PARADISE, Calif. — Jeremy and Brynn Chatfield walked around what was once their home here with deliberateness, trying to avoid stepping in the sticky white ash that coats this community.
The couple learned in the days after the Camp Fire — the devastating Nov. 8 wildfire that left 88 dead and destroyed 18,804 structures , including the Chatfields’ home and business — that “the white stuff will not come off your shoes,” Jeremy Chatfield explained.
Brynn Chatfield pointed through burned trees to another empty foundation: “I grew up in the house right over there. This is where we wanted to raise our children. We bought this house sight unseen.”
She bent down and picked up a blacked bowl, holding a blacked spoon. This was breakfast on the morning on Nov. 8. That was the day a thick darkness consumed Jeremy Chatfield’s dental practice. Although he didn’t know it, the dark was a foreboding indicator of the devastation ahead.
He raced home and found his wife gathering a few items and preparing for what she thought would be another routine fire evacuation. Everyone in Paradise — a forested community of 26,000 nestled in the Sierra Nevada foothills above the city of Chico — always knew a fire was possible. Still, Brynn Chatfield explained, no one actually believed fire would find them.
Jeremy Chatfield’s mother stopped in and took the couple’s three daughters ahead.
After loading their cars and picking up a community member on the side of the road, the couple headed out of Paradise. As they drove, for 45 terrifying seconds, hot flames licked both sides of their car. The couple, active members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, worried the heat would pop their tires.
Brynn Chatfield did the only thing she could. As she recorded the consuming fire with her phone, she offered a prayer. “Heavenly Father, please help us. Please help us to be safe. I am thankful for Jeremy and his willingness to be brave.”
President Nelson to offer hope
It has been two months since the Camp Fire — the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California history — destroyed Paradise. Workers walk the community downing trees and collecting hazardous materials, but few residents remain. Although daffodils are beginning to sprout and birds are returning, there is a gloomy air in the town — where darkened, brick chimneys still stand, coated with the white, sticky ash.
Like everyone here, Latter-day Saints in Paradise lost much. Of the 1,399 member homes on the Paradise ridge, only six remain totally intact, said Josh F.W. Cook, area director of public affairs for the Church.
Yet in the hours after disaster, many found hope in gathering together and serving others. Now they are looking forward to a different kind of hope. President Russell M. Nelson and his wife, Sister Wendy Nelson, are expected to speak Sunday during a special conference held for members of the Chico California Stake. The visit from the Latter-day Saint leader comes just two days after his daughter, Wendy Nelson Maxfield, 67, died of cancer.
Accompanying the Nelsons are Elder Kevin W. Pearson, a General Authority Seventy, and his wife, Sister June L. Pearson.
Elder Pearson traveled to Paradise just eight days after the Camp Fire claimed the community. “We drove through so many neighborhoods once filled with beautiful homes now reduced to ashes,” he said. “The magnitude and intensity of the fire’s destructive force was almost incomprehensible. There was an eery feeling of emptiness in the lingering smoke filled air. Yet, the faces of the people we met were filled with faith and gratitude. They recounted story after story of the tender mercies involved in their escapes from the fires path.”
Elder Pearson said “the acts of charity, selfless service and personal ministering within the community have been astonishing.”
Latter-day Saint response
As the evacuated community of paradise moved into Chico, President John R. Meyer, president of the Chico California Stake, said he immediately knew what the Lord wanted him to do. “We opened up everything the Church has for the whole community,” he said.
As news of the disaster spread, President Meyer began receiving phone calls from across the country. Everyone wanted to help. “By nature our default position is to be good,” he said.
He invited local members to seek out those in need.
The first five days after the disaster volunteers working in the Chico California Stake Center served 750 people a day with food and clothing.
Among those served were school children loaded on four buses by the Paradise Unified School District and sent first to the Chico Fair Grounds.
When Robin Cook, a member of both the Silver Dollar Fair Board and the Church, realized the children could not be accommodated at the fair grounds, where great numbers of people were already gathering, she called the stake center. There the children and school district staff were received by local Relief Society members, fed and cared for until their parents arrived.
As that was happening, local leaders were organizing clothing and food donations and finding places to house all the evacuees.
In the days and weeks that followed, the Church participated in a toy drive, a giving tree and Christmas sub-for-Santa projects. They hosted clothing drives. One Church group pledged to replace the music instruments lost in the fire, another sent ties for the men and young men in Paradise. They hosted dinners — including a Thanksgiving dinner — and accepted thousands of packages sent to those in need.
Many in the community began referring to the Chico Bishop’s Storehouse as “the grocery store without a cash register.”
Blair Parrott, the community outreach officer with the California Highway Patrol Chico Area, needed help collecting Christmas presents for the “Chips for Kids” toy drive. The goal was to collect 2,400 toys, one for each of the 2,400 school age kids displaced in Paradise. A Latter-day Saint building was used to organize and stage the drive, during which 14,012 toys were collected.
To date, Jo Anne Madsen, the Chico California Stake Relief Society president, has received more than 4,000 packages at her home. Having noticed it was overwhelming for fire victims to figure out what to buy, she began putting “home starter kits” together for them. “They would go shopping and say, ‘I need to buy this for the house.’ Then they would realize, ‘Oh, I don’t have a house anymore.’”
Cookware, toasters, dish towels and mixing bowls continue to arrive at Madsen’s home. A room in her house is used as a staging area to assemble and distribute the kits.
“Love has created a lot of hope in the community, that no one is alone,” said President Meyer. “One of our fears is that we will be forgotten.”
Just as did the Chatfields, Kathie and Rick Turner warned visitors about the sticky white ash that will coat clothes and shoes as they walk around the remains of their home.
Looking over burned cans of food storage, Kathie turns to three metal bowls sitting on the perimeter. “I got them out,” she said. “They maintained their shape.”
For the Turners, returning to the place they have lived for 24 years feels a little like participating in an archeological dig of their life. They know there is not much salvageable on their property. But when something looks intact, they rescue it. “I say, ‘Here’s a little piece of our life.’”
The sense of loss is profound, explained Rick Turner, a doctor whose medical practice burned. “You aren’t sure what you are going to do next.”
He doesn’t have a plan to heal, to take care of family, or to rebuild. “It is uncomfortable.”
The Chatfields are also in limbo. Jeremy Chatfield is continuing his dental practice in Chico, but he does not know if enough people will return to Paradise to rebuild his practice there.
Both couples get emotional when they think about their many friends who are resettling in areas outside of Chico and Paradise.
Brynn Chatfield posted her desperate escape and prayer video online — and it went viral. She still receives comments and messages from people thanking her for her willingness to turn to God in the face of tragedy.
Kathie Turner says there is no other option.
“We lost our town,” she explained, “but we maintained our testimony.”