Five months ago, when John Mendon walked out of his home and down his driveway the morning of Nov. 8, he spotted a cloud of smoke to the east — down toward the foothills of Paradise, California, where his family has owned and operated Mendon’s Nursery since 1975.
“It was a mushroom-shaped, light brown cloud,” he says. So, Mendon turned to his son, who was headed to the nursery with him, and said, “That’s no rain cloud.”
Mendon was right. From 35 miles away, in Orland, California, Mendon had spotted the first signs of what would later be known as the Camp Fire, now considered to be the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in the state’s history. It raged from early Nov. 8 until Nov. 22, when firefighters reported the flames were 90 percent contained. By then, 85 people had been killed as a result of the fire, and 18,800-plus structures and more than 153,000 acres had been destroyed.
Mendon and his son hit the road. And, “as we drove closer, the smoke got black — just very quickly,” he says. “It turned from light brown to black — it got tremendously bigger, quick.”
They arrived at 8:15 a.m. and within minutes, both Mendon and his son received texts from a local warning system that it was time to evacuate their area. So, Mendon, his son, and one other employee began to pack and save what they could: They moved their forklift, tractor, a dump truck, and a small and big van to an upper parking lot, “away from any buildings or anything that really could burn,” he says. “I just left them there,” hoping they would be safe.
Mendon went into his fireproof safe and took important papers and cash bags from inside.
Then they drove their company van — packed with
a delivery of trees — off their 8-acre land, down the road toward home. The normally 45-minute-long drive took Mendon and his son four hours to complete in the heavy traffic that had backed up in the evacuation, he says.
“Now, a lot of people in town had it a lot worse than us,” Mendon says. “I'm sure you saw the videos on the news where people with a phone camera had taken pictures while they were driving through the flames—intense heat all around them, and abandoned cars.”
(And the next day, Mendon says proudly, they made that delivery.)
Mendon’s Nursery included three main buildings — inside them, a greenhouse, sales floor, nursery, warehouse, office, and vacant residence, where Mendon’s parents used to live on the property. Later, when Mendon could account for the damage, Mendon and his team saw they’d lost all three of the main buildings, “burned completely to the ground,” he says.
Mendon had a preview of the extent of the damage before he went back to see his business. An employee’s husband works for the fire department and took video of the nursery.
"What I always tell people who are a little hesitant to go to Paradise now, and people say they don’t feel right being a looky-loo, is that when you see it on the news and then see it in person, it’s a really different feeling,” Mendon says. “The pictures never really paint the seriousness and the scope of it. I think it’s the same way when I came up here: I saw the video and I thought I was prepared, but when I actually came here, it was really hard to believe — because one day we’re here and the town is functioning and there are hundreds and thousands of people, and the next day it’s totally different. The first time I came up here, it was just unreal. They still had the town restricted to emergency personnel, but I was able to get a police escort into town because we knew we had plants that needed to be watered.”
A smaller retail greenhouse, where Mendon sold indoor plants, survived. So did most of the nursery’s ceramic collection, decorative bark, soil, and a smattering of metal trellises and arbors. But 70 percent of Mendon’s outdoor plants “either burned up completely,” he says, “or they were so heavily damaged by the heat or the flames that they are not sellable.”
“The fire was very strange, how it went actually throughout the whole town,” he says. “You wonder why something burned, and right next to it something didn't burn at all. A lot of it had to do with the way the wind was blowing. The wind directed the heat, and so right next to it, something might have been totally missed. And you could go down the street, and there will be one house completely untouched and 20 houses all around it on any side totally gone. That's the way it is throughout the whole town. It's just really hard to explain.”
Down the road, at Paradise Garden Center, which had operated for 25 years in Paradise, owner Barry Scougale says he lost everything. He was out of town, fishing, on the day of the fire. But by 3 p.m., he’d received calls from employees saying they’d abandoned the center.
“We had smart people in place that realized that stuff is just stuff, and there's nothing more important than the value of someone's safety and life,” he says. “They turned and burned.
“The dump truck burned up — the other dump truck burned up, the tractors burned up, the building collapsed. Nothing was salvageable. Nothing. There were maybe 50 rhododendrons left by the time we got back, and we couldn't get back to town for a month.”
And yet Scougale says the property loss wasn’t the worst of the fire’s damage. “It took us six days to find one of our employees,” he says. “We found all the rest of
them, because they all went different directions. They had to get away. It took six days before I was finally able to find my last employee and, oh my goodness, was I relieved at that point.”
Scougale plans to rebuild his business, which is on about six-tenths of an acre — after he completes what he describes as a rigorous insurance claims process, and after cleanup in the area begins.
Mendon, however, will not rebuild. Before the fire hit, Mendon and his wife had planned to move closer to their children, who live in Utah. “The fire happened to make this move just sooner than we planned,” Mendon says, estimating that rebuilding — both the structures lost and a customer base — would take eight to 10 years, time Mendon says he doesn’t have.
“If I were to rebuild, and
then want to resell it to retire later, you'd definitely want the business to be a thriving business for someone to want to buy it,” Mendon says.
He continues, “It's been difficult, devastating, of course — but I think because of our plans of what to do, eventually
any way, [it’s easier.] You hate it to call a disaster or a devastation a blessing. But I think what a lot of people — in any circumstance — do is look for the good that come out of the bad. The bad happens, and you can't change that. And if you don't try to look for something good to come out of that, then you're just going to be lost.”