What I know now that I didn’t know before Camp Fire

PARADISE, California — “There is a fire on the east side of Paradise …,” wrote Bishop Rob Harrison in a text message to members of his ward on the morning of Nov. 8. “Grab your Important documents and your go bag.”

Seven minutes later he sent another text. “If you need a place to meet go to the stake center.”

In the hours after members received the texts, the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California history consumed Paradise — a forested community of 26,000 nestled in the Sierra Nevada foothills.

Camp Fire left 88 dead and destroyed 18,804 structures.

Standing on the burnt remains of what was once his home, Bishop Harrison spoke about the disaster that claimed 95 percent of the homes in his ward and the blessings the members received in the days that followed it. “It is sad,” he told me. “But there is hope — a lot of hope.”

Elder Kevin W. Pearson, General Authority Seventy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, hugs fire victim Robert Harrison in Paradise, California on Sunday, Jan. 13, 2019.
Elder Kevin W. Pearson, General Authority Seventy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, hugs fire victim Robert Harrison in Paradise, California on Sunday, Jan. 13, 2019. Credit: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

A fire fighter himself, Bishop Harrison said he knew when he left his home that morning that he would not be coming back.

And as the bishop indicated in his second text just minutes into the disaster, the stake center became a refuge from the storm. In the days that followed, some 14,000 community members received service from members of the Chico California Stake. In many cases, the service was rendered by those who had also lost their homes.

Here's what one family is doing to pull through the tragedy of Camp Fire.

For Latter-day Saints, service became the remedy to loss.

For example, Kim Reeve of the Paradise 1st Ward, lost her home and a business to Camp Fire. Yet as the offers of assistance came from locations near and far in the weeks before Christmas, Bishop Harrison asked her to match the offers with the families in need. People sent gift cards and toys and clothing. Sometimes the task took 12 to 13 hours a day. However, in the midst of her trial, she saw the “best of humanity.”

“When you have the opportunity to watch the goodness of people, the loss becomes smaller,” she explained.

That’s what I learned after visiting Paradise this month. In the midst of trial, service that is given and received changes and heals hearts.

It is a truth that was also taught by President Russell M. Nelson, who flew to California on Jan. 13 to walk with members among the ashes of their community.

“We can hardly comprehend the tragic losses that you have sustained — loss of life, loss of homes, loss of jobs, works places and much, much more,” he told them. “The accounts of your suffering are exceeded only by the accounts of your ministering.”

His visit took place just two days after his daughter, Wendy Nelson Maxfield, died of cancer.

“We mourn the loss of our second daughter,” he said in Paradise. “Fathers can’t have that without feeling a deep sense of grief. And yet there is nothing we would rather do than to try to be of help to others.

“You learn everyone has challenges. If you want to feel better, forget about yourself and serve someone else.”

And that’s what he did. After speaking words of comfort, he greeted members, hugged children and listened as fire victims shared their stories. At a time of personal loss, he spoke of loss and comfort to those who had lost much.

In return, many of them offered comfort to him and his family.

It was, said President Nelson, Latter-day Saints “acting just like the Lord would act were He here.”