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Town destroyed by PG&E fire loses 92 percent of its population

Governor reclassifies Paradise a “rural area” after Camp Fire

An aerial survey of a Paradise neighborhood, showing destroyed, vacant lots.
An aerial survey of a Paradise neighborhood in February, 2019.
Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

On Thursday, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced that California will now classify the city of Paradise, which was largely destroyed by the PG&E-sparked Camp Fire in 2018, as a rural area after the town’s population dropped to less than 10 percent of what it was before the fire.

The move is part of a bid to help Paradise recover. According to the announcement, certifying Paradise and “adjacent unincorporated Butte County” as rural areas, “those communities [are] eligible for loans, grants, and technical assistance under rural development programs funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.”

“While the pre-fire population of Paradise was an estimated 26,800, according to the U.S. 2010 Census, a door-to-door survey conducted in April of this year revealed only 2,034 residents remain,” Newsom says.

The cited drop from 26,800 to 2,034 represents a decline of more than 92.4 percent. Note that Newsom muddled the numbers a little bit; in 2010, the U.S. Census estimated that Paradise had 26,218 people, a population which grew every year since 2011 until hitting 26,800 in 2018, a few months before the fire.

A more accurate census-driven estimate will not come until 2020 at the earliest.

According to Cal Fire records, the 2018 blaze, which was started by PG&E equipment, killed 85 people and burned down nearly 18,800 structures, most of them homes in Paradise.

The 2019 USDA guidelines define a rural area as a community with “a population that doesn’t exceed 10,000, or a population that doesn’t exceed 20,000, is not located in a metropolitan statistical area (MSA), and has a serious lack of mortgage credit for low- to moderate-income families.”

Newsom is also expected to sign AB 1054 Friday, a bill designed to help the bankrupt PG&E pay for damages related to the Camp Fire and similar recent disasters.

The complicated bit of legislation provides $21 billion for payments, half of it coming from PG&E customers via a monthly surcharge that was originally supposed to expire in 2021 but now will live on for 14 more years. The remainder of the money comes from company shareholders.

The bill passed the Assembly 63-10 this week, after clearing the State Senate 31-7. Bay Area reps like Assemblymembers David Chiu, Phil Ting, Ash Kalra, and Marc Levine, and Senator Scott Wiener all voted against the measure.