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When Gretchen Harrison, whose husband is the bishop of the Paradise, California first ward, pulled out of her driveway last Thursday morning and headed to work, she had no idea that she would never see her home again. Yet her home, like nearly 7,000 other homes and structures in Paradise were destroyed in California’s most destructive fire ever.
One of those buildings left as a char was a meetinghouse of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“It’s easier to count the number of homes in our ward that weren’t burned, “ Gretchen said. “I can count maybe four.”
In less than 24 hours, the Camp Fire swept over 31 square miles and the highways that were escape routes became tunnels of flame.
Paradise, nestled at the base of the Sierra Nevada mountains, is one of those towns that felt to Gretchen like she lived at girls’ camp every day, because of its tree-covered and mountainous rustic beauty.
Now it is a scarred ghost town where the evacuation of its 27,000 residents still stands. All the Latter-day Saints and missionaries have been accounted for and are safe.
It is Paradise lost. “The whole town is gone,” said Gretchen. “There will be a house here or a business there, but for the most part, everyone has lost everything.”
Thursday morning there was a big cloud of smoke in the sky, but Gretchen checked Facebook and it appeared the fire was still at a safe distance, across the lake, so she assumed this fire would be no big deal. She kissed her children goodbye, not knowing what lay ahead.
By the time she got to the school where she worked, however, the sky was much darker. They planned to keep the school kids inside all day so the smoke wouldn’t affect their lungs. But with gusting winds and a fire unexpectedly raging their direction, all that was about to change. The principal announced over the school speaker for the teachers to check their emails, and when she looked, she saw that school was canceled and they were to evacuate.
They began calling parents to come and get their children, and running out to stop those who were just dropping them off. For the most part, everyone was calm, because they had been evacuated before.
It was clear that with the fire, there was no way she could make it back home to be with her children, but her husband was there thanks to a strong impression he had that morning as he left for work that he needed to turn around and go back home. Together he and the kids had gathered things they wanted to save from their home, and had moved quickly out of the danger area.
It wouldn’t be as easy for her. Because an evacuation had been ordered, the roads became a gridlock and the sky became darker and darker, “almost like midnight” she said. The traffic didn’t move. It took her 45 minutes on a road that would have taken her five minutes on any other day. She kept thinking if she could just get to a more major road called Skyway, she could get out.
That didn’t happen. The anxious traffic she was glued in kept being diverted because of flames that were leaping on both sides and blowing across the road. When she got to the much-anticipated Skyway, “it was worse. Much worse.” They had changed the lanes that normally went both directions to four lanes escaping out of the fire, but nonetheless, they were hopelessly bottle-necked. Occasionally an emergency vehicle would come screaming up the road with pulsing lights.
Stuck, she was now in that tunnel of fire that continued for three hours and she kept thinking, “I don’t want to die in my car alone.” She used her cell phone to make what she thought might be several goodbye calls. She called her husband and her brother-in-law in Missouri to tell them how much she loved them. The flames were hot, the darkness was penetrating and her phone just kept cutting out until finally it died, the cell tower obviously burned up.
“I was praying the whole time,” she said. She told the Lord, “I don’t care about my home. I just want my family to be safe. Just knowing they were okay, allowed me to concentrate on how I could get out.
“It felt like a war zone,” she said. “The sound of the exploding propane tanks was the scariest for me. You are stuck in traffic. You can’t move and you hear these tanks going off. You don’t know where you are.”
She felt two emotions at once. Yes, she felt panicked and a rush of adrenalin at the same time, she said, “I was surprised at how calm I was the whole time.” Her brother-in-law looked at the fire map and saw where she was and told her, “You’ve got this.”
Because she couldn’t go home and grab anything when they evacuated, her family did the job, taking mostly their photos and irreplaceable possessions. Gretchen said that her husband did a smart thing in grabbing the dirty clothes bag—which would obviously represent a mix of their favorite clothes. She would have her long-sleeved BYU sweatshirt and other things that are easy and favorite.
Stories like hers abound among the Latter-day Saints. Sara Hanchett wasn’t sure if her husband, Ross, a resident ob-gyn, was safe for five hours. He had been delayed helping patients in ambulances and cars of nurses willing to drive them out of harms way.
By the time he got on the road, flaming trees were falling across the road and the noise was intense like a freight train. The side of his car was so intensely heated, he could not touch it.
Another group of people who could not find a way to make it out, stayed at the K-Mart parking lot for hours, hoping for a rescue.
Latter-day Saint, Mike Greer, who is a member of the Paradise Unified School Board, helped make a decision the day before the fire, that probably saved the lives of at least a hundred children. The question arose, with the high winds in the area, would they lose power at school the next day, and therefore, should they call school off?
They decided against calling school off, which turned out to be an enormous blessing. When at 10:00 that morning the winds whipped so high, and the fire came roaring through the town, the children were at school where they could be watched over and evacuated together. Otherwise, many of them would have been home alone, and their parents who worked further down the mountain in Chico, would have been unable to return home for them.
The children filled buses. The teachers put many of them in their own cars. They stayed with them and went through that same roaring fire down the road to get them to safety at the Chico Fairgrounds. Since that also ended up being the staging center for the fire fighters, they transported the children again to a safe place. This time to a Latter-day Saint church.
In all, 54,000 people in the area would be evacuated, 30,000 would be made homeless and the latest count is that 23 died and over another 100 are missing.
Because of the long-held counsel on preparation, however, Latter-day Saints, were ready in case something like this happened. Even though many members have paid an awful price in the loss of their homes, church leaders in the stake had worked out in advance, long before a fire was burning, what members in Chico would open their homes to people who faced disaster. They were networked together in case a disaster should come.
Latter-day Saints from Paradise found that the stake center in Chico became a place of gathering where tables were full of clothing and food for those who had lost everything. Here people are sitting around talking together and trying to determine their future. While they were still trying to account for each member, people sat with calling lists to be sure everyone was safe. Counseling has been offered. Gretchen said, “It is such a relief to see people you know in the building—people who have been through it like you have.”
On Sunday at the stake center, they had a sacrament meeting with the two wards whose members lost their homes, meeting together, some wearing jeans and t-shirts because their other clothing was lost. Yet they have each other and the gospel. After the meeting, they sat down together for dinner. A local county supervisor spoke about next steps. The people from the Cal Fire had maps of the fire, where it went and where the evacuation zones are. Someone from LDS Family Services came to talk about how people felt and where to find counseling.
Josh Cook, a regional public affairs director for the Church said, “When you have to flee for your life, it is a faith-promoting experience. Those who have served in the military or those who fight fires may have trained for moments like these, but what do you do if you are a mom evacuating your children and you are driving down a road with fire on all sides of you? You have to believe what you really believe. There are people here who have lost all of their stuff and they are happy. There are lots of stories of gratitude and people who will say, ‘We’ll start over.’”
Crises this deep impact the spirit. Gretchen said that one of her husband’s dear friends who has been inactive for many years came up to her husband and said, that he had received just too many promptings about where to go and how to stay safe to disbelieve in God. “Bishop, I’m ready to come back,” he said.
As for the future, for many of these Latter-day Saints, it is a little unclear. With the demand, rentals will be hard to impossible to find. Many people will move out of the area, breaking up a community that was so close. Gretchen’s school did not burn down, but they don’t know how many children will come back. Which businesses will rebuild and which will leave is the question.
But for now, “what stands out to me,” says Gretchen “is the many kindnesses of people across the nation who want to know what they can do to help.” The best thing to do to help, say local leaders, is to pay a generous fast offering. The Church sent truckloads of food, clothing and garments even while the fire was raging.
The ones who had the most difficulty in this fire are those who do not belong to the Church, or have no family to turn to, or have no community to surround and lift them. The Church takes care of all of those needs for its members.
Josh Cook said, as for him, he is going to stay in Paradise. We hope Latter-day Saints will stay. That is one of the reasons we are so excited for the announcement of the temple in Yuba.
“This is a beautiful place when it wasn’t burned down, and it can be again. Look at what happened to the Provo City Center Temple after the tabernacle burned down. It became even better. “