PARADISE, Calif. (AP) — Paradise these days is surrounded by piles of crumpled garage doors and melted ovens. The roads teem with dump trucks and most street corners are clogged with signs advertising debris removal services or pleas to identify unclaimed pets.
But Thursday night — six months after a wildfire destroyed most of the town and killed 85 people — the lights came on again at the Paradise High School football stadium as a class of 220 seniors received their diplomas amid the rubble of their past lives as they seek to build a new future. Of the 980 students at the school, about 900 lost their homes, according to Principal Loren Lighthall.
"We're able to end where we began," said 18-year-old Lilly Rickards, who has been sharing a bed with her 26-year-old sister in a small apartment about 15 miles (24 kilometers) away in Chico since she lost her house in the fire.
Paradise High School sits across the road from a cemetery, next to an Assemblies of God church. The church and nearly every other building around it are gone. The school's parking lot, where seniors have decorated parking spaces in bright colors, sits empty behind a chain link fence. But the buildings, and the football field where graduations have been held since at least the 1960s, are still intact.
For students from a multigenerational town with deep roots, the school became an anchor after the fire .
"The fire could burn just about every physical object under the sun, but it couldn't touch the connections we have built over that lifetime," senior class president Garrett Malcolm told the crowd during his speech. "We will always carry the name and spirit of Paradise with us. Not because of its death, but because of its life and what it stood for."
Thursday night's ceremony saw the field covered with students donning green and white gowns — green for the boys and white for the girls. Students entered the field in pairs, meeting at the stage for photos. Some added mini performances, including confetti cannons, kissing couples and two boys who carried pizza boxes and shared slices as if they were at a wedding, arms entangled to feed each other.
For many, the ceremony is not just a goodbye to high school, but to their town. Most of its 26,000 residents have left, settling throughout the region. Culleton estimates between 800 and 2,000 people now live in Paradise.
Ben Dees and his twin sister, Katie, are moving to St. George Utah this summer. They could have already been there. But their mother, Julie Fairbanks, agreed to stay in the area through July so they could graduate and spend time with their friends.
"I'm just waiting it out, sleeping on a twin-sized mattress on the floor — but at least it's a bed — so that they can stay with their friends and be here as long as they can," Fairbanks said. "I don't even know what to say, I'm just so proud. They are my only kids. ... Everything is the 'first' and the 'last' for them. And then going through all this, I'm just so proud that they got through it."
The fire, which started in November, destroyed more than 13,000 homes and killed 85 people. Since then, the high school has held classes at an office building near the Chico airport that was once used by Facebook. They have the second-highest math scores in the county. There are seven valedictorians, defined as students who took at least eight college-level classes and earned A's in all of them. And school officials say they have the only National Merit Scholar in Northern California this year.
"We didn't just crawl across the finish line bloody and broken. We exploded through it and exceeded all expectations," senior Nathan Dailey said.
Wednesday night, Rickards and her best friend, Katelyn Fansler, played volleyball together on the football field with their classmates as they watched the sun set on their final night in high school. They reminisced about the school year, including their efforts to pull off a production of "Seussical" during a semester when Fansler lived for a time in a small trailer with her parents, two siblings and four dogs and a cat.
"It was really difficult," Rickards said of the semester following the fire. "But now I've just kind of moved on and I'm ready to get on with my life."