The almost inconceivable fires in Northern California are now being characterized as the most expensive natural disaster on Earth in 2018.

by Len Lear

Richard “Rick” Josiassen, 72, of Mt. Airy, grew up on his family’s farm, the Lofgren Brothers Farm, founded in 1912 by his forebears, Sam and Paul Lofgren, in Richvale, a minuscule town in north central California next to the town of Paradise, population 26,218, according to the 2010 census.

Last November, Josiassen wrote the following words about his family home: “This magnificent world around me was a literal and figurative Paradise. Then came the dawn of Nov. 8. The deadliest and most destructive fire in California history erupted in these drought-parched foothills. Within minutes stiff winds whipped a spark into a deadly inferno.

“With little to no warning, residents fled Paradise down the few car-choked escape routes. Many, many never had a chance. In two weeks the blaze burned its swath of devastation: scores are dead, more missing, 14,000 homes destroyed and 27,000 citizens displaced. It’s an unimaginable glimpse of horror; Paradise all lost in smoke and ash!”

As a result, several homes built in Paradise by Josiassen’s maternal great grandfather have been destroyed. “None of my immediate family were directly affected, but several cousins and extended family members lost everything. Somewhere between 12-15 percent of the homeowners had no fire insurance, so these folks have literally lost everything. The entire region has been traumatized.

“My second father’s nephew lost everything and has now moved to Central California. A cousin did not lose her house, but all the houses around were destroyed. My former sister-in-law managed a residential program for disturbed children, and it burned to the ground. An acquaintance of mine had recently sold their home in Paradise, and the new owners moved into the home. Seven days later it was destroyed.

“A very personal story for me is that when Rita and I decided to get married 24 years ago, we restored a historic one-room schoolhouse in those very hills to be the site of our wedding. New windows, new outside walls, painting, landscaping – and as we began the restoration, members of the community joined into the activity, and together we got it done in time for the wedding. Beautiful, beautiful location. It became the community center of the little town and the site of several weddings. We recently went to our wedding site, and there is nothing left but some concrete steps. Heartbreaking that such beauty was destroyed!”

This photo, taken over 100 years ago, is of Mt. Airy resident Rick Josiassen’s great-grandfather, Peter Andersen, a Swedish immigrant, with a grandchild and talented family dog. Andersen was one of the carpenters who built homes in Paradise, now mostly destroyed by last year’s fires.

The California fires are now being characterized as the most expensive natural disaster on planet earth in 2018. So how do caring people respond? Just watch it all in horror? Or wait a few months until another ecological calamity occurs that erases the memories of the prior trauma?

In Josiassen’s case, he responded by “trying to create a moment of reflection on this single tragedy in the Northern California foothills and the global crisis we all face. And maybe inspire a degree of hope for the future that leads to creative solutions for this growing global catastrophe we all face.”

So Josiassen, who took 10 years of classical piano lessons and paid his way through graduate school by playing guitar, piano and bass, decided to organize a fundraising concert for fire victims at his church, St. Martin-in-the-Fields in Chestnut Hill.

“In my experience,” he explained, “whenever there is a human crisis, it is musicians who step up to help give a voice to the suffering and to express a deep hope for the future. That has been my experience again and again, and I’m not sure if there is anything more powerful than music to help face these crises. So I met with Aaron Graves, from Mt. Airy, who is one of the great pianists and music producers, and shared my vision, and he became the force that gathered all the musical talent together.”

As a result, the “Paradise Lost … and Restored” benefit concert for California’s Camp Fire relief – a collaboration with the St. Martin-in-the-Fields Climate Action Team – will take place Saturday, May 11, 4 p.m., at St. Martin’s. The lineup of musicians is a virtual all-star cast – Theresa Thomason on vocals, Leonard “Doc” Gibbs on percussion, Duane Eubanks on trumpet, Ronnie Burrage on drums, Nasir Dickerson on saxophone, Monnette Sudler on guitar, Erik Meyer on organ, Barbara Montgomery with spoken word and Aaron Graves, music director. The Master of Ceremonies will be J. Michael Harrison, host of “The Bridge” on WRTI Radio.

In addition to Josiassen’s musical talents, he has a Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the Fuller School of Psychology in Pasadena, California, in addition to a National Institute of Mental Health post-doctoral fellowship in clinical neuroscience. He is a research professor of psychiatry at Drexel University College of Medicine, and his wife, Rita Shaughnessy, who has both M.D. and Ph.D. degrees, is a psychiatrist and currently the director of outpatient psychiatric services for Drexel University’s College of Medicine. In fact, Josiassen and Shaughnessy “do a fair amount of research together.”

Paradise Lost concert tickets are $20 per person in advance, $25 at the door. They can be obtained online or by calling 215-247-7466. Len Lear can be reached at