The wildfire that largely incinerated Paradise, California, offered a stark reminder that Latter-day Saint bishops often shepherd others even while enduring their own trials.
Paradise 1st Ward Bishop Robert Harrison and Paradise 2nd Ward Bishop Troy Mattson have spent the past several days monitoring the welfare of their members, offering spiritual support and coordinating relief efforts with fellow priesthood and Relief Society leaders.
Both bishops lost their own homes to the flames and are counted among the thousands displaced by one of the most destructive wildfires in California's history.
“We got confirmation on Sunday that our home had been completely destroyed,” said Bishop Mattson, a husband and father of four children, ages 10-15.
Bishop Harrison, meanwhile, learned he had lost his two Paradise-area houses shortly after fleeing for safety on Nov. 8 when the wildfire spread across the Northern California community. But even as they minister to those in their charge, both Bishop Harrison and Bishop Mattson said they, too, are being ministered to by fellow members from the Chico California Stake and beyond.
“It’s amazing how the members are coming together and supporting one another,” Bishop Harrison told the Church News.
For many Latter-day Saints from the Paradise area, the temporal and spiritual support they are receiving now represents a sizable chunk of all they own.
The blaze swept over the town of 27,000 and practically wiped the town off the map with flames so fierce that they melted metal off cars, the Associated Press reported.
At least 29 people have been confirmed dead, equaling the deadliest blaze in California history. Nearly 230 people are being called “unaccounted for” by public safety officers.
Bishop Mattson acknowledged Monday that communication remains a challenge. There are 750 members on the Paradise 2nd Ward rolls. He has sent out mass surveys to collect status information from each family. Most have responded, but a few have not.
As of Monday, Nov. 12, their status was unclear. The bishop said he rejoices each time he learns a previously unaccounted for member is alive and well.
All members from the Paradise 1st Ward are accounted for, said Bishop Harrison.
Meanwhile, displaced Latter-day Saints have found shelter with family, friends or fellow members from Chico and neighboring stakes. A sobering number of Paradise members are now homeless.
“Ninety-five percent of the members in our ward have lost their homes,” said Bishop Harrison, who is staying with relatives.
Most member families have not been able to return to their charred home sites. The roads into Paradise are being blocked to keep people safe and to discourage would-be looters.
There was some good news to report. The damage at one of the Paradise meetinghouses — the so-called Billy Road building — was limited to trees outside the structure, reported Bishop Harrison. The fire destroyed the second meetinghouse in Paradise.
Sunday offered members from both Paradise wards a few hours of welcome Sabbath day respite from their staggering challenges. The two wards worshipped at the Chico stake center at a combined sacrament meeting. They listened to messages of hope, sang hymns and partook of the sacrament. They enjoyed a shared meal together in the cultural hall.
Church-provided counselors were also on hand to offer practical and emotional support for members of all ages. Following the religious services, children and youth participated in breakout sessions hosted by professional counselors.
The adults, meanwhile, were divided into two groups: those who lost their homes and those who did not lose their homes. The families whose homes were spared met in the stake high council room. The families whose homes were lost met together in the spacious cultural hall.
“That gives you some sense of the proportion,” said Bishop Harrison.
The Paradise members left the Sunday meeting reminded that they would not have to face the coming weeks and months alone. “It was good to get together and just spend time with one another,” said Bishop Mattson. “Everyone left with clothing, food, toiletries and bedding.”
The two bishops know shepherding holds no expiration date. Difficult days await the Paradise members. They will all be asked to look out for one another along the way.
“It could take years to get our town back into shape and get things cleaned up,” said Bishop Harrison.