Hundreds of people displaced by November's Camp fire gathered at the Paradise Alliance Church on Friday not for a sermon, but for a different kind of town council meeting.
The crowd took part in the first of several listening sessions organized by the town of Paradise to initiate a public dialogue about how to rebuild the community after last year's deadly firestorm.
Public officials brought in a team of architects and urban planners with Pittsburgh-based Urban Design Associates to facilitate the meeting.
Moderators broke attendees up into small groups and asked each person to share strengths and weaknesses of their town before and after the fire, and to offer ideas about new opportunities the disaster has presented to them.
The pews were packed.
"It makes me hopeful that you see so many people coming together. People have the sense of what they want Paradise to be," said Patty Mannel, a 39-year resident of Paradise, whose home is still standing.
Paradise residents both past and current expressed appreciation for health care institutions and public buildings like a performing arts center and a senior center. Others talked about the natural wonders of the area such as nearby lakes, rivers and hiking opportunities as what make living there so unique.
But the fire survivors also saw opportunities to make their community better than it was before, such as creating a more central downtown area, a new sewer system, better roads and underground utility lines. Others wanted more jobs and tourism.
Chris Kerston imagined a new Paradise with high-tech jobs, powered by renewable energy. He said designing a new town couldn't happen in a top-down way.
"The notion of a power-that-be come in and tell people what's going to happen after a trauma or disaster, is just not going to fly. So it's absolutely critical that it become a dialogue," he said.
The dialogue will continue. The town of Paradise will hold more listening sessions March 21, one from 4-6 p.m. and another from 7-9 p.m. at the Paradise Alliance Church.
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