Chase Suihkonen’s last two years of high school were a brutal whirlwind.
He was gearing up for golf season his junior year when the Camp Fire hit on November 8, 2018. School was canceled for the remainder of the calendar year, and when classes resumed, he and his peers were in drafty makeshift classrooms near the Chico Municipal Airport. Meanwhile, his family bounced from a hotel in Roseville to a trailer in Paradise to a rental home in Chico, having lost their house and nearly all their belongings to the now-infamous blaze.
By fall 2019, he was back on the Paradise High campus and life was feeling a bit more normal. Then, COVID-19 hit in spring 2020, ripping him away from his classmates and community once more as they transitioned to virtual learning through his graduation.
Suihkonen began to look forward to college. If nothing else, it would be the start of something new. He always knew he wanted to go to Chico State, but after the Camp Fire, the goal became even more important.
“It’s something this campus can give me that no other campus could—that connection to my community,” he said.
He started out as a construction management major, but after helping rebuild his grandparents’ home his freshman year, he switched to mechanical engineering and has never looked back. He loves being able to create new things and seeing a tangible result of his work, and feels like it taps into his creative side.
This semester, Suihkonen is taking a manufacturing class where he and his classmates are building a hoist winch, and it’s been his favorite course so far. He hopes to eventually work in product design, maybe related to automobiles.
“For most people that went through the fire, life is starting to normalize,” he said. “And for people still in the community, it’s a really positive experience because people are coming together.”
When the Camp Fire first happened, life felt unmanageable, he said, and it was hard to look to the future.
“In the moment, I was wondering why this would happen to me and all my friends,” he said.
But now, he’s become so much closer with his friends and his family, too, through sharing the experience of something so devastating.
“It taught me that when you go through something like that, it brings out the good in people,” he said.
Another affirmation came when Suihkonen was awarded Chico State’s Paradise Merit Scholarship his freshman year. Reserved for six outstanding students who lived in Paradise and experienced losses due to the Camp Fire, the scholarship was created by an anonymous couple who simply wanted to help them move forward. It provides each recipient $5,000 a year for four years.
The financial support has allowed Suihkonen to work a little less, focus more on his studies—he’s taking 17 units this semester—and have more time to work with his dad, Steve Suihkonen (Business Administration, ’00), on cleaning burned, now-vacant lots in town to support their community. The scholarship felt like not only a recognition of his dedication to his academics but of the career and life he is working toward, and his personal values.
“It means a lot to me that somebody I’ve never met would want to support my future,” he said. “And it lets me help the Town of Paradise.”
He encourages those who haven’t been to Paradise recently to go check it out. Despite the devastation that took place, it’s still so beautiful, and the resilience and recovery are inspiring, Suihkonen said.
As he drives around Paradise delivering pizzas for Mountain Mike’s, it makes him smile to see a new foundation being poured, wooden framing rising up and, perhaps the most exciting, moving vans in a driveway of a recently completed home.
When he and his dad clear away the brush and weeds and dead trees on lots owned by older residents and neighbors who have relocated out of the area, they feel like they are keeping it beautiful and clean so that people will continue to have pride in who they are and what the future holds.
“I love Paradise. It’s a small town so you feel like you know everyone,” he said. “There was always a sense of community, that we are all in this together, even before the fire. And we still have that spirit today.”