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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.
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Alabama is no stranger to a triple-digit heat index. It’s what makes the cotton grow and what brings tourists to its beaches. Even so, on Coosa Street in downtown Montgomery this August, visitors waiting to enter the new Legacy Museum appeared ill-prepared for the stifling temperatures. They fanned themselves with brochures collected from the visitor’s bureau and rolled up their shirt sleeves. A few blocks away, the heat also worked on ticket holders at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. In that outdoor structure, history—the full weight of it—hung as heavy as the humidity.
And that’s the point. Some 800 coffinlike monuments suspend in the pavilion, airing out centuries of racial grievances. They’re fashioned from corten steel, a brown-toned material that seems to bleed as it ages, and they’re engraved with the details of more than 4,000 lynchings, making tangible what organizers call “invisible history.” The lynching memorial opened in April, along with its twin museum. Together, they attempt to connect the historical dots between U.S. slavery, segregation, and injustice.
Harvard Law School graduate Bryan Stevenson provided the momentum for both projects through a nonprofit legal group he founded in 1989 called the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI). He says lynchings weren’t just brutal footnotes in history but rather reflected a belief system: “The great evil of American slavery wasn’t involuntary servitude and forced labor. It was this ideology of white supremacy, this narrative of racial difference. That’s the narrative we haven’t actually come to grips with. That was the true toxin that poisoned our nation.”
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At age 17, Kawasaki Eiko boarded a ship from her home in Japan and headed to North Korea, a land depicted as paradise on earth with free education, healthcare, food, and ample jobs. The year was 1960, and Kawasaki and hundreds of other Zainichi Koreans—ethnically Korean residents in Japan—were desperate to leave the poverty and discrimination they faced in Japan after World War II. Propaganda by North Korea and groups representing Koreans in Japan provided a seemingly simple solution: move to North Korea.
As the boat drew near the North Korean port of Chongjin, Kawasaki and her fellow passengers realized their mistake: The harbor was dingy, and the people looked malnourished and overworked. Someone on shore yelled at them to turn back, but it was too late. For the next 43 years, Kawasaki had no choice but to stay in North Korea, as the government monitored the immigrants and denied them freedom of movement. It wouldn’t be until 2004 that she would return to her family back in Japan.
Kawasaki’s parents grew up in what is now considered South Korea then migrated to Japan for work as Japan had colonized Korea. After the end of World War II, these ethnic Koreans lost their Japanese citizenship and became second-class citizens. With the backing of the North Korean government, the General Association of Korean Residents in Japan (called Chongryon) began conducting a campaign to persuade Zainichi Koreans to move to North Korea, calling it a “Paradise on Earth.”
It was a win-win for both North Korea and Japan: North Korea needed a larger labor force, and Japan wanted to get rid of the Zainichi Koreans. The Red Cross interviewed those “returning” to their homeland to make sure they were going voluntarily. Yet few had ever been to North Korea before: 90 percent of Zainichi Koreans are from South Korea. Between 1959 and 1984, 93,000 people migrated from Japan to North Korea, among them 6,000 Japanese wives married to Korean men.
At the time, Kawasaki had not yet graduated from high school, and the rest of her family begged her not to go. But the dream of a perfect communist state tugged at her until she made the journey in 1960. She left from Niigata, a small, poor fishing port in Japan, and when she arrived at North Korea’s main Chongjin port, she was shocked to find that its condition was worse than Niigata’s.
With no way out, Kawasaki kept quiet and studied engineering. She married a North Korean man and had five children, yet her family faced discrimination because she had lived in Japan. The thought of escaping first came to her after the death of Kim Il Sung in 1994. Bad government policies, a loss of Soviet aid, and flooding led to a severe famine that killed at least 3 million.
Kawasaki remembers seeing dead bodies strewn on the side of the road and wondering why she survived when so many around her died. At the same time, Kim Jong Il began spending extravagantly to create a giant hall and mausoleum for his father. Righteous indignation burned within Kawasaki as she observed the disparity between the lives of the elite and the common people: She began to plan her escape.
With help from some money her brother in Japan sent to her, a broker helped Kawasaki cross the Yalu River into China in 2003, where she stayed for the next year and a half. She considered herself one of the lucky ones, as her brother’s money allowed her to stay with the broker and she was not trafficked like many other North Korean defectors. She tried to make money teaching Japanese in order to buy a Chinese passport to return to Japan.
But her brother suggested that she try to come to Japan as a refugee. So Kawasaki went to the Japanese Embassy and announced that she was a North Korean defector. Back in Japan, her brother approached the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, showing them Kawasaki’s birth record and school transcripts and presenting himself as the guarantor for his sister. The Japanese government flew Kawasaki back to Japan, and after 44 years she finally reunited with her family.
Kawasaki is one of a few hundred North Korean defectors who live in Japan; most of the Zainichi Koreans who went to North Korea haven’t been heard from since. Only one of Kawasaki’s five children has defected to Japan.
Since returning to Japan, Kawasaki has been an activist for North Korean human rights. Now 75, she’s written a book about her experiences, started the NGO Korea for All, and helps other North Korean defectors adjust to living in Japan. In 2015, Kawasaki and 10 other returnees petitioned the Japan Federation of Bar Associations to charge the Japanese and North Korean governments, the Red Cross, and Chongryon for abusing their human rights. The returnees argued that they are all complicit in allowing the repatriation program to continue even when it became obvious North Korea was lying.
Earlier this year, Kawasaki brought the petition up to the International Criminal Court, asking it to declare the Zainichi Korean repatriation program a crime against humanity and charge North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. While Kawasaki at 75 looks like a sweet grandma, she has strong words for the Kim regime that entrapped her for 43 years.
“I hope the United Nations pushes for more sanctions and President Donald Trump gives Kim Jong Un two choices: Either give up as a dictator or give up your life,” Kawasaki said. “The only way to save the North Korean people is if the United States and United Nations push North Korea to change its regime.”