By Cate Monaghan
Interim Communications Director
CA-NV Conference of The UMC
Heading north on CA-99 from West Sacramento, California on Saturday (Nov. 17), Bishop Minerva G. Carcaño, Episcopal leader for the San Francisco Area of The United Methodist Church, Jorge Domingues, Director of Connectional Ministries for the California-Nevada Annual Conference, and I saw little evidence, at first, of the inferno that has killed at least 76 people and scattered more than 10,000 households. We could smell it, though: even with windows up and the car air conditioner set on “internal,” the smoke invaded our vehicle, as strong and acrid as if we were standing beside a bonfire.
We were heading to Chico, to check in with Conference Disaster Response Director Sonja Edd-Bennett at the Disaster Recovery Center (DRC), before joining a gathering of area pastors at Aldersgate United Methodist Church, organized for discussion of the Camp Fire’s impact and to take a stab at generating a needs assessment. We would be overwhelmed at both locations – by the enormity of the disaster, the scope of the need, and the bountiful nature of God’s provision.
The DRC opened Friday, Nov. 16 in the vacant Sears space in the Chico Mall – eight days after the fire destroyed the town of Paradise. When we arrived a day later the DRC was still overrun with individuals and families signing up with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and then making their way from table to table, seeking basic services – sometimes with pets in tow. The situation is not expected to change for the foreseeable future.
There were cartons of water outside the entry door, but no one distributing it, as far as we could see. Inside, we were greeted by a sign at the FEMA tables advertising DNA matching for the missing. The scene was chaotic and surreal.
People were calling out numbers and repeating them, and I thought at first that someone had organized a bingo game to provide people with a distraction while they waited to be helped. But no – nothing that commonplace, that “belonging to a sane world.” I finally realized that some agencies were using raffle tickets to track who was next in line to be served.
“129 – Bingo! You win the opportunity to approach a stranger at a table, where you’ll be asked to verify your identity before laying bare the horror that has engulfed your life, in hopes that someone there has a resource to provide, some crumb of help and hope to offer before sending you on your way to yet another stranger, at yet another table. Congratulations.”
It would be dehumanizing to anyone not in shock – but there was no one like that here.
When we located the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) table, we saw 75 to 80 weary people who were waiting to be helped – some in chairs, many standing in a ragged line. The Emergency Response Team (ERT) coordinator for the conference, Leslie Carmichael, was at the table with Edd-Bennett, as was Lucy Hernandez, who had driven north to help out – temporarily leaving her post in Kern Valley, where she’s served as case manager for the Erskine Fire response since 2016. They were the only volunteers scheduled for the next day, also, and the bishop quickly gave voice to what was evident to us, deciding that we three needed to join the process on Sunday morning instead of visiting an area church, as we had tentatively planned to do.
Having made that plan we went on to Aldersgate and the warmth of UMC hospitality. Over coffee and pie, we heard the story of Rev. Bob Chicou’s six-hour evacuation from Paradise (accomplished “by the grace of God – there was no warning at all”) and received confirmation that not only is Paradise UMC still standing, but so are the homes of Bob Biehler, pastor of First UMC of Oroville, who lives in Paradise, and Dave Rieck, pastor of First UMC of Willows, who lives in Magalia, CA – five miles northeast of Paradise and the other community most impacted by the fire. Chicou’s home, though, was destroyed.
“We pray for all of you,” said Julie Raridan, pastor of Biggs UMC and associate pastor at first UMC of Yuba City. “How can we support you?” she asked.
“A lot of people are lost – just lost,” said David Vallelunga, pastor of Trinity UMC in Chico. “They need a person to take them by the hand and take them through the process, one on one, to guide them.” He added that many fire survivors may experience PTSD – and Karl Coulter, pastor of Gridley UMC, warned that people suffering from PTSD often “move into a shame model.” He said the Church should explore invitational models to help survivors move from trauma into relationship.
Vallelunga reported that some dozen families at his church lost homes and/or businesses, and confessed the situation to be “outside his liturgical box.” However, he said, “I’m growing, and we are growing together.”
“We’re not expecting you to carry this burden alone,” Bishop Carcaño assured the pastors. “UMCOR – that’s a mighty partnership that we can continue to draw from.” She said that when other bishops have asked how they can help, she has asked them to pray and to give specifically to UMCOR, “because they have given so much to us [in California-Nevada]: millions of dollars” – including funding Edd-Bennett’s position, and a $10,000 grant just awarded for Camp Fire relief and recovery.
The bishop also reported that Bishop Gary E. Mueller had called her to say that his Arkansas Conference is donating $10,000 to the effort.
Aldersgate pastor Scott Allred said he’s received numerous phone calls from people wanting to help – from as far away as Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. The pastor of one church in another state called to say his tiny congregation had taken up a collection for the Camp Fire survivors – and was apologetic that it came to $250. Allred assured the pastor of what a huge difference that $250 would make in the lives of the suffering people of Butte County.
The truth of that was evident to us the next morning. UMCOR had been assigned a different, larger space overnight with more chairs, but those were filled quickly when the DRC opened at 9:00.
Edd-Bennett had trained us, quickly, to fill out intake forms and had guided us on how we could be most helpful to our clients. Our goal was to provide some immediate assistance – in the form of gift cards, hygiene kits, and a listening ear – as well as to take information that could help the conference determine how it could be involved in future efforts toward recovery. On Saturday the volunteers had given out around 170 of the 200 $50 Walmart gift cards that they had, and approximately 180 $25 Arco gas cards. We had resupplied since, purchasing another 200 gift cards from Walmart.
We were to offer one gift card per household – client’s choice – to touch as many people as possible.
My first client was a young single father of two. He told me right away how badly he needed gas for his car, and that he had been told we were giving out gas cards and Walmart cards. He hoped we could help. When I explained our system, his composure shattered. “Can’t I get both?” he asked in desperation, as tears threatened to fall.
“I’ll ask.” I turned, pleading to be allowed to break the rule just this once, for this special situation, but my supervisor shook her head firmly. I knew that it was the right answer, but it broke my heart.
The young man’s eyes were frantic when he heard. “I don’t know which to choose,” he said shakily, casting about for guidance to appear out of thin air. Finally, “I guess I’ll take the Walmart card,” he said, “because I can do more for my kids.” We were both crying as I gave it to him and said goodbye.
His was one of hundreds of stories that we heard that day. There was the case of a middle-aged woman who, with her 90-year-old father, adult son, and profoundly impacted (physically and mentally) daughter, is sheltering in the garage of one of her son’s friends; of the elderly man who had been homeless until 10 days before the fire, and who was homeless again, but now grieving the loss of the two dogs he called his children; the woman who had lost every photograph and memento of the son who had been killed at age 21; the man who hoped to find, intact, a tea cup and bracelet he had bought for his mother; the woman whose Christmas gifts were in the trunk of the car she had to abandon. She always bought them early, she said, because her daughter had been killed by a substance-impaired driver in December, and “I never know how I’m going to be feeling in December.”
Yet amid their suffering, these people had overwhelming gratitude and faith. Often, their faith was in the God Who had delivered them. Others spoke of restored faith in the goodness of people.
“I had given up on the world,” one woman told me. “I mean it: I thought it had gone to – ” She didn’t complete the sentence, but I knew what she meant. “And now,” she said, “this has turned it around. My mind has changed.”
To a person, the survivors thanked us, many saying, “God bless you,” and wished us well.
That afternoon the congregation of Paradise UMC was reunited at Trinity Chico for a worship service and to share their stories of survival and loss. They were a resilient and spunky group, peppering tales of evacuation with humorous anecdotes, including how the “call of nature” was addressed on the long drive to safety.
Over and over, they told of how fast the fire roared through.
“I was sitting at the kitchen bar, working a Sudoku puzzle, and the sunlight was coming in the window, and at the bottom, it kind of got hazy – and the next thing I know, it’s kind of – black. And we got a phone call, saying ‘these areas are being evacuated.’ I opened up the garage door, and all I heard was a freight train,” Gary Lippincott shared. “The wind was blowing, it was really, really bad – and that noise, it was really, really loud. I’ve been around a few fires before and I’ve never heard it that loud. So we got it all packed up – two suitcases, with four days of clothes, because we thought we were coming back. We were evacuated before, and fires usually burn much slower – but when it’s 100,000 acres in two hours, or three hours, that’s a little bit drastic!”
“I had every intention, and so did [my husband], of being able to come back to our house,” said Peg McElroy. “Why should we take a whole bunch of stuff when we don’t need this, we’re gonna be back here by Sunday? Well, we had an [Eastern Star] installation to do Saturday afternoon, [so] I thought, ‘better take my formal, just in case I need it’ – so I have my formal, which I wore yesterday – I did my duty; he did his duty in his tux. We don’t have a whole lot else! I think we have three changes of clothes, nothing for church, not a dress. And I took a whole handful of my socks! Come on: You can buy a pair of socks for a buck; you can’t buy a pair of pants and a top for a buck!”
There was a great deal of laughter, in spite of the fact that some members of the congregation lost their homes, while others will return to changed neighborhoods. Some say they have decided to move away, that this is enough. Others are planning, at least at this point, to rebuild.
After the time of sharing, Bishop Carcaño and Blake Busick, superintendent for the Great Northern District that includes Paradise, Magalia, and Chico, presided at a service of Holy Communion, concluded by these words from the bishop: “God will be our strength. God will carry us forth, Christ will be our cornerstone; we shall be held up. There is no reason to go other than with joy, with thankful hearts, and with peace.”
Today, first responders who have not had a chance to return to their own property since the fire began were allowed back into Paradise for the first time. With that encouraging step and the news that the Camp Fire now is at 70% containment, other evacuees hope it won’t be long before they’re allowed in to inspect their property, as well. It’s estimated that it will be at least three months, though, before the fortunate few with intact homes will be able to live in them again.
“All of us have so much to be thankful for,” Chicou told his flock on Sunday. “We will be in contact with you as to when our next service will be, as a church. Continue to embrace one another and attend the two churches here [in Chico]; the one closest to you. And remember: Be the people who walk through fire and still come out, carrying buckets of water for others.”
Main photo - Bishop Carcaño assists a Camp Fire survivor at the Disaster Recovery Center in Chico on Sun. Nov. 18.
1. Leslie Carmichael, left, and Lucy Hernandez, providing assistance at the DRC on Sat. Nov. 17.
2. Paradise UMC. Photo taken Nov. 20 by Maston "Bubba" Humphries, an EMT and member of Sparks UMC.
3. Bishop Carcaño and area pastors at a strategy session at Aldersgate UMC Saturday evening (Nov. 17).
4. Sonja Edd-Bennett instructing her volunteers Sunday morning. From left, Jorge Domingues, Edd-Bennett, Carmichael, and Bishop Carcaño.
5. Jorge Domingues assists a Camp Fire survivor at the DRC .
6. Paradise UMC congregants share evacuation stories at an afternoon service at Trinity UMC in Chico on Sun. Nov. 18. It was their first time to worship as a congregation since the Camp Fire began Nov. 8.
7. Paradise UMC congregants at Trinity UMC in Chico on Sun. Nov. 18.
8. Bishop Carcaño and Great Northern District Superintendent Blake Busick, offering Community to members of the Paradise UMC congregation on Sunday.
9. Paradise UMC pastor Bob Chicou at the Nov. 18 gathering of his congregation.