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Paradise Camp Fire hits Latter-day Saint families hard, destroys Church meetinghouses

Bishop Robert Harrison was commuting from his Paradise, California, home Thursday morning when a spiritual urge he couldn’t ignore hit hard.

“I had several promptings to turn around; turn around and go back,” he said Friday.

The wildfire that would eventually consume much of Paradise, destroy two of Bishop Harrison’s homes and incinerate the Latter-day Saint meetinghouse he loved seemed far off at that initial moment of inspiration.

But the winds were blowing, flames were moving, “and I knew I had to get my family out of there.”

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints burns during Camp Fire in Paradise, Calif.. on Thursday, November 8, 2018.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints burns during Camp Fire in Paradise, Calif.. on Thursday, November 8, 2018. Photo: San Francisco Chronicle

He also sent out mass texts to the members issuing a similar plea to leave Paradise immediately.

Bishop Harrison’s terrifying get-out-now account could be echoed by thousands of residents forced to flee from this town in Northern California’s Butte County.

Local Church leaders are relieved that all members and missionaries are safe and accounted for. But the so-called Camp Fire exacted an awful price in the Paradise Latter-day Saint community and beyond.

“Most or all of our members have lost their homes — I know I’ve lost two homes,” said Bishop Harrison, who presides over the Paradise 1st Ward, Chico California Stake.

Meanwhile, both meetinghouses in Paradise were reportedly destroyed.

In less than 24 hours, the Camp Fire had torched over 31 square miles, or 20,000 acres, turning escape routes around the town of Paradise into tunnels of fire as the entire community of 27,000 residents were ordered to evacuate, USA Today reported. Several other wildfires are burning across the Golden State.

Flames consume a Kentucky Fried Chicken as the Camp Fire tears through Paradise, Calif., on Thursday, Nov. 8, 2018. Tens of thousands of people fled a fast-moving wildfire Thursday in Northern California, some clutching babies and pets as they abandoned vehicles and struck out on foot ahead of the flames that forced the evacuation of an entire town and destroyed hundreds of structures.
Flames consume a Kentucky Fried Chicken as the Camp Fire tears through Paradise, Calif., on Thursday, Nov. 8, 2018. Tens of thousands of people fled a fast-moving wildfire Thursday in Northern California, some clutching babies and pets as they abandoned vehicles and struck out on foot ahead of the flames that forced the evacuation of an entire town and destroyed hundreds of structures. Photo: Noah Berger, AP

The fast-moving flames prompted mass evacuations for members living in Paradise. Fellow members from the nearby city of Chico and other neighboring communities immediately stepped up to offer shelter to displaced Latter-day Saints.

“Local Church leaders are accessing needs in the community and evaluation will be ongoing,” said Church spokesman Doug Andersen. "We pray for first responders working tirelessly to fight the fires and for all those affected by this disaster.”

The Chico stake center is functioning as both a temporal and spiritual anchor for the fire-affected members. For many Paradise members, it was their initial destination after escaping the danger.

By late Thursday night, 66 member families were staying in the homes of Latter-day Saints from the Chico and Gridley stakes. Such efficiency was made possible thanks to a previously established stake website that matches displaced people with families eager to help.

Paradise 2nd Ward Bishop Troy D. Mattson reported Friday that "emergency crews seem to have done an excellent job of search and rescue," even though communication was often difficult.

Latter-day Saints across the region "have done amazing work to help everyone in need," he added.

Bishop Harrison spent the night with his in-laws. He told the Church News he’s holding up well — but his heart is heavy. He’s heartsick for his ward members and his neighbors. And the decades-old meetinghouse that hosted countless sacrament meetings, wedding receptions, funerals and ward gatherings is now nothing but a memory.

“I was baptized in that building,” said Bishop Harrison, a convert to the Church.

But the true strength of the ward — the members — remains resolute and unshaken, he added.

“So far, the members are doing well. We have a really tight ward. We will hang on and reach out to each other. We will make it through.”

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