Gold paper stars hung from the rafters of the 1932 building in Chico, Calif., as Shawn Shingler gave a toast for his daughter’s wedding.
Nearly every eye in the packed room filled with tears as he described the days since the deadliest and most destructive fire in California history tore through the mountain town of Paradise, burning his home and thousands of others to the ground.
“These past nine days have been incredible, and a test for many of us in this room,” he said. “We were angry, but we loved. We had questions, but we had faith that God could pull us through this.”
Around 6:30 a.m. on Nov. 8, fire sparked along Camp Creek Road near the tiny town of Pulga, Calif. Unusually high winds ripped the flames across the dry, forested landscape toward Paradise, a town formerly of more than 26,000 residents. The fire eventually consumed more than 151,000 acres, and firefighters reported it was only 66 percent contained eleven days after it began.
Evacuation notices came too late for many.
Those who did get out of affected towns barely had time to gather pets, throw belongings in laundry baskets, and sit in the gridlock that formed down the single, four-lane road to Chico, the nearest major city.
“It was such a frightening time, to be trapped in your car knowing the fire was going closer and we couldn’t move any quicker. All I could pray was ‘Jesus,’ over and over,” evacuee Lisa Spencer told me. She and her husband Don escaped with her 76-year-old father-in-law, and met up with their three teenage sons later that day.
Some burned alive in their cars while traffic wouldn’t allow them to outrun the flames. Some arrived in town with half-melted vehicles, clothes adhered to their skin.
While people fled, acting Gov. Gavin Newsom issued a state of emergency, and President Donald Trump requested emergency disaster funding.
As of Nov. 19, officials had counted 77 dead. An additional 993 were missing.
That makes the Camp Fire California’s deadliest on record, far outpacing the 29 killed in Los Angeles’ Griffith Park in 1933. It’s also the most destructive, having destroyed at least 15,850 homes and other structures, more than double the previous record holder.
Repairing the damage to life and property is a daunting task. What people can do is help one day at a time, and they are. Local churches stepped up to help the evacuees of Concow, Magalia, Paradise, and the canyons that line the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains.
East Avenue Church, Pleasant Valley Baptist Church, Evangelical Free Church of Chico, and Neighborhood Church all set up shelters. Bidwell Junior High, Butte County Fairgrounds, and Plumas County Fairgrounds also housed evacuees. Churches like St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church organized teams of parishioners to help serve food and sort donations.
Donations continue to pour in to cover the losses. Dennis McCourt, a bespectacled, middle-aged man in a gray shirt and jeans, tipped his head at the dozens of people rummaging through cardboard boxes of clothing in the now-defunct Toys R Us parking lot. “It’s amazing how this came together. It was a divine appointment,” he told me the Wednesday after the fire.
His nonprofit Got Hope, based in Oakhurst, partnered with its local Youth With a Mission to start a distribution site for fire victims. McCourt said his main goal is to share the gospel with the people who come for the clothes.
At East Avenue Church in Chico, at least 200 evacuees have found shelter in the church’s gym, family room, and parking lot. Aaron Freer, 45, stood in the parking lot of the church and held the leash of his white Siberian husky. The morning the fire broke out, he was working at his landscaping job in Chico when he saw smoke rising ominously from the hills.
He phoned his girlfriend Rita Miller, 40, to tell her to get out of their home in the canyon. Miller loaded the dog into their truck and drove out. Then she hit the gridlock. Transmission problems on their truck forced her to abandon the vehicle and walk.
A woman in another car picked her up, and they continued on to where Miller’s mother lived. The journey was harrowing. “There was fire everywhere. Things were exploding everywhere,” Miller said. They eventually reached her mother, and packed her and her medications into their rescuer’s vehicle.
Miller and Freer don’t know what they’re doing next, but plan to rebuild in Paradise eventually. Not everyone is sure they want to go back.