There’s just something about Paradise.
From Fourth of July celebrations in the summer with American flags lining the street to Johnny Appleseed Days in October with homemade apple pies for sale, growing up in this small town in California was something of a dream for Sean Chambers. He remembers the sweet relief of swimming holes in the canyon on sweltering hot days, cutting down Christmas trees in December for the living room, chocolate festivals, pizza trucks and a community that felt more like family than neighbors.
Paradise isn’t just a mark on the map for a man like Chambers.
It’s his entire life.
“We’re all from Paradise,” he said. “We all went to Paradise High School. We played football, wrestled on the same team … when we’d go fishing, we’d all hike on the same fishing trails. I think that since we’ve lost most of our town … that’s what’s brought us together most is that we all have something in common and all want it … to be right and normal again.”
Ash and debris now blanket Paradise, California. The town is just a ghost of what it once was since Camp Fire tore through homes and businesses on Nov. 8, 2018, killing 88 people and destroying 18,804 structures. For outsiders, one might think the devastation would mean packing up and leaving. But for locals like Chambers, it means dusting off and starting all over again in the place he loves.
“I wouldn’t want to move anywhere else, especially after seeing everybody come together like they have,” said Chambers. “I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”
Chambers was born and raised in Paradise. His grandparents moved to the area in 1979, putting in roots for good when they built their home there in the ‘80s. Ever since, that home has always been something of a safe haven for their family, a gathering place they’ve counted on.
The community has always been close. Since the fire, though, Chambers said there’s been a kind of bond between Paradise residents that runs deeper than before. Within half a day after the fire hit Paradise, he estimated that $3,000 worth of blankets, clothes, shoes and jeans were being driven to the Chico Elks Lodge and distributed to those in need. The memory of that is something Chambers will never quite be able to erase from his mind.
“Just to see the people at the Elks lodge, see the looks on their faces of not only defeat, but shame in their eyes … you could just feel it in the air,” he said. “It was heartbreaking.”
President Russell M. Nelson visited Paradise on Jan. 13, offering words of comfort to Latter-day Saints in the area just two days after his daughter, Wendy Nelson Maxfield, died after a courageous battle with cancer. Though struggling with his own grief, President Nelson said that his only desire was to be of help to others.
"You learn that everybody has challenges," he said. "If you want to feel better, forget about yourself and serve somebody else."
Serving the suffering
The behind-the-scenes help for the Paradise fire victims has been wide in scale these past months. Over 14,000 toys were collected for children who were displaced in Paradise, and the Chico California Stake Relief Society president Jo Anne Madsen received over 4,000 packages at her home for members of the Paradise community.
When Angela Grange heard about the fire in Paradise, the news hit her hard. Currently a resident of Holladay, Utah, she grew up in Paradise like her nephew Chambers. The people there, she said, have been her best friends since she moved there as an 8-year-old. Her sister also settled down in the area, and her parents have made it their home for the past 40 years.
Grange's mother, Arlene Ingoglia, happened to be visiting her daughter in Utah with her husband at the time of the fire. Ingoglia was out taking a walk when she was notified on her phone that she and her husband would need to evacuate – even though they were several states away.
Since Ingoglia’s home was right on the edge of the canyon, they knew right away there wasn’t a chance her home would make it or that anything could be saved. But Ingoglia hoped her daughter in Paradise would be fine, never dreaming that the fire would burn its way clear across town to where she lived.
“I call my sister almost every single day because some days are really good and she’s hanging in there and some days she’s falling apart,” said Grange. “It’s just really hard. So, I guess that’s the only thing I can do right now and the best thing I can do.”
Still, when Thanksgiving came around just weeks after the fire, Grange said there was plenty to be thankful for. Grange’s father had originally scheduled a leg surgery just days before the fire and had changed plans, deciding to visit Grange in Utah instead. Had they gone through with the surgery, Grange’s father would have still been recovering when the wildfire came. Being elderly and living on a property on acres of land, the chance of them making it out safely would have been small.
“I felt like the Lord blessed us and was watching over us,” said Ingoglia, who believes that her husband, who had suffered two previous heart attacks, may have had an additional attack due to the trauma if they had been in Paradise during the fire. “It wasn’t our time to die, I guess, because I think if we had been there it may have been fatal. … So, we’re very thankful.”
Away from their friends and family, the fire left Grange and Ingoglia desperate to help.
“We started thinking about what we can do to help others and it took us from thinking of ourselves (to thinking about) what can we do to relieve their suffering?”
Helping the people of Paradise became a family affair. Grange collected approximately $5,000 in gift cards and cash over the past months from friends and neighbors, and her brother delivered part of that sum to the fire victims over Thanksgiving. Additionally, Grange helped instigate a fundraiser at her ward’s Christmas party, which “adopted” six families and raised roughly $5,000 more in donations. Church members in Grange’s ward also wrote cards and tied blankets for the fire victims, while her sister who lost her home acted as a liaison to communicate what the community’s needs were.
“I want to be there helping them, and so this is how I’ve been able to get through this, is throw myself into finding ways to serve the people of Paradise,” said Grange.
Seeing the impact the fire has had on Grange has made the situation “more real” for ward members, said Grange’s bishop, Olympus 7th Ward Bishop Jeff Beck.
“It’s one thing to read on the news and see all the images, and it’s another thing to take a step back and realize these people — they have nowhere to go,” said Bishop Beck. “It’s heartbreaking.”
Ingoglia has taken to calling her friends on a daily basis. Now that she’s returned to California with her husband, she said they’ve also found peace by attending the Sacramento California Temple with friends and have felt a “healing power” there. She’s also asked her grandchildren to draw pictures of her home so they can always remember their favorite places there. Ingoglia plans on putting the pictures in a book for their family and said the process has been a therapeutic one for her grandkids.
“Children are suffering because of the loss of the memories they had there,” she said. “And so they need something to do about that.”
Although there is still a long way to go in getting the people of Paradise back on their feet — children were out of school for weeks, and finding a place to live or rent has been extremely difficult — of all the things the people need, Grange and Ingoglia said prayers are on the top of the list.
“You hear that phrase, ‘your thoughts and prayers,’ and you think it’s kind of a saying, but you feel it. I felt everybody loving and supporting me and my family,” said Grange. “There are all these angels rallying around when people are suffering, and that’s really, really special.”
Hope for the future
Not everyone will be able to rebuild in Paradise. Some members of the community didn’t have insurance, Chambers said, and many are elderly and will pick up and move elsewhere.
Chambers will always remember that dark November day when ash the size of silver dollars rained down from the sky, when he sped 80 mph down the road to make sure the people he loved were safe.
But while that day has changed his life and the life of his community forever, he isn’t giving up.
“We can always rebuild,” he said. “Rome wasn’t built in a day.”