The wildfire that incinerated the Northern California city of Paradise has finally been contained. But for hundreds of Latter-day Saints — and for thousands of their neighbors — the impact of the historic disaster is felt from one moment to the next.
Paradise-area members are still unable to return to their charred properties. And many have no clue where they will be living in the coming months and years.
“The biggest challenge that we are facing now is housing,” said Paradise 1st Ward Bishop Robert Harrison, who is counted among the thousands who lost their homes to the so-called Camp Fire.
The blaze began Nov. 8 and destroyed nearly 14,000 homes and hundreds of businesses. It has also covered more than 153,000 acres — roughly the size of Chicago, reported CNN.
The death toll stands at 88 even as crews continue the grim work of recovering bodies in and around Paradise.
Bishop Harrison said many displaced Latter-day Saints continue to find shelter with fellow members. "But we can only expect that to last for so long.”
Others have found or are searching for temporary housing in neighboring communities such as Gridley, Redding and Yuba City. The bishop and his family are staying with relatives in Gridley.
“I’m doing fine,” he told the Church News. “It’s just tough getting back to the normal, everyday things. … When you come home, you’d like to be able to put your feet up, relax and enjoy your own (home).”
While there are few obvious solutions to the housing challenges in the area, the members do all they can to lift one another spiritually.
“We’re trying to keep the Saints together and allow them to be together,” he said.
The two Paradise wards gather at the Alamo building in Chico for Sabbath services. Each ward conducts their own sacrament meeting before combining for Relief Society, priesthood and youth meetings.
The Church also hosted a community Thanksgiving dinner at the Chico stake center. “There was a large turnout with a traditional Thanksgiving meal,” said Bishop Harrison.
Meanwhile, the Church continues to offer professional counseling to families who were impacted by the fire.
“And we have several family home evening groups that are meeting together,” said Bishop Harrison. “We are also coordinating Young Men and Young Women activities with youth from others wards.”
Classes are expected to reopen for area school-age youth in the coming weeks. Residents of all backgrounds are working together to help Paradise High School students enjoy a traditional school experience. The disaster forced the cancellation of a promising football season, but the boys and girl’s basketball teams are moving forward with their seasons and playing games.
“The community of Chico has been wonderful,” he said. “They’ve hosted several activities with the Paradise kids. They’ve been able to get together, enjoy the food trucks and go ‘shopping’ for donated clothing.
A California businessman also donated $1,000 to every Paradise High student and school employee to go toward, say, buying new clothes, laptops or whatever else they choose.
Bishop Harrison said it’s impossible to know what the coming months and years will bring. When he asks ward members if they plan to rebuild in Paradise he receives “a mixed reaction.”
“A lot of people are waiting to find out if they will still have a career or profession in the area. And we also wonder if we will be able to afford insurance once we get back up to our properties and start rebuilding.”
Strength, he noted, is found in the concern and actions of others.
“We do appreciate the outpouring of support from across the Church,” he said. “We have been blessed with many donations and prayers.”