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Paradise Genealogical Society celebrates grand reopening after losing its building in 2018 Camp Fire

Paradise Genealogical Society Library.
Jamie Jiang
Paradise Genealogical Society Library.

The Paradise Genealogical Society Saturday celebrated the opening of a new permanent headquarters and library after losing its previous location in the 2018 Camp Fire. The nonprofit invites community members to retrace their family histories through research.

Mary Cotrell came to the grand opening last weekend to browse the books and socialize with other members. Cotrell, who lost her house in the Camp Fire, said she spent energy and time outside her own recovery efforts to pitch in for the new office out of loyalty to the society.

“They go way beyond what they need to to help people learn how to do genealogy,” Cotrell said.

The members form a close-knit group of dedicated researchers who caught the “genealogy bug.” Pam Crosby is the library director and helps people trawl through historical records to find out more about their family’s past.

“I've got into the history of it. And just the history, you start reading this historical stuff, and you're like, why are they making movies about junk when they could be making movies about these things?” she said. “They’re so much more interesting, you know?”

In 2018, the Camp Fire burned down the society’s office and library. Crosby said up to 4,000 books burned, many of them rare and irreplaceable volumes about local history. For Crosby, who is a Camp Fire survivor herself, thinking about all that was lost is still emotional.

“Everything burned,” she said. “I can't even list all of them. And anytime I try to do that, it always kind of gets me a little… because I think back to my own house burning, so it's kind of a touchy issue sometimes, you know?”

States Room inside the Paradise Genealogical Society Library.
Jamie Jiang
Donations from individuals, organizations and thrift stores across the country restocked the Society’s bookshelves.

Charity from historical societies, thrift stores, and concerned strangers across the country helped restock their library. Crosby showed off the new collections with pride.

But some of what was lost is unique to the membership of the society itself. Before the fire, assistant librarian Gordon Taylor said, about half of the society’s membership lived in Paradise. Now, he’d say only about 10% still live here.

A lot of information about how to manage the society left with them, or burned down. It left a small vacuum of internal knowledge.

“So consequently, when you try to find out: what did they do to set this up? Sometimes it's not there, you don't know how to do it,” Taylor said.

After the fire, Crosby said their membership numbers dropped from 200 people to just 60, which dealt a blow to the membership dues that made up their income. When renovating their new location, a lot of the work was done by members of the society themselves in order to stay within the budget. All of them are retired and above the age of 50.

“We had a couple of women in their 60s and 70s picking up that cement and throwing it in the big dumpster,” Crosby said.

Crosby believes the organization can give to the community. The practice of genealogy, she said, can help those traumatized by the Camp Fire to feel less alone. Many people, like herself, lost baby pictures and family records, which would take work and research to recover, if they can be recovered at all. Crosby believes genealogy can heal that loss. Some might feel less alone to know what their ancestors went through.

“Maybe you know your grandmother up here, your grandfather up here. You can see they lived through something,” she said. “They survived and they went on to have so many generations after you.”

Jamie was NSPR’s wildfire reporter and Report For America corps member. She covered all things fire, but her main focus was wildfire recovery in the North State. Before NSPR, Jamie was at UCLA, where she dabbled in college radio and briefly worked as a podcast editor at the Daily Bruin.