In Stearns's office, her volleyball players are trying on their new uniforms. The girls aren't shy about stripping to their bras in front of the two or three boys who are present. These kids drop f-bombs around their coaches. They no longer sweat the small stuff.
If it hadn't been for sports these last nine months, says Madison Middleton, "I don't know, I'd probably be a mess. Sitting at home doing nothing all that time. Right after the fire, sports was, like, the only time I got out of the house. For a couple of hours a day, that was it. If I didn't have that, I'd have just sat in my house until school started."
"Me too," says Sophia Scribner, whose position is "wherever Annie needs me." She adds, "Sports motivated me to keep going. To get up, do something, be with my friends, Annie and all the coaches."
Rick Prinz no longer looks like the wrung-out granddad he was in November 2018, his eyes pinched, sleepless and out of tears. He seems five years younger now. "The kids gave him that," says his line coach, Andy Hopper.
Prinz and his family returned to their slightly damaged home a few months ago, after living with friends in the nearby village of Willows. His undermanned team, meanwhile, is a surprising 8–0, including a rousing, season-opening home win over Williams High, which received $5,000 in free gear from Under Armour in exchange for making the road trip. "No one wanted to play us," Stearns explains. "No one wants to lose to Paradise. Because there's no one in Paradise. No one wanted to beat Paradise, either."
That evening began with the Bobcats walking onto the field as Johnny Cash's "God's Gonna Cut You Down" played over the crackly P.A. The players were led by Gonzales and the other recent graduates who lost their chance to play for a championship when their playoff game, scheduled for the night after the fire, was canceled. The wet eyes in the packed bleachers at Om Wraith Field well before kickoff outnumbered the dry ones.
When the game began, the referees allowed the Cats' post-touchdown hugs and helmet-slaps during their 42–0 victory to linger longer than usual, the celebrants having returned from San Diego, Fresno and Oregon, to make it to that field.
"The displacement was as bad as getting out of the fire," Prinz says. "It's still going on. I always ask the kids, Where you staying? Where'd you stay last night? That's what you ask them. Because you know it's not here."
The passion on display that night pulled 50 more kids back to the school registrar. Teenage refugees or their parents told Stearns "I saw that game," or "I heard about that game. I want to come back and be part of that."
Paradise isn't back. Not yet. Every day massive dump trucks roll downhill from the town, tarps stretched over their cargo to prevent the ashes from being blown by the same winds that pushed the fire into town.
The cars that drop kids off at the high school (most of them after an hour-plus commute) pass many grim reminders of the Camp Fire. There's the late model Volvo wagon, burnt and rusted orange, with no tires or windows, its passenger door wide-open, as if someone has just bolted from it. They pass hundreds of scorched-flat properties with gleaming new chain-link fences around them.
Near the high school is Paradise Cemetery, where 30 of the 85 casualties of the Camp Fire are interred. Up the road, Stearns and her team keep working. Prinz found her keys, by the way. She had left them in the door of a storage closet.
"What if the fire had started at four in the morning?" asks Roberts. "Ten thousand people would have died. If you look for the things you can count your blessings on, they'll outnumber what you lost—the material things."
Stearns is setting up for another volleyball practice-slash-playdate. She doesn't tell the girls, but she is positioning her nets a couple of inches higher than regulation, an old practice trick she can't resist using.
"I don't think the seventh- and eighth-graders understand how happy we are to be back here," says Madison Middleton, the ponytailed, multiple-sport-playing senior. "They're happy because they get to be at the high school now. For us, it's different. This is home."