Zooming Out: Engraved Mementos Made from a Disaster

A number of businesses formed to pay tribute to Paradise, a town hit with one of the most destructive fires in California's history.

When tragedy strikes an entire community, positive surprises can form from the chaos. Neighbors grow stronger bonds, initiatives are put together to serve those especially affected, and new businesses spring from the ashes. That happens to be the case for Paradise, a town in northern Butte County, California that was hit in the fall of 2018 by what’s dubbed the Camp Fire. 

According to several sources, the Camp Fire was the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California history, as well as the most expensive natural disaster in the world that year, as far as insured losses go. 

The fire, which authorities determined was caused by the Pacific Gas and Electric Co., wreaked havoc on more than 8,000 homes and businesses, causing the deaths of over 85 people. Several families were displaced across the region, with some even moving across the country. 

Over a year later, Paradise is still recovering and rebuilding. But instead of dwelling on the tragedy, several survivors have found their own way to pay tribute to their home, two of whom now have businesses engraving memorial keepsakes.  

Jeremy Kepley, a native to Paradise who now lives nearby in Chico, wanted to figure out how he could contribute after the fire hit. Initially, he wanted to outsource T-shirts or stickers to memorialize the tragedy, but after looking into it, decided to get his own equipment to create items himself.

“What I was really shooting for was something that would remind people of the town and everything, but not so much as a direct reminder of the fire,” Kepley explains. “It’s more about reminiscing about the tragedy – I’ve been building off of that.”

Kepley, who is a mechanical design engineer for agricultural equipment by trade, started his business, Ridge Laserworks, making keychains and fidget spinners out of his shed after purchasing a laser engraver. At his day job, Kepley runs the design department for a young, small company that builds tractor cabs, but spends his free time working on projects with the laser.

“I try to stick with stuff that’s a little bit more difficult,” he says. “I like to make those keychains, which are a little more difficult working with the leather, and the wood ones are double-sided engraving. So that was a challenge coming up with the process to do that.”

Kepley isn’t the only one creating personalized products in response to the disaster. Daniel Taylor, who’s been a glassblower for 12 years, discovered his own process to memorialize the Camp Fire. The laser engraver he owns to make customize wooden boxes for his glass pieces was at his rental outside of the burn zone, but the glass blowing equipment at his studio was a complete loss. When picking up the pieces on his parents’ property in Paradise, he came up with an idea.

“After the Camp Fire, I was slicing up logs that survived for firewood (on my parent’s property) and the idea came to me to slice them even thinner, then make some ornaments for my parents to take with them when they moved away,” says Taylor. Once he made a few for his parents, word got out and people placed orders for their own. 

“I got orders after orders, then I got contacted by Emily Sohnrey of Sohnrey Farms who placed the first wholesale order from me,” Taylor goes on. “That was when I decided to formalize the venture and call it ‘A Slice of Paradise.'” 

As part of the agreement with Sohnrey Farms, which owns one of the gift shops the ornaments are sold at, part of the proceeds go toward baseball gloves donated to the Paradise Little League prior to this year’s spring season. 

“When the fire happened, the community came together, and help poured in from outside,” Taylor states. “I grew up here in Paradise and played little league for years. It was an important part of growing up in this community and the organization needs all the help they can get to bring children’s sports back to Paradise.”

Shortly after the agreement formed with Sohnrey, Taylor was gifted a shed by the Camp Fire Shed Project and was able to move the project indoors, as he had been working under an awning outside his RV. Since starting the project, Taylor has made close to 3,000 ornaments. 

Both Kepley and Taylor have plans to expand their “accidental” memorialization businesses. Taylor says he will eventually incorporate glassblowing, woodworking, and bigger projects when he can expand beyond the RV and shed. Moving into the Valentine’s season, he says he is cutting slices into heart shapes, adding more designs, and doing some resin-casting work. Kepley wants to incorporate custom wooden puzzle sets, leather patches for hats, and work with other businesses to provide custom engraving. 

When a disaster such as a wildfire strikes, losing loved ones or having your home and business affected leaves a lasting impact. However, that impact can lead to successful business ventures. Proven by Kepley and Taylor, people have pride for their home despite what happens. If something does happen, memorializing it can provide a sense of comfort and comradery. 

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Julia Schroeder

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