Paradise on Fire: Processing the Camp Fire
The Camp Fire
Processing the most devastating fire in California’s history.
Thursday night I was told to pack my bags because the Camp Fire was getting close. The winds were roaring and served as a reminder of how very little control we have when mother nature decides to strike. I stood in my house, tears welling up as I suddenly realized how important and unimportant everything seemed at the same time.
I live in Butte County and something devastating happened here. It doesn’t feel like mine to own, because while I had to pack a bag in panic one night just in case, the order to evacuate never came for me personally. It came for my family members and I wept fearfully for them. I assumed the house my dad built with his hands would be burned to the ground by the time I woke up the next morning… though I barely slept at all. But a week later, they got to go home to houses still standing. So many did not. The mixing of gratitude and guilt make for a hard drink to swallow. I continue to grieve.
In one day, the neighboring city of Paradise was mostly burned to the ground. Into my city of Chico filled swarms of people living in tents and out of cars in parking lots. Getting in my car to go anywhere was an immediate reminder of heartache and trauma, of a fire ripping through people’s memories, their sense of normalcy and refuge… their homes.
The sky for days on end reflected what many of us felt - a succumbing darkness we couldn’t escape. Living in California means the sunshine often comes out to kiss our skin most afternoons, and instead the middle of the day felt as black as night. An orange glow cast over the ash that fell like snow on our cars, houses and skin. The air turned hazardous. Reports of the worst air quality in the world, the worst fire in California history replayed over and over in news feeds.
At a church-turned-evacuation center, I took the heaviness of people’s stories with me as I left volunteer shifts. An elderly woman without a car told me her neighbors left without her and she only got down the hill because a man named Bob stopped for her. I thanked Bob for being kind enough to wait for her. Over and over again I saw shame in people’s eyes as they sat on their cots in a daze. Like they didn’t belong, didn’t want to ask for help… trauma sometimes tapes the mouth shut. So many people were searching for loved ones. Hundreds of names were scribbled on white boards which people scanned in desperation. They didn’t have their prescriptions and their pharmacy burned down too. The little things we all take for granted suddenly felt so overwhelming to see people do without. I walked into an animal shelter with 300 animals stressed and separated from their families. Cats hiding under blankets and volunteers who couldn’t move quickly enough to get through them all.
It also hit closer than stranger’s stories. Good friends and business owners I regularly support. Most the people I talk to feel a sense of helplessness in what they can do to actually help. We all felt it. I still felt helpless after volunteer shifts - I left feeling like we were putting bandages on a bleeding wound that would inevitably need changing as soon as I finished. Even still, people showed up big for one another, with swift and generous donations overflowing parking lots and buildings. I heard plenty of stories of people offering their spare bedrooms to strangers and taking in lost animals without hesitation. In all honesty, my faith in humanity was restored in ways that it hasn’t been in a very long time. Just two days earlier that week was the midterm election and the results came through as another reminder of our country’s division. If anything good came out of these ashes, it’s that the division mostly fell from our minds. I was proud of our community, our journalists, everyone… people were there for each other without hesitation and it was incredibly heartening to witness.
We are a community that is still processing… even those of us who still have our homes and our normal routines. Everything is different. But, tomorrow is Thanksgiving and I don’t think there could be a more appropriate holiday to celebrate because I am incredibly thankful. I’m thankful for our firefighters and first responders, police, and amazing community that continues to step up for each other and remind us what it looks like to have grace for people in hardship. To pause our lives for more important things. I don’t know all the ways this fire will change us, individually or collectively, but I do know that I have a responsibility to give and to give thanks. My family won’t need to search for words to say what we’re thankful for this year, it will be abundantly clear as we sit together in a house still standing.
Please don’t forget about those affected by this fire. It takes a very long time for communities to rebuild and the problems Butte County is facing will be here for the next few years. If you’re looking for ways to help, I’m sharing a list my friend Jamie outlined to give back. Anything helps.
North Valley Community Foundation – Their Camp Fire Relief Fund is supporting many community organizations serving evacuees and first responders.
Buy a shirt to support. Fifth Sun, an apparel company in Chico has created shirts that you can buy where 100% of the proceeds are donated to the victims of the fire. Click here to purchase.
Purchase prints. Morgan Chantelle Photography is selling prints of two photos that she took of the now destroyed Honey Run Covered Bridge. All of the proceeds of the prints will go directly to victims of the fire. Click here to order.