Editor’s Note: On the one-year anniversary of the Camp Fire, we are honoring its impact on our community with a series of stories embracing the themes of remembrance, recovery, and resurgence.

The Ridge Key Phoenix is rising.

Jess Mercer (Criminal Justice, ’09) loves and found solace in Paradise. When the Camp Fire destroyed most of what she connected with, she was shaken, yet compelled to do something meaningful for her town.

Almost immediately after the fire, Mercer began collecting keys from those who lost something—a home, a car, a business. Her idea was to construct a statue of a phoenix, using the keys of the residents of Paradise, and donate it to the town.

Hundreds of keys hang with clips.
Mercer collected 14,000 keys from those who lost homes, businesses, cars, and anything else that required a key for the Ridge Key Phoenix.

With the project unveiled today at the one-year anniversary remembrance, the Ridge Key Phoenix now stands proudly in what will soon house the Building Resiliency Center at 6295 Skyway. In a building gifted to the town by Bank of America, the center will help residents in a number of ways—everything from starting the process of planning and getting building permits to answering financial questions and offering on-site counselors.

It took Mercer eight months to assemble the statue, thoughtfully placing each individual key, from those nested in colorful rubber rings to plastic remotes for unlocking cars to the tiniest keys once used to access file cabinets and bike locks—all snippets of lives forever changed.

A hand-written note in a photo album says "We moved to Magalia on Nov. 4th. Our house burned on Nov. 8."
Some of the keys provided for the project were accompanied by poignant messages.

Mercer said the significance of the keys transcends individual differences and speaks to what connects those impacted by the Camp Fire.

“The keys are the last thing I have in common with my entire town. We fled and we grabbed what we could, but almost everyone had their keys and clothes on their back,” she said. “Knowing that we all had at least one thing in common when we have nothing left, I knew that if I could obtain [the keys] and put it together as an artist, I could bring my town together and bring us back home.”

Some keys were mailed to her and others were collected at businesses around Paradise. In total, she received around 14,000 keys—many enveloped in notes, letters, thoughts, regrets, and hand-written life stories. All expressed appreciation for the Ridge Key Phoenix project. Mercer collected these written correspondences—a few still bearing the outline of soot-covered keys—and provided some for display at the Building Resiliency Center.

The phoenix itself is perched atop a Pacific Gas & Electric cable spool with a black curtain behind it. The first two jars she filled with keys are set on their sides on top of the spool. One contains a message—“One of the simplest things about all the facts of life is that to get where you want to go, you must keep on keeping on”)—and the other holds nails from the Honey Run Covered Bridge. With fire-singed keys and fobs on the tops of the wings a direct tie to the source of loss, keys below the sculpture recognize the shedding of the past.

An art piece featuring thousands of keys in the shape of a bird is displayed in front of a black curtain.
“I knew that if I could obtain [the keys] and put it together as an artist, I could bring my town together and bring us back home,” Mercer said.

The final keys Mercer added are those of her parents, placed in the phoenix’s beak, to symbolize the care parents have for their children.

Mercer hopes people look at the Ridge Key Phoenix and recognize the Camp Fire’s tragedy while being optimistic about the future.

“I just hope it gives so much peace to people,” she said. “I hope it reminds us that if we put our minds to doing something to create, we can do anything.”