Stephany Wilkes interviews Kandi Maxwell about her book, Snow After Fire: A Memoir of the Paradise Camp Fire & Its Aftermath.
Stephany Wilkes: It feels impossible to talk about your book without also talking about Lahaina, and the fact that November 2023 marks the five-year anniversary of the Camp Fire.
Kandi Maxwell: I think of Lahaina with sadness, knowing that, for most people, returning to an actual home will take years. Businesses will suffer the same fate. When I read about Lahaina, my mind immediately gravitated to the 2018 Paradise Camp Fire, of course. The fire burned through Paradise in four hours and took 18,000 structures. In Lahaina, preliminary findings show a loss of 2,200 structures. Although the physical loss is not as large as Paradise, the aftermath will be similar: FEMA trailers take months to a year to install; individuals displaced from their homes will have few options. Many will camp on their property without electricity, water, or septic. People displaced by the Camp Fire camped in the rain in the Chico Walmart parking lot for months. And now, Chico’s homelessness is much greater than it was before the fire. In 2022, the population of Paradise was 5,268—a far cry from the 26,800 prior to the fire.
SW: How is your family doing now? Where do you live and make home these days?
KM: The fires have had a long-term impact on mental health, in the form of both depression and anxiety. In my own family, my ten-year-old, autistic granddaughter still carries three or four bags of her special toys anytime she rides in a car. My thirteen-year-old granddaughter has what she calls “attachment issues.” Since moving into her new home, she will no longer leave for an overnight stay. After four years of living with me part-time, she is incapable of visiting for more than a few hours. She’s afraid to be away from her valuables—her Nintendo Switch, her Plushie stuffed animals, her diaries and drawings.
Both my sons had major depression disorder prior to the fire, however, they were in counseling and managed their lives. The loss of their jobs, housing, schools, and everything they owned — especially their art — triggered PTSD and depression. My oldest son lives in a trailer and is currently home insecure. He has difficulty with focus and follow through. He feels terrified all the time. My middle son lives in the rebuilt family home in Paradise, but he hasn’t been able to maintain employment and he’s easily overwhelmed. Before the fire, he worked as a driver and was satisfied with his job. My daughter lives in nearby Chico. She teaches fourth and fifth grade at a Butte County Charter School. Some of her students lived in Paradise during the fire. Others had family there. One student lost his grandmother when she refused to leave her dogs. She died in her basement.
I’ve lived in the mountains for most of my seventy years, and in all that time, the weather was never this destructive. Recently my husband, Lloyd, and I moved to the lower foothills. After two close calls with fires near our home, and later large amounts of snow due to unprecedented atmospheric rivers, we made the change. We can no longer do the work required to live at higher elevations. Cutting and clearing over twenty fallen Cedar trees, rebuilding fencing demolished by those trees, and shoveling snow was overwhelming. Fallen trees also damaged our garage and destroyed a metal outbuilding.
SW: Aftermath” feels like the key word of your title. Disastrous events are covered so intensely yet briefly, but they are only the beginning of massive change that continues for years. Your book, by contrast, does not dwell on the events of the Camp Fire itself. How did you decide to emphasize the aftermath vs. the actual event?
KM: You are correct on the news coverage of the event. People seem more interested in the horror of the catastrophe, but as I mentioned, the destruction of 90% of the town of Paradise took just four hours. Movies were made about that time—a pregnant woman who was about to deliver her baby and her frightful escape during the fire; the horrific exodus of those who drove away from the fire through flames in crawling traffic. My granddaughters were on that road.
To be honest, I wrote the book as life unfurled. I wasn’t writing as an author planning to publish. I was writing through personal trauma through the aftermath— the ten-month wait for FEMA housing, how living in a tiny cabin with six people affected my marriage, the agony of the depression and anxiety I saw in my children and grandchildren. The continuous fires that surrounded us led to several evacuations for my husband and me. The loss of other places I knew well — the towns of Greenville and Berry Creek. The Feather Falls trail where I had hiked numerous times and Mount Harkness in Lassen Park where I often camped were demolished.
And then came COVID. And later, the closing of the FEMA Camps when most individuals in those camps still had nowhere to go. This included my own family. My granddaughters returned to motel living, my sons came to live with Lloyd and me again. By this time, we had a 28-foot trailer for my sons, to give Lloyd and I more of our own space.
SW: Your book feels “quiet” in many ways. Amid so much loss, the rest of life does not stop. There are still everyday health matters, aging, dogs. That came to feel like a secret power of your book: having a record like yours, of this time of such tremendous climate transition. Do you see your book as a “climate memoir”?
KM: I think the words “climate memoir” describe my story better than the emphasis on the Paradise Camp Fire. In my book, I mention other large fires that affected my family and our community, especially in 2020 and 2021. Those are the fires that took the towns of Berry Creek, Greenville, and Feather Falls. In 2021, Lloyd and I lived in Yuba County and evacuated. Smoke, ash, and flames have no boundaries.
I didn’t lose my physical home in these fires, but the loss of Berry Creek, Feather Falls, Greenville, and parts of Mount Lassen — places I had climbed, hiked, and camped — devastate me. These were my homes, my places of refuge, integrated into my life’s experience. This is another issue that is so understated when the news focus is on a fire event. As humans, we connect to place —the geography, the environment. To lose those attachments is to lose pieces of oneself.
And you’re right. Time doesn’t stop. Throughout the trauma and loss, individuals must continue to live their lives. My health problems didn’t end when fires came. It didn’t stop the death of one of my beloved dogs. Or the death of both my parents. However, we can still create good memories during these times. It’s why I wrote about taking my granddaughters to the pumpkin patch, baking Christmas cookies, celebrating birthdays, walks in the woods, swimming in the lake. The little moments in life give us meaning, and they can help us heal.
Kandi Maxwell (she/her) is a creative nonfiction writer of Cherokee lineage who lives in Northern California. Her stories have been published in Hippocampus Magazine, The Off Beat, Indian Country Today, American Indian Reporter, The Raven’s Perch, and many other literary journals and print anthologies. As a 2016 Honored Elder, robed at the 39th Annual California Conference on American Indian Education, Kandi approaches life in a service mode with rich cultural understanding, fascinating experiences, and diverse accomplishments. Learn more about Kandi’s writing at kandimaxwell.com.