Other Side of Paradise by Chris Kerston

Satellite image showing the size of the Paradise wildfire.

Photo by NASA

 

On November 8, 2018, I boarded a flight to meet with our global Savory Hub Network at our annual in-person gathering. Little did I know that in a few short hours, a momentous event would forever divide my life into what came before it and what came after it. I took off at 8:19 a.m. When I landed at 11:35 a.m., I learned that my entire town—where I had been just a few hours ago—was on fire.

 

I called my wife, Kelsey, and she was stuck in gridlock—one of the over 50,000 people trying to flee for their lives on the only remaining open road out of town. The fire was burning at a record-setting rate of 80 football fields per minute. Homes and businesses were burning all around her, and the sky had turned as dark as night from the smoke. Kelsey could feel the heat of the flames encroaching on her as she watched people abandon their vehicles, running for their lives as their cars spontaneously combusted. She had called 911 about five times and couldn’t get through. When she finally did reach someone, they told her that she was in fact on the only passable route out of town, that there was nothing more they could do. They wished her good luck and ended the call. She told me over the phone that she thought she was going to die, and my stomach churned as I thought of the possibility that this could be our last conversation.

 

As she shared the horror of her surroundings, I sat there helpless in the airport, trying to think of any way I could add value to the situation. Shortly after, the cell phone towers went out. Our call abruptly disconnected and, like a tsunami crashing, the reality of what was happening hit me. I sat in what felt like total isolation—alone with all my worst fears—while travelers, oblivious to my ensuing nightmare, scurried to and fro all around me. After a few hours, I was able to get on a return flight to California.

 

Kelsey called me back right as I boarded my flight home. She was on the edge of town and connected to the cell towers outside of the burn area. She said she was braving the worst of it. Utility poles were falling, and she was driving over power lines. She didn’t know if they were still charged with electricity or not, but she kept going along with everyone else. The forest was ablaze on both sides of her. Buildings she had seen hours earlier were literally reduced to nothing but a few pipes and white ash. And then, just moments later, she made it to the highway and went from traveling one mile per hour to 80 miles per hour. She was safe. About 90 minutes later, I actually flew over the fire and got to see the scale of the destruction from 30,000 feet. Knowing that it had all happened in less than a day was mind-numbing. Twenty-thousand acres burned in the first 14 hours.

 Image of the remains of a home in Paradise after the fire. Windows are broken and walls of the exterior have burnt areas..

The Kerston family home in Paradise after the fire on Nov. 8, 2018.

 

It had started as a mundane day for Kelsey. She dropped off the kids that morning at school in Chico, the next town over. As soon as she heard about the fire, she rushed back to get our pets and any keepsakes that she could. Luckily that meant that the kids were safe during the disaster itself. When she got about three miles from the house, the canopy of pine trees above her exploded in flames. That’s when she got stuck in the traffic that took five hours to emerge from. She never made it home again—none of us did. We ended up losing everything. Our dog burned in the garage. I’ll spend the rest of my days wondering why he didn’t go outside for the chance to avoid a horrible death. All of our possessions were incinerated, and the house was a total loss. Our chickens and ducks died shortly after the fire. Everyone we know in the area lost everything they had as well. It was earth-shattering. Nearly 20,000 structures were destroyed, and 86 people died, including a neighbor of ours. It was the most expensive natural disaster anywhere on the globe in 2018.

 

Paradise had been a sleepy little town nestled in the forest. Rivers, lakes, and endless hiking trails kept our young family constantly engaged with the outdoors. We kayaked weekly in the summer and drove 20 minutes to the snow just as often in the winter. It was a close-knit community: People waved at one another, neighbors helped each other out, and we were all proud of our town. Kelsey and I called it our modern Mayberry. Within a few days after the disaster, literally while still crying together, we had a conversation where we vowed we were going to be very intentional and resolute about looking for any upside and positive notes that we could.

 

Prior to this experience, my wife and I both had extensive experience in production agriculture. We have run large grass-fed cattle, sheep and goat operations, organic orchards, and worked on mushroom farms. Kelsey helped manage an organic rice farm. Despite this experience, we could never afford any sizable piece of land of our own in the area. We started looking for burned properties to purchase. Our belief was anchored on the notion that, with some hard work, we could realize many of our aspirations while at the same time injecting capital and hope back into the community.

A family of four standing in front of the remains of their house in Paradise. A man and woman stand behind two young boys.

Photo by Pauline Bartolone

 

We found a 60-acre piece of land on the other side of the river from Paradise that was in our price range. The land was completely burned and dotted with scorched oak and pine trees. However, as we looked past all the destruction, we could see that it had all the bones of what we were looking for. There are three seasonal creeks on the property and one year-round creek. Additionally, we have found about six year-round springs (we keep finding more) and one sub-irrigated meadow. The property also has an established large garden area. It came with a large carport, a well, and a septic tank. The owner wanted to sell as soon as possible and move away from the region to heal from his trauma. Because of this motivation, the property was significantly discounted—only $3,300 per acre. Typically around here land goes for $8,000 to $15,000 per acre.

 

After a couple of family trips to the property where we hiked through the ashes and a few big discussions, we decided to make an offer. We were already pre-qualified by a mortgage broker and had saved more than the 20% down payment needed to avoid paying mortgage insurance. We called our mortgage broker, who informed us that they don’t lend on raw land. We then started working with the local bank chain specifically. They were one of the organizations that had given large sums of money early on to the recovery effort. We figured they would have a policy in place for underwriting burned land.

 

However, our local bank chain said they too were reluctant to lend on raw land. I could barely believe my ears—at this point, there were tens-of-thousands of lots that were now considered raw land. Many of them were going to need to change hands before being rebuilt. We had quickly found a major flaw in the lending system. We knew how difficult land access was for new farmers and ranchers due to the large amounts of capital required, but we didn’t understand until then the added challenges of lending on raw land. We started applying with every lender we could, from credit unions to ag lending agencies. In every case, it either ended up where they didn’t feel comfortable lending on undeveloped land, or they were scared off by the fact that the property was burned. We went back to our local bank chain and, after a lot of conversation, ended up coming to terms with paying 50% down at 6.3% APR. While it certainly doesn’t feel like it, we have talked to a number of lenders who have told us that is a phenomenal rate for this situation. When we decide to build a home, we can choose to refinance and restructure to a construction loan, which can have more favorable terms and rates. While it was difficult, we were only able to get our new property because the disaster made the cost of entry per acre so much lower. Under normal market rates we would never have been able to come up with half down, which we have come to learn is the norm for properties without a home on them.

 a creek going through a forrest. The trees around it are black and bare showing the aftermath of the Paradise fire.

One of the primary resources the Kerstons were looking for with a new property was ample water.

 

It’s one of my primary dreams in life to help rural communities repopulate and cultivate thriving local economies. These goals won’t reach critical mass until we as a society reconsider some of these challenging lending practices. We need to make it easier for modern pioneers to secure the properties that they dream of stewarding. In fact, civilization may quite possibly depend on it. In the meantime, however, I share our story to help people know what is often required to buy land and think about opportunities outside of the norm. Yes, it’s difficult, but the reward can still be worth it. I highly recommend engaging with groups like the National Young Farmers Coalition for additional resources and to see if your state has a Farm Link program.

 

We are now living on the property out of an old RV–the same one that, as a child, I went camping in with my grandparents. To say it’s surreal that, 30 years later, I’m crammed in it with my wife and two kids, would be the understatement of the century. I am unable to fully express it in words yet, but the minimal space is somehow also liberating. And we are slowly, day by day, turning our scorched property into the homestead of our dreams. It’s amazing how quickly the land has already bounced back on its own. Despite the many challenges, I can honestly say this whole experience is changing us, forcing us to grow and making each of us simultaneously stronger, yet softer, at the same time. If you want to see more about our journey specifically, we have started a YouTube channel called Other Side of Paradise Homestead that showcases our progress each week.

 

Why should it take a natural disaster for people like us to be able to afford land? Short answer: it shouldn’t! In a recent report by the National Young Farmers Coalition, land access was reported as the number one issue troubling new farmers and ranchers.1 Despite the system needing a massive overhaul, those that yearn for a simpler life just might consider disasters like ours as a way to realize their dreams. In our wildfire disaster alone, 239 square miles burned–creating opportunity for those who seek it.

 

So if you’ve been wanting to escape the urban jungle and instead forge your own lifestyle but you just can’t figure out how to take the leap to get a place of your own, consider situations like ours. The barriers to entry are high, but I can tell you first-hand that the low cost can make up for it. And as the effects of climate change set in around the globe, ours will not be the last horrific disaster. I can also tell you first-hand that these impacted communities need people with passion, innovation, and big dreams to come and put down roots.

 

Meanwhile, we have over-crowded metropolises all over the world, many of which are filled with patrons who crave escape. And yet, between these urban constructs, we have empty landscapes hungry for people–parched for good caretakers. Together, we can rebuild a new network of resilient Mayberrys–designed from the ground up to be insulated from future disasters.

 

I invite you to consider coming to Paradise and grabbing your own little slice of, well, paradise.

 

a woman and child smiling, stand in front of a field surrounded with tall grass and wildflowers.  The family’s new homestead property after six months of regrowth after the fire

1 Building a Future with Farmers. National Young Farmers Coalition , 2017. https://www.youngfarmers.org/resource building-a-future-with-farmers-ii/.

Chris Kerston works for the Savory Institute on their Land to Market verified regenerative sourcing program. He worked closely with EPIC’s co-founders, Katie and Taylor, since the brand’s earliest days. He managed ranches and farms full-time for nearly 15 years before joining the Savory Institute. Chris has now dedicated his life to helping connect innovative ranchers and farmers with progressive brands in ways that create true synergistic value for both sides.

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