Paradise Lost...and Found

By Farima Ferguson and Caroline McKenzie, Opening Doors Magazine, Fall 2023

Ever since a devastating wildfire engulfed the tiny town of Paradise, California, Clayton Homes of Oroville and Executive Homes have been helping residents rebuild their lives, one home at a time. 

Paradise, CA sign

A Tragic Fire

In 2018, Paradise, California (population 5,268), was the epicenter of the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California’s history. At the time, it was also the most expensive natural disaster in the world in terms of insured losses. Named after Camp Creek Road, its place of origin, the Camp Fire began on Thursday, Nov. 8, in Northern California’s Butte County. Ignited by a faulty electric transmission line, the urban firestorm started in water-starved Paradise. (The town typically receives 5 inches of autumn rain but had only gotten one-seventh of an inch in 2018.) The fire raged for 17 days, destroying 18,000 structures in the area, including numerous homes. In the nearly five years that have passed, Clayton Homes of Oroville and Executive Homes of Chico, CA, have worked tirelessly to help displaced families rebuild.

Return To Paradise 

It’s no stretch to say that Paradise native Dustin Youngdahl has been a part of the off-site housing industry his entire life. In 1971, the year Youngdahl was born, his father, Carl, opened the first off-site home center in Paradise. Growing up, Youngdahl had numerous “jobs” at the home center. First, he would pick up nails around the lot, with his dad paying him a penny for each one he collected. In middle school, Youngdahl worked weekends mowing the home center lawn and cleaning the homes. In high school, he even helped sell them. “I wasn’t licensed to sell homes, but I would take customer information and if they bought a home, my dad would pay me $500,” he explains.

Dustin Youngdahl

Eventually, the Youngdahl family left Paradise for Sacramento, where both father and son would go on to work for Clayton and eventually open Clayton Homes of Sacramento, a Clayton retail home center. But after the devastation of the Camp Fire, Youngdahl made it his mission to return to Paradise. “When my hometown burned down, I knew that I needed to be the one that Clayton sent to rebuild Paradise and Butte County,” he says. In July 2019, he opened Clayton Homes of Oroville, located just 15 minutes down the hill from Paradise. Under his guidance, Clayton Homes of Oroville partnered with Samaritan’s Purse and North Valley Catholic Services to provide residents who lost homes in the fire with new homes for low, or in some cases, no cost. “Sometimes we feel as though we’re therapists as much as we are home consultants,” says Youngdahl. “Our customers, as well as team members, have survival stories as they escaped the fires. It’s rewarding to hear these stories and the whole journey of how and why they’re back. They want to be part of something that’s rebuilding and growing.”

 It turns out it’s something Youngdahl wants to be a part of as well. Though he never anticipated an indefinite return to his hometown, that’s exactly what’s happened. He and his wife, Jessica, are now proud Clayton homeowners in the reviving area. “We love it here,” he says. “We have incredible views out the front and back of the house, and our dog Nacho loves it, too.”

Dustin Youngdahl home

A New Home (and Job) 

After her Paradise house burned to the ground, Danica Vinson wasn’t sure she would ever find another place to truly call home. After losing the house, Vinson and her partner, Jesse, bounced between family members’ homes and then took up residence in a camper for more than three years. “We spent the first eight months in it living at a campground,” recalls Vinson. “Finally, we were cleared to return to our property and continued to live in it there.” While it was nice to be back to the land and views they loved, they wouldn’t have gone so far as to call it home sweet home. “Cooking was hard, so we ate out a lot and spent on our credit cards. Getting our credit card down to where we wanted it to be for a home loan was a struggle,” she recalls of the financial hardships they faced as they attempted to get back on their feet.

Danica Vinson and family

About a year after the fire, the couple came across Clayton Homes of Oroville. When they visited, Vinson found out she would need a job to get a home loan, but the hospital she worked at had closed due to the fire. They left crestfallen, only to have home center manager Dustin Youngdahl call later in the day. “He asked if I would like to interview for an open home consultant job,” explains Vinson, who got the job and has been a Clayton team member since November 2019. 

Now, she had the chance to build from the ground up on a new tract of land the couple found a bit farther out of town. It took about nine months from preapproval to move-in day, and the Clayton home they chose was part of the fittingly named Dream series. And for Vinson that’s exactly what it was—a chance to build a home just right for her family. “We modified the regular pantry into a hidden pantry, and we rearranged the kitchen layout and added a bigger island,” she says. She also modified the model’s bathroom setup and added an additional room to make the multi-section home larger. The property also comes with a lot of land, which provides plenty of room for their two horses, Firecat and Smoke, and their 11 goats. “One of the big things about our lifestyle needs and having a large property with animals is we had to have a huge utility room,” Vinson says. “I need somewhere to take off my boots, place my animals’ extra stuff and an extra freezer,” Vinson says. “The model [our home] was based on had a huge utility room—I’ve never seen a utility room like this. It even has its own island.”

Danica Vinson horses

When they moved into the home in September 2021, their daughter, Soryah, was only 8 months old. “Getting to watch her grow up here, it’s been great,” Vinson said. “We have given her so much more than we had.” 

Mapping It Out

Today, if you walk into the Clayton Homes of Oroville home center, you’ll see a map of Paradise hanging on the back wall with pins representing the locations where customers rebuilt with Clayton homes. In fact, about 70% of the center’s customers are people who lost homes in the fire. These efforts have been recognized by the Manufactured Housing Institute®, which awarded the Clayton Homes of Oroville the title of Retailer of the Year in 2021. It also won the 2022 MHI award for Retail Center of the Year from the national organization. Still, Youngdahl and his team know they have a long way to go. “We plan on helping rebuild Paradise for the next 20 years and we wouldn’t have it any other way,” he says. “Seeing the weight being lifted off customers’ shoulders and the joy coming back is the best feeling you can imagine.” 

Paradise, CA Map

Worth the Wait

For Shirley Birdsong, escaping the Camp Fire was a miracle unto itself. Returning to the town she loves so dearly has been doubly miraculous. The day of the fire, Birdsong and her son Salvador Schlemmer spent more than 10 hours attempting to evacuate Paradise. “There was gridlock traffic when we tried to escape,” she says. “When we got down the hill and saw sunlight coming through, it felt like a miracle to see that instead of pitch-black darkness from the fire and ash.” After they arrived safely at a family members’ home, they saw much more on the television. “Channel 12 kept showing footage of our home,” she recalls. “I saw my grandson’s swing set burning. I saw my son’s bedroom windows engulfed in flames. We knew everything was gone.”

In the years that followed, Birdsong lived in various locations as she waited for her land to once again be inhabitable. While those towns were not far in distance from her lost home, none of them were, simply put, Paradise. “I had fallen in love with Paradise the minute I found it, from how it was laid out, to the people, to the beautiful smell of the pines. There are deer, bear, turkey, quail. There’s no place like it,” she says.

When she finally got the go-ahead to rebuild in Paradise, Birdsong started the search for a home for her and her son. She toured “hundreds,” but none of them felt right. In particular, she found herself frustrated with high-pressure sales teams focused on numbers. Then one day she walked into Executive Homes, a family-owned retailer who sells Clayton homes and has been serving the community for more than 40 years.

There, she met sales manager Tommy Slattery. “I went to Tommy and told him I was tired of looking at homes,” Shirley said. “He let me tour the homes without pressuring me.” In November 2022, Birdsong moved into the Coronado, a three bedroom, two-bathroom Clayton home with a split bedroom floor plan that’s perfect for her and her son. Her favorite part of the home: the customized porch, which provides picturesque views of the beautiful topography and also peeks at Birdsong’s original artwork— painted pots in her garden and a mural along a portion of her porch. Since her return, she’s also welcomed a very special neighbor, a buck she fondly refers to as Elliot. “He comes right to the porch every night and I feed him corn,” she says. “It is so good to be home.”

Shirley Birdsong and son

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