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After California's Camp Fire, Some People From Paradise Put Down Roots In Tennessee

Dan Wentland, Sherry Wentland, Gwynn Harris, and Randy Harris (left to right) attend services at the Lantana Road Baptist Church on March 8, 2020. The couples have known each other since the 1970s and lived in Paradise, Calif., until the 2018 Camp Fire destroyed their town.
Dan Wentland, Sherry Wentland, Gwynn Harris, and Randy Harris (left to right) attend services at the Lantana Road Baptist Church on March 8, 2020. The couples have known each other since the 1970s and lived in Paradise, Calif., until the 2018 Camp Fire destroyed their town.

Two days after the Camp Fire destroyed Paradise, Calif., in November 2018, Dan Wentland drove through the town. The former mayor and his wife, Sherry, had run a construction business there since the 1970s. Together, the Wentlands built more houses, businesses, and churches than they could count.

On that drive, as Paradise still smoldered, Dan realized he didn't have the will to rebuild their own home, which was among 14,000 destroyed in the blaze.

"I just said, 'This will never be my town in my lifetime again. It'll never be what we knew again,' " Wentland remembers thinking. "So we chose to leave."

Within a month, the Wentlands moved nearly 2,500 miles away, to Crossville, Tenn. Their son and daughter-in-law helped them look up homes online and they quickly settled on a 24-acre plot with three-car garage and a duck pond.

Dan already had ties to the region. He had gone to high school in the state and his uncle and brother both live there. But for Sherry, who grew up in Paradise, Crossville didn't feel like home until a recent road trip to Maine.

"When we were headed home, we were both saying, 'Well, we're going to be glad to get out of the car and get home. It felt like going home,' " Sherry Wentland said.

Dan agrees that the roadtrip marked a turning point for the couple.

"Home wasn't Paradise anymore. It was here," Dan Wentland added.

The Wentlands were the first couple from Paradise to move to Crossville after the Camp Fire, which killed 85 people, and destroyed an entire town. The fire was sparked by aging equipment owned by Pacific Gas & Electric.

Since their arrival, a number of friends and family have visited and decided to follow the couple here, including Sherry's mother and sister, and their close friends Randy and Gwynn Harris, who quickly realized their money would go a lot farther in Tennessee compared to California.

"When we saw the price of homes, we just couldn't refuse," Randy said. He and Gwynn lost their home in the Camp Fire.

"We had said we're going to look in Idaho next," she added. "Well, we never looked."

But it hasn't been easy being far from their daughter and her family, including two grandsons who live in Chico, a 10-minute drive from Paradise.

"The first month I was here, I just cried every day. I just cried," Gwynn Harris said. "I still have times that I do cry about missing family. We miss them a lot."

In March, weeks before the shutdowns began across the country, the Wentlands organized a reunion of former Paradise residents who now live in East Tennessee. About 30 people showed up. Some hadn't seen each other since the blaze.

A group of Camp Fire survivors meet at the Cumberland Plateau Baptist Association in Crossville, Tenn., for their first reunion, which was organized by Dan and Sherry Wentland.
A group of Camp Fire survivors meet at the Cumberland Plateau Baptist Association in Crossville, Tenn., for their first reunion, which was organized by Dan and Sherry Wentland.

Not everyone followed the Wentlands to Crossville. After the Camp Fire, Vada Bouffard took a roadtrip and ended up renting a home about an hour from the Wentlands, who had built her home in Paradise.

"I don't know why everybody ended up at Tennessee. But here we are: little Paradise!" Bouffard said.

She, too, was drawn by the promise of a cheaper cost-of-living during her golden years. After the fire, home prices near Paradise shot up to around $400,000. In Crossville, the average home costs less than half that.

And it's not just real estate that's cheaper: taxes, gas, and fees for registering everything from cars to guns cost less here.

There's another attraction for this group too. They say East Tennessee has the same conservative values common in the Paradise area, where the Camp Fire burned.

Bouffard says the devout community of Christians was a draw, too.

"I didn't know anybody in Paradise when I moved there either," Bouffard said. "But there was a church on every corner instead of a bar on every corner. And I think the same for Tennessee."

Copyright 2020 KQED. To see more, visit KQED.