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'I'm not giving up': Survivors of US town destroyed by fire rebuild

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Paradise (United States) (AFP)

For Kevin Lundy, a land surveyor who lost his home last year in the deadliest and most destructive fire in California history, there is no dwelling on the past.

"I'm looking forward now," said the 35-year-old as he adjusted his work gloves before thrusting a metal post into the earth -- yet another small step in rebuilding all he lost in the fire that devastated the small town of Paradise in the northern California foothills.

"I'll rebuild my home," Lundy told AFP on a recent sunny October afternoon as his eight-year-old son lent a hand. "I'm not giving up."

The so-called Camp Fire -- which struck in the early hours of November 8 last year -- killed 86 people and destroyed 19,000 structures, including 14,000 homes, among them Lundy's.

Many of the residents forced to flee the inferno will never come back, having moved to nearby towns or leaving the state entirely.

But about 4,000 have returned in the last several months after all the toxic debris that littered the town was removed, allowing for rebuilding to start.

"I've seen what it looked like, the day after the fire," recalled Lundy, showing pictures on his phone of the scorched remains of his home.

- 'A ton of progress' -

"And I see what it looks like now," he added, with a note of optimism, as he surveyed the empty lots that dot the town. "I see a ton of progress."

Following the fire, Lundy, his son Levi and their labrador lived in a trailer stationed on a parking lot in the nearby town of Chico, and finally moved their mobile home to Paradise several weeks ago.

There was still no electricity or potable water in his area of town when AFP visited him in October but that was due to change in the coming days.

Lundy said he was initially hesitant about setting roots in Paradise again.

"I went through a period where I was in denial," he said, recalling his depression and his son's frequent nightmares after the inferno. "So I had to see it firsthand, several times, before I could actually believe that the whole town where I grew up is gone."

Lundy's 67-year-old father Hollis, who lives outside of town and whose home was spared from the flames, appeared more skeptical.

"It's not a normal life, there's a lot of ghosts," he sighed. "It will never be the same and the history of the town is gone.

"It will be a new generation, a new town."

Kyla Awalt, a mother of two who was born and raised in Paradise, was among the first residents to return as her house was one of the few that survived the Camp Fire.

But she said the once-quintessential American town that lived up to its name before the blaze doesn't feel like home anymore.

- Christmas wish -

"We felt very fortunate because we had our possessions, but we lost our community and that's been really difficult for us," Awalt, 34, told AFP. "I was born and raised here, Paradise is all I've ever known.

She said the town has an eerie sense to it today amid all the empty burned-out lots and the lack of life.

"It's very quiet. It's very lonely," said Awalt. "We miss our neighbors, we miss our friends."

An 11:00 pm to 5:00 am curfew is still in place to deter vandals but is not strictly enforced given the lack of police officers, many of whom left after losing their own homes.

The town has also struggled to recruit employees given the lack of housing and adequate infrastructure.

Throughout the community, many empty lots are waiting for hard-to-come-by buyers and a few contractors have ventured back, building homes in the hope that will help spur the local economy.

"We're trying to get people back in town," said Carrie Keel, a building contractor who owned or rented out 10 houses in Paradise before the fire.

She and her husband are in the process of installing prefabricated homes in several of the lots, aiming to attract back residents.

"We feel it's really important to provide low rent and housing for people that really want to come back," she told AFP.

As for Lundy, he is hoping his new home will be ready within a little over a year.

"Not this December, but the next one," he said. "That would be my goal -- to have Christmas morning in our house in 2020."

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