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Starting over

Chris and Nancy Brown embrace while searching through the remains of their home, leveled by the Camp Fire, in Paradise, Calif. (Noah Berger/AP)

Disasters

Starting over

Surviving the most destructive fire in California history

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.

Noah Berger/Getty Images

Mourners pray for Camp Fire victims at the First Christian Church in Chico, Calif. (Noah Berger/Getty Images)

“At this point I can’t imagine rebuilding in Paradise,” Spencer said. “Ninety percent of the town is gone.” John and Monica Heyden aren’t sure if they will return to Concow, the first town the fire hit. They are renting a house in Roseville while they figure out what to do with the “overwhelming mound of toxins” Monica said used to be their home.

“It will be a transition, especially figuring out where we’ll end up next, but we know God is with us and trust that He will lead us in the same way He led Abraham and Daniel when they were displaced,” she wrote in a Facebook post on Nov. 17.

Before Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) can restore power to the area, county workers have to clear the roads of downed trees, burned-out cars, and bodies of those who didn’t escape. The destruction is so bad, said PG&E President Geisha Williams, that “immediate restoration” probably isn’t going to happen.

In the meantime, PG&E faces a lawsuit from fire victims claiming the power company is guilty of criminal negligence. The company faces at least 200 lawsuits for last year’s fires, with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection blaming the company’s failure to properly maintain its equipment for starting at least 16 of last year’s 9,000 wildfires.

But no matter how long it takes them to restore power to the area, some residents will rebuild. The Shingler family is among those planning to go back. “We’ve been there for over 30 years, so it’s home,” Shawn’s wife Shere Shingler told me. “If everyone leaves, there will be no town anymore.”

Either way, no one will ever be the same.

Spencer said the fire dramatically altered her relationship with Jesus, as “He literally spared my life from fire”: “I’m forever changed by this in a beautiful way. It may seem strange to those on the outside that I can have such joy and peace in the middle of this storm, but that is because of our God. We were stripped of everything except family and the one thing we treasure most. Jesus.”