On Nov. 8, 2018, as the Camp Fire blazed through Paradise, Calif., Public Works Director Marc Mattox went into the emergency operations center. Within minutes, he realized there was little he could do there. He left with the intention of changing traffic lights so there was no confusion which way people should go to evacuate.

But soon enough, he was in the thick of things, directing traffic toward the only safe way out. At least one person stopped and told him, “You know you are sending us through fire.” But there was no alternative. He even directed his wife and his children out through the road that was surrounded on both sides by fire.

When the fire came too close, Mattox and those in the public works department, which he calls “a small but mighty crew,” took shelter in a grocery store that had little vegetation around it. Once the fire passed, Mattox, while uninjured, had lost his home, like 14,000 others in the town.

“I had a Paradise-sized hole in my heart … this pull … that it should be me.”

He struggled to help the mountain community recover, but it became more difficult after his family relocated to Chico. In July, Mattox left Paradise to work for the City of Chico as an engineer. “I had a feeling that the [Paradise recovery] job was too big and it wasn’t for me,” he recalls.

But Mattox still struggled, knowing that his former home needed his help. “I had a Paradise-sized hole in my heart,” he says. The town, too, needed Mattox. It hired a temporary consultant, but it couldn’t find the right full-time replacement for Mattox.

Eventually, Mattox realized that he was being called back. “I had this pull on my heart—that it should be me,” he says. On Jan. 21, rejuvenated from his break, Mattox will return to Paradise as its director of public works.

“To have something as rewarding and as special and unique—it’s just such an amazing opportunity,” he says. He will be assisted by dozens of consultants and knowledge he gained in Chico.

“He’s just been a really good fit for Paradise,” says Jody Jones, who was Paradise mayor at the time of the fire and who is still a council member. Mattox had a natural ability to win grants even before the fire, and “now that we’re trying to rebuild after the fire, we have the need for somebody like him to go after that grant money and to organize the infrastructure projects,” she says.

Town manager Lauren Gill says that council and staff are excited to have Marc return. “It’s not going to be easy, but it’s going to be so interesting,” she says.

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