Stories from those impacted by the Camp Fire

Stories from those impacted by the Camp Fire

Compiled and edited by Sophie Carrick, Communications Coordinator

“This is the third evacuation I’ve experienced in 12 years. I didn’t know how serious the fire was going to be at that point, so I did drive my family to school, but when we got to the school, everybody was turning around. That was my sign that this was a serious evacuation. I turned around, went straight to the gas station, filled up, and zipped to my house.

I felt a lot of grace because I got out of there before the chaotic flames took over the town. We just grabbed our computers, medications, and that was pretty much it. We got in the car and went to Chico, to some relative’s house. We stayed there for six weeks. We learned 48 hours later that we had lost our home. I put off four, five weeks going back. I wasn’t going to go back. I kept telling myself I didn’t want to, but my husband wanted to go, and I knew I was going to go with him. That was hard. It really was.

But it was also hard to see the church, which I’ve poured my life into for the last 12 years, be so dysfunctional right now. There’s new life in Chico, but the part that’s so difficult is that our church family is all over the place. It’s totally different. So many people have left. It’s hard – grief and adjusting is so hard.

But we’re doing it. We have a new place in Chico, and I’m going to go to the music store and get some piano music. Somebody sent me a guitar, and somebody’s going to lend me a piano. I really like music, so I’m going to try and do the things that are familiar to me.”

- Ann Sullivan, Rector at St. Nicholas’, Paradise

“When Robert Frost, the poet, was asked what he learned about life, he summed it up in three words: ‘it goes on.’ And that is what I have found, and I have moved on. Life goes on, and you do the best you can.

I got out with fire on both sides of the skyway and spent almost two weeks in a FEMA shelter. I moved to Eugene, Oregon, and spent some time with my sister, and then moved from Eugene to Sisters. It’s a smaller community of 1,700 people rather than the 160,000 in Eugene.

I’m very comfortable here. I’m in the process of getting the flooring in on a new home. I’m doing the best I can with what I’ve got.”

- Les Zemansky, former parishioner at St. Nicholas’, Paradise

“If it hadn’t been for my daughters, I wouldn’t have known. One of my daughters called me to tell me she was leaving and that I should leave. Then my other daughter called -- she works for a senior living complex, and she said, ‘I’m being evacuated with my residents; can you please get my baby and get him out of town?’ So, we got the baby – he’s three. As we pulled out… you could practically hear him vibrate, and he’s going, ‘Papa, papa! Look at the cars!’ Not only were there so many cars going that way but there were fifth wheels, campers, and trailers, and so Grandpa had a calm discussion with him about what they were, what they were for… he did this to keep him busy.

I had about half a tank of gas so every time traffic would stop, I’d turn my car off. And it just got darker and darker, until it was darker than any midnight darkness I’ve ever seen. We got down to where the fire was, and I don’t know how to adequately describe it… it was like driving into hell. There was fire everywhere. It was so hot you could feel the intensity of the fire in the car, and the windows were so hot you couldn’t touch them. It was chaos.

As we got out, it was like coming out of a storm – the skies cleared. We stayed with my stepson in Chico, and we had the baby with us for 11 days because his mom couldn’t leave the residents. After that, my sister in Sacramento put a shout-out on her network, saying my sister needs a place to stay, and within an hour, a friend of hers found us a place. We’ve been staying there ever since.

It’s small and really tight quarters, but they let us keep our dogs here. It’s right on the river, a very beautiful place and it’s been a very healing place to be. The challenge is now finding a long-term place to stay --- there’s nothing. Everything is priced out of our range. We had a roommate, but she’s left the area. So, it’s just the two of us. We both have PTSD… my husband’s is really bad. I’ve been trying to cope by using humor to keep my sanity, just trying to find ways to lighten things.

The biggest impact for me was the first Thursday night and not having the music group to go to. I felt lost without that community… that’s all gone. I’ve been a church musician since I was 13 years old. To not have that, and your neighborhood, the places you used to go, your medical care, and things like my grandmother’s rolling pin that I learned how to bake pies with… it’s just all gone.

- Diana Love, parishioner at St. Nicholas’, Paradise

“I woke up at 6:30 and went upstairs to wake the girls up for school. When I looked out the window, I saw that the sky was an odd color of orange and a bit cloudy. I woke them and told them we might have to evacuate today. I’m looking on my phone because the sky looked like there’s a fire, but I haven’t got a warning. So I’m not sure what’s going on… my phone says the fire’s in Pulga, but it turns out the fire’s just a few blocks away. At that time, I didn’t realize it, so I took the kids to school. I came home and as I pull into the driveway, my sister-in-law calls me, and she said, ‘You need to get the kids from school. The whole town is going to be evacuated.’ I had literally just dropped them off, so I picked them all back up.

I came back to the house, and we started to get ready to put things into the car, when my neighbor says, ‘Get out! Get out now! There’s flames in your backyard!’ Some of the kids has listened earlier and packed a few things, so they had some clothes and a few pictures. We drove away, and there were literally flames in our backyard. As I looked back, the whole side of our street was on fire.

We drove to the Walmart in Chico, but when Chico received a warning of possible evacuation, we decided to leave then and drove up to Antioch, where my stepmother lives. With all of us and our pets, I knew we couldn’t comfortably stay there for long. One of our church friends’ daughter reached out to me and offered a 10-person trailer for us, where we stayed for four weeks. Finally, our insurance money kicked in, and we purchased a rinky-dink house. We didn’t have much of a choice with a family of nine.

I miss my Paradise church family so much. It’s so hard. The church was something extraordinary. We had an awesome music team, and everyone was so different and eclectic, a bunch of strange people being strange together every Sunday. The other day I felt this void in life, and I realized I didn’t have my Bible or my Book of Common Prayer. So, I reached out to my online Cursillo group, and they’re sending over several copies, so that’ll be good for my family.”

- Nicole Lawhun, parishioner at St. Nicholas’, Paradise

“I used to be a firefighter, so I know a bad fire when I see one, and it was clear that this was different than any fire that had been up here. We had enough time to grab essentials and our animals and evacuate. We live in lower Paradise. The fire burned around us, but we didn’t lose our home.

After we got to Chico, I jumped in and helped Father Richard as best as I could. You could not, for any price, buy a proper N95 mask so you could breathe. The first night, we went to the downtown plaza to try and get some kind of masks to the local homeless because they were just stuck. They weren’t impacted by the fire per se, but they were just as much subjected to not being able to breathe. We just did it because it needed to be done. Those people needed help.

As a Street Pastor, I also went with Richard and some other locals to ‘Tent City’ in Walmart, which was a pop-up evacuation center that just grew on its own. There was a couple thousand people there, and there was a storm coming in that we knew would flood the area. We tried to convince some of the local folks to move into actual shelters and get them out of harm’s way.

Tent City was a rough, rough place. In the first two weeks, there was a ton of gift cards and clothing being sent, but a lot of ‘opportunists' found their way into Chico. There were folks who were actively dealing and using heavy-duty drugs. It was a dangerous place, and out of the 30 people I interacted with, only 6 were evacuated from their homes. The rest were homeless, and they didn’t just lose a house, they really lost everything. And they didn’t have much to begin with.

I was able to get back up to Paradise the following Sunday and see firsthand the damage and confirm St. Nicholas had not burned. That was the church I grew up in and was baptized and confirmed.

Since then, it’s been this surreal experience of trying to get our house back up and running, cleaning smoke damage and repairing plumbing and water damage. There was a significant amount of stuff to be done, even though our house didn’t burn.”

- Alan Rellaford, parishioner at St. John’s, Chico

“I lived in Magalia, which is just above Paradise. I left at 6:30 to go to Oroville, where I teach. I had a parent conference that morning, and the parent walked in and said, ‘I know I’m early. But my mom lives in Magalia, and there’s a fire up there.’ And I went, ‘You’ve got to be kidding -- that’s where I live!’

So, I had my principal take over my class. My mom, who’s 91, also lived in that area, in assisted living. I called the center, and they told me to pick her up. As we pulled out, it was just gridlocked. I sat there with my mom, and we could just hear propane tanks going off. We made it down, flames on both sides of the rode, to Chico. It took us until four in the afternoon. Back home, my husband he was able to pack up a few things and knock on some neighbors’ doors, and he made it out safely.

We stayed with friends for a bit, but we called around for apartments and were able to get an apartment a week later. Not many people were able to do that, as it was already flooded in Chico, even before the fire. We found out a couple days later that we lost our home, so we’re still here.

Work started three weeks later for me in Oroville, and it was really difficult. Going back, the kids knew that I lost my home. So many of their family members lost their homes, and aunts and uncles moved into their homes or parked trailers in their driveways. It’s changed the dynamic of my third-grade classroom. Their attention level, as with all of us – they call it ‘fire brain’ – we’re not able to concentrate well. I’m seeking some counseling at this point because of PTSD, as so many of us are. I’m taking it day by day. Things are getting a little better.

St. John’s has been so wonderful, all along the way. Our personal GoFundMe page received so much generosity and has been really valuable. We’re looking into moving back up into the mountains, above the burn line into Magalia. We really want to be a part of the rebuilding of Paradise.”

- Lori Phelps-Zink, parishioner at St. John’s, Chico

“I had just started the position of parish administrator here at St. John’s on Nov. 1. There was a huge learning curve that I wasn’t quite prepared for when the fire hit. Nov. 8 came and went, and there was a lot of unknowns. We didn’t know where the fire reached and who was being affected. On the ninth, we showed up around six in the morning and didn’t leave until after nine at night. We reacted to whatever was occurring, and out of that was born the collection of gift cards, which had a huge impact on the office from where I sit. All checks, cards and well wishes were coming through, which then brought the people who needed those funds, and I encountered people from all walks of life.

We discovered our facilities were going to be useful in housing those who were here to help. I became responsible for monitoring that, making sure, one, that our church family still had access to the church campus, to try to keep things as normal as possible. Because it’s frightening for everyone, whether you’ve lost your home or whether you’re in the city that has grown by 30,000 people overnight. We had those people that were coming in but had no place to stay, like Team Rubicon and other teams like that. And it has just continued. I have a great opportunity because I see both people who are helping and people who need help.

I lived in South Carolina before, so there’s always the potential for flooding, water being our greatest enemy. But the water recedes, you go back, and everything’s okay. But this isn’t like that. The fire came through, it altered the landscape, it altered people’s lives, and it altered ultimately our entire county.

There was one gentleman from Davis who walked into the church and just stood in the office. I asked him if he was okay, and I thought for sure he would tell me he was a victim of the fire and had lost everything. But he just handed me a check, and he had huge tears in his eyes. He said, ‘Please do something for those people.’ And I said, ‘I will.’ And he just started crying. I showed him the church campus and told him, ‘We have people coming; this is what we’re doing. We have gift cards coming, and we’re making sure people have a place to stay and food.’ He just sobbed. I haven’t seen him since.

As Street Pastors we walked around the parking lot of Walmart when it became this huge ‘Tent City’. We encouraged people to get to Gridley before the rain came and it became a toxic cesspool. It was the next day, and this young man called me and said ‘I was homeless in Paradise, but I’ve lost everything because my camp burned down. He said, ‘I went to Walmart and took everything they were giving out because I was a pig, but now I don’t know what to do. They want me to leave.’

I told him, ‘You need to leave.’ He was close to 30, and so I asked him, ‘Have you ever served in the military?’ And he said, ‘Yes, I was in the Navy.’ I said, ‘Great, you’re going to look at all of your stuff. You know the difference between wants and needs. You’re going to roll up your stuff and pack a bag just like a sea bag. You’re going to get on a bus and go to Gridley because you need to be safe.’

And he went to Gridley. A couple days later he showed up at the office, and I was able to give him enough cards and he got a bicycle – and a job.”

- Sherry Wallmark, parish administrator at St. John’s, Chico

“I work for the city of Chico, where I do mapping, and I was called in to be a part of the emergency operations. The first three days I was there quite a bit, for over 12 hours, helping with mapping services. More importantly, the Air Force came in with their drones, and I helped set them up. I did specific mapping for trucks that went up, trying to track what the fire line was. Working with the city, we also tried to track where different shelters were popping up and where fire marshals could go. As time went on, we studied different vacant parcels where FEMA could operate, and then different buildings where schools could open up. When Team Rubicon came here – they work with lower income people – I created maps with census information.

In the beginning, I also worked with the firemen coming to the emergency operating center. The second and third day, they were just so tired, but it was more than tired. They were almost battled. I asked them what was going on and all they could say was it was bad, and they were just so tired.

Another thing that will stick with me is one guy that I work with who had built his own house up in Paradise. He’s a building inspector and is kind of a guy’s guy. He lost everything and was very sad, but then he broke down and cried because he realized now had no pictures of his girls growing up… no pictures of his mom and his dad. He’s an older guy, but he broke down in front of me. And there’s not a lot you can say.

We probably had 15 people in my work building that had lost homes, and I was able to take some gift cards from Sherry and give them out. People were so generous. And I actually got thank-you notes back, addressed to me, city of Chico. With some of the notes, I didn’t know who the people were because I’d hand the gift cards out, saying give these to your family members. I didn’t know who they were, but they took time to write me a thank-you note.

The money that was sent definitely made a difference in people’s lives. I was so proud to be a conduit and to help. Some of the guys I work with would just come and sit at my desk and say ‘Thank you. Tell your church thank you.’ It helped them get through that first week, those first four weeks.”

- Brad Pierce, parishioner at St. John’s, Chico

“After the fire, a shelter opened up where they asked for clergy volunteers to be crisis counselors, and I’ve been serving as a crisis counselor in many capacities since then.

A request for a crisis counselor came in from a small town called Sterling City, and I went to their community gatherings to listen to people. The other part of that are the people of Magalia Community Church. Once a week, every Thursday, I go up to the church and make myself available for the people that come into their distribution center. It not unusual for me to see upwards of eight people at any one time. Sometimes I pray with people, and sometimes I end up talking.

Several weeks ago, I was up there, and a woman was referred to come talk to me. But I was told she was afraid of germs and had locked herself in her house. Her family had to talk her into seeing me, but she came in. We spent about an hour talking. She was still quite afraid, but she chatted about what made her happy and what she could do differently if she could. And she said she’d like to visit her son in Australia. And I asked, ‘What’s keeping you from doing it?’ She told me she didn’t have a passport and didn’t know how do it. So we chatted about how to make it happen.

Last week, she came back in again and said, ‘I have my passport. And my son has set up my transportation to Australia.’ That brought great joy to my heart, to know that in some small way, with someone with those types of restrictions in their lifestyle, was able to listen, follow-up and do this long 14-hour trip.

Now, I’m seeing people move into the recovery stage where trauma and grief intersect, which is different from the initial triage of crisis. I’m seeing people who got the money to replace some things, and now, they’re beginning to be angry because of the slow pace of resettlement. It’s just not going to happen for a long time. And then there are those who are grieving the loss of community.

Trying to get away is a difficult thing for many of us involved. We’ve all committed ourselves to be present for these people affected by the fire, while also trying to take care of ourselves. I keep reminding myself that this is holy work. I believe this is a gift that God has given me, just to be present with those people."

- The Rev. Lew Powell, Deacon at St. John’s, Chico

“A quick glance at the kitchen clock told me the time was 7:24 on Thursday morning, Nov. 8. I pulled the chair a bit closer to the table, but before I could get a bite into my mouth the telephone rang. ‘Damn, I murmured, ‘what now?’ Little did I know that I would never see that clock again.

My daughter, Cheryl, who lives in Arizona, was on the other end of the phone and said, ‘How’s it going?’ Somewhat irritated, I replied, ‘Fine, I’m just starting to eat breakfast.’ Cheryl then asked if I was packed and I silently wondered: ‘why would I pack? I’m not going anyplace.’ She then informed me she had just been talking with a friend who lived nearby and was packed and leaving her house because Paradise was on fire and the town was going to burn down.

I turned on the television and saw the main street, Skyway Drive, the main road into and out of town, jammed with automobiles and pickup trucks, all moving downhill slowly, if at all. I threw a spare pair of shoes and a few other items into my car, checked with my close neighbors to see if they were preparing to leave – one was and the other didn’t seem overly concerned – and started down toward Skyway Drive, a mere quarter of a mile away. Twenty minutes later I managed to squeeze the nose of my car into the line of slow-moving cars.

Occasionally, I managed to gain a couple feet of progress, but traffic from intersecting streets kept filling open spaces with cars from other neighborhoods. Skyway Drive was the only way out. After two hours I reached Neal Road, where another exit from Skyway Drive opened and traffic was able to thin out slightly. Neal Road is two miles from my home, but the problems didn’t stop there.

Burned out cars and trucks began to appear in the medians, burning pieces of power poles and trees were lying in the roadway, and several telephone lines fell across my car and were dragged along the roadway until they detached.

I looked out the driver’s side window and saw a wall of bright yellow flames about 20 feet high. They were quite beautiful, but there was no other color but bright yellow. I looked to the passenger’s side and saw the same thing, still all yellow. Horizontal pieces of lumber were flaming everywhere, and I thought ‘There goes somebody’s house,’ but it was more than just one ‘somebody;’ it was many ‘somebodys’ houses on fire.

Knowing that these two fires would merge somewhere ahead of me, I knew I had to get past the merge point before it happened or I would be a ‘goner.’ Thankfully, with the Lord’s help, I made it. Eventually, I reached the bottom of the hill and headed for St. John’s, where I knew I would receive some kind of help. Without having any memory of how I got there, I reached the church and was happily greeted by office director Sherry Wallmark and Rector Father Richard Yale, who solved my immediate needs and concerns. I relaxed in a comfortable chair and offered my thanks to God and everyone else who kept me from being a ‘goner.’”

- Art Paymiller, parishioner at St. John’s, Chico

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