Before the fire, the Paradise Genealogical Society had 80,000 obituaries pasted on cards and filed expertly in an old library card catalog.
They had a white with maroon trim building with large windows just outside the picturesque downtown.
They had a robust group of volunteers dedicated to preserving the history of their little town and the greater county beyond.
Seventy-five percent of the volunteer staff moved away after the November 2018 fire consumed the town. Everything else is gone. The rubble from the building they bought in 1997 is cleared, leaving a red-dirt lot with a cracked parking lot.
But this group, established 51 years ago by three women who carried their research books around in their cars, is far from giving up. And thanks to dozens of other genealogical researchers from around the country, including Tuolumne and Calaveras counties, they have assembled more than 3,000 volumes of the books they lost.
Phil VanSwoll, president of the Tuolumne County Genealogical Society, and his wife, Marcia, delivered 11 boxes of books Saturday to the Paradise group’s temporary office in Chico.
“We concentrated on trying to find books on counties around that area,” Phil VanSwoll said. Plus some general how-to books.
Carol Sutherland, the Paradise librarian, said, “I’m still at the point I don’t like to talk about it.”
The Camp Fire began early in the morning of Nov. 8, 2018. Sutherland’s daughter, who lived on a small ranch outside town, called and advised her mother to come to her house.
Sutherland packed up a few things, some photos and, of course, her computer and hard drives with two decades of genealogical research. She thought she’d be back soon.
She was the family historian, and her house was packed with all sorts of treasures — her grandmother’s wedding rings and rocking chair, a 1926 player piano, so many irreplaceable things. She had a 500-volume library.
As she drove, she saw embers flying but no flames.
Not too long after she got to her daughter’s, the fire had spread to the base of her daughter’s driveway. She fled to her son’s house in Auburn.
“I didn’t know the scope of the fire, but after two or three days, I figured my house was gone,” she said.
After almost a week, residents were able to go online and put in an address to see photos of the area. She saw her chimney and rubble. It took a long time to find a photo of the society headquarters. The only way she recognized it was by the sewer lid in the driveway.
When she went back to her house in January with her grandchildren, she found the cast iron from inside the piano, her grandmother’s rings, fused together, and some pieces of china, cracked and chipped.
Although PG&E has acknowledged its equipment likely caused the fire, Sutherland does not blame the utility. She says so many forces came together — weather, geography, and then ignition.
Most of what was destroyed has been cleaned up, and some people have started rebuilding. After several months in a hotel, Sutherland bought a house in Magalia and resumed her genealogical research. She’s contacted the Church of Latter-day Saints and reconstructed some of the records lost. The genealogical center also spread the word about Paradise’s need.
“The response has been wonderful,” Sutherland said. Books have come in from New York, Georgia, Virginia, Texas, Washington, Oregon, California.
She’s working to enter all the titles in a library computer program. The society had insurance on the building but could not afford to insure the contents. Without donations from other groups, the Paradise Genealogical Society would be no more.
Sutherland and fellow researcher Joyce Higgins met the VanSwolls at the new office. VanSwoll said, “It was a rewarding effort for us, and I am so pleased that the members of our Tuolumne County Genealogical Society (and also our Calaveras neighbors) stepped up to help the folks in Paradise who are literally starting over from scratch. I would do it again in a heartbeat.”
Sutherland said she believes her interest is genealogy is what has enabled her to keep going. The tie to the past, knowing the hardships overcome by ancestors. There’s a spirit of looking ahead even as she looks to the past.
Plus, all her research and digitized photos survived.
“If I had lost everything, I don’t think I would be talking about it today,” she said.