Friday morning: We read that the Camp Fire in Paradise, California, has exploded overnight and left thousands of people homeless. Morgan calls one of the shelters and makes plans to bring a load of things they’re in need of. Dad in law sends around the quick alert for Winton and Ballico to bring towels, clothes, quilts, and pillows to a drop off spot. With the help of Sherri Giesbrecht and Morgan, we take my class on a clothes drive to their houses and pick up donations. Then we go to Walmart to buy towels and pillows and toiletries with donated money. Several of my students selflessly ask “can I donate all of my money?” Morgan and I leave after school with a borrowed van absolutely stuffed to the brim with donations.
Friday evening: We drive to Chico, where most of the shelters have been quickly set up. We smell smoke most of the way, but the dense fog of it hits us about 30 miles from Chico. The headlights we meet coming on the road are orange and muted and we can faintly see that its burned along the highway 99. The 99 has been closed all day but reopened now although the roads off of it are blocked with police vehicles and National Guard Humvees. The town of Chico at 9 PM is like a ghost town in a thick, pea soup smoke that turns everything into shadows and there is ash floating down on our windshield. We navigate to the Elks Lodge and arrive to find complete disarray. Tables have been set up to hold the clothing and items donated, while people rummage for a few articles of clothing or pillows to help them through the night. Everyone is wearing masks and we are given a box to pass out if we see people that need them. Its chaotic. We decide to take a bunch of the blankets and hand them out so we find parking lots full of vehicles with people making makeshift beds inside. We pass out blankets to many people who come to our vehicle and accept with such thanks. Most of them look dazed and humbly accept anything we have to offer. It’s supposed to be 35 degrees tonight but we know there isn’t a place to sleep other than the van so we park with others and fall sleep in the back of the van to the smell of smoke and sadness and loss.
Saturday morning: We grab breakfast and decide to go to another shelter with the rest of our donation load. This shelter is much more basic and has no donations at all really so they are super excited about our stuff. We haul everything in and then put on nametags to volunteer where we’re needed. We start with just organizing the few clothes there into neater piles. A few women sitting close to me discuss whether or not some of their neighbors made it out of the fire alive. They sound matter of fact. Morgan goes to build Legos with some little kids he sees wandering aimlessly and I talk to the people. I’m scared to. I don’t know what I’ll tell them. But the Pastor at this place says “Cheyenne they just need someone to listen.” I visit with several people and brush a ladies hair because she’s shaky. She’s maybe 50. We start talking abit here and there and once she starts, words pour out. She’s alone because her husband is in prison. They’ve lost everything and he doesnt know it yet. She repeats several times that she has nothing left and her friends who live near her are on the missing persons list. Then she describes leaving her house. The power was out and she had five minutes to leave her house so the only thing she grabbed was her purse. The smoke outside made it hard to breathe and see where to drive but she managed to get to the main road but traffic was backed up for miles. She looks at me and has tears in her eyes. “I lost my whole life ” she says again. She continues with her story, and I hold her hand because there’s nothing else to do. She sat in traffic and watched people run out of gas, push their car off the road, and start walking. She saw the fire come up on both sides of the highway and fire trucks hose down their cars so they wouldn’t catch fire. She watched as the tar filling the little cracks on the interstate caught fire and started vehicles on fire. She lost her parents wedding rings, family heirlooms, her and her husband’s birth certificates and passports and all the keepsakes her children made her in school. She talks about her cat too. “I know she’s a cat but it’s just another thing I don’t have,” she tells me. Then she starts crying. She doesnt know where to go or what to do and has very little money. I sit and cry with her because she is only one of so so many who are exactly where she is. We hug goodbye and I tell her God will provide somehow. Funny she says. I actually have been thinking this morning about how everything has a reason. God has a plan. I admire her spirit. Morgan and I leave at noon. Our seats have ash on them and I’m losing my voice because of the smoke. We talk on the way home about how blessed we are to have our friends and family and a church to stand behind.
Now we pray. 42 people have been burned to death. Thousands of lives turned upside down. We hear some congregations may send money to us and we will buy gift cards to take up to the fire victims in a couple weeks. It’s the least we can do.