The dragon chased Willie Snow out of Magalia.
That’s the way he remembers the Camp Fire. A ferocious blaze that he said seemed to instinctively track and pursue the living.
Snow and his longtime partner, Laurette Smith, both 60, snaked through Paradise in a Nissan Sentra to escape the flames—at times surrounded by fire and pitch black conditions.
Vehicles lined either side of the road. Some had people in them. Others were abandoned.
“When we left, I remember going through three, maybe four walls of fire, and the only reason we didn’t run off the road is because I knew it was a straight road, and I didn’t want to turn around,” said Snow, whose cadence mirrors that of Sam Elliott’s as the cowboy narrator in The Big Lebowski.
The fire destroyed the couple’s home. A recycler paid $35 for their scorched car.
In the months that followed, Snow and Smith lived out of a white Ford van—first at the Walmart parking lot in Chico, then at Lowe’s. About five months ago, the pair moved to the campus of the historic Magalia Community Church, a ground zero of sorts for survivor relief efforts on the Ridge. A year after the fire, the property surrounding the house of worship is filled with RVs, including the one donated to Snow and Smith. Since December, it’s also been the site of a recovery center offering clothes, furniture and food.
The couple consider themselves lucky.
Smith works as a security guard in Chico, clocking 40-plus hours a week. Snow is a former mechanic. He helps around the church, acting as a parking adviser and keeping watch on the grounds.
But did they envision being nomads a year after the Camp Fire sparked?
“No, man,” Snow said. “I thought we’d be back to normal by now. At least in a different place.”
“At least have a permanent home,” Smith added.
Pastor Kevin Lindstrom presides over the Magalia Community Church. He landed there eight years ago, after working in the film industry in Culver City as an editor and then earning his master’s degree in education and leadership from the Golden Gate Southern Baptist Seminary. A family friend who attended the historic nondenominational Ridge church had told him the former pastor was set to retire.
Before the fire, the future of the church was in question. Its congregation was aging and shrinking, Lindstrom said. On Nov. 8, he and his wife, Sandy, fled their home in upper Magalia and traveled to Southern California, where they have another house. The Woolsey Fire was raging at the same time, and the couple’s Simi Valley residence was on evacuation watch.
“We said, ‘All right. If the [Magalia] house burns and the church is OK, we’ll move back into the church,’” Lindstrom said. “‘If the church burns and the house is OK, then we’ll come back and rebuild the church.’ We said, ‘If they’re both gone, I guess we’ve got a lot of work to do.’ Our philosophy is that we will be here as long as the need is here.”
About a month passed before the Lindstroms returned to the Ridge. They found their home intact and scorched buildings and burned-out sheds at the church property. But the historic chapel, whose construction traces back to the 1850s, had survived. The couple credit neighbors who fought the fire by throwing dirt on the flames and felling threatening trees.
Nearly a year after the fire, the church is greatly needed. But it’s the practical necessities—more so than spiritual offerings—that the region has come to rely upon.
Each month, the church serves thousands of fire survivors. According to data collected for September, nearly 4,000 families—323 of which were new to the congregation—used the recovery center. Most reported they either live or had lived in Magalia or Paradise. Others had traveled from surrounding cities and hamlets, including Chico, Oroville, Yankee Hill, Concow and Stirling City, though others had come from as far away as Redding.
The church also saw a sharp increase in September of survivors living in a house, apartment or rental property. Nearly 600 families reported living in such accommodations, up from about 250 in August.
“That is very concerning to me,” said Doreen Fogle, a recovery center volunteer who has been lending a hand since Christmas, “because it says people that have been in homes and haven’t needed help all of a sudden now need help.”
More stats from that month: 400 families reported living in an RV, and about 200 were living with friends or family. Fewer reported living in FEMA-supported housing. Fewer still told the church they live in cars or tents.
The cost to rebuild or find a new home is a common, significant barrier, Fogle said.
That’s true for Ridge resident Michael White. Before the fire, he lived in an RV park in Magalia; when he returned after the evacuation was lifted, he discovered his RV had been vandalized and ransacked. It was moldy and uninhabitable. But because his home on wheels didn’t burn, he received no government assistance, he said. Homeless and jobless, White spent the majority of the past year living in a tent, he told the CN&R.
He says he recently secured an RV in Berry Creek—he’s just had trouble finding a place to park it locally. A Butte County resident for more than 20 years, he’s determined to stay on the Ridge.
“I love it up here; I love the people,” he said.
White visits the church recovery center once a week and says volunteers have been “extremely helpful.” Life has been rough since the fire, so he takes it one day at a time.
“It’s about all we can do,” he said. “When you are surrounded by it all day long every day, it’s hard to put it in the past. … It’s a lot more than just rebuilding ourselves. It’s rebuilding the entire infrastructure of our community.”
Sandy Lindstrom recalled the early weeks following the fire, when the Red Cross asked if the church could serve as a distribution center for supplies, including nonperishable food and warm clothes. The Lindstroms agreed, and the relief organization dumped “tons” of supplies in the church’s hall, said, “Thank you,” and left, she said.
“We looked at each other,” Sandy continued, “and said, ‘Um?’”
The Red Cross was the primary relief organization immediately after the fire, but the last of its facilities closed at the end of January.
The Lindstroms called in support in the form of friends and church members. Other outside relief—such as Operation Blessing, the relief arm of the Christian Broadcasting Network—began coming in as well. After the camp site set up for survivors at the Walmart parking lot in Chico was cleared, the church was asked if it could provide meals and a place for some people to stay.
“Basically, our whole response to any question is … if God is leading us to do it, we do it,” said Kevin Lindstrom, adding that the church, which has a commercial kitchen, began serving three meals a day and started allowing church members who lost everything to live on the property. An electric company installed RV hookups on-site.
The pastor estimates about two dozen people still live on the property, mostly in RVs. Folks living on the grounds say that number is higher.
“Originally, when people asked us how long we’d be here, we thought about other disasters and we said, ‘Well, probably 18 months to two years,’” Sandy said. “Because that’s … pretty much what you hear before people are back on their feet.”
But the unprecedented level of destruction wrought by the Camp Fire has upended those expectations.
Church officials say the biggest need nowadays is food. People are forgoing groceries to pay for gas to get to work below the Ridge. Survivors can “shop” at the church’s hall once per week, walking away with bread, cereal and assorted canned foods. Toiletries also are available. Everything is free.
On a recent Tuesday, a line snaked through the lobby of the food distribution center and spilled outside. Indoors, survivors checked in with Fogle, who was quick to offer a warm smile and help new visitors register. More of the church’s volunteers—many of whom lost their homes in the fire—were waiting in the wings, leading each household through rows of shelves with canned and boxed goods, various toiletries and even some novelty items: small succulents and LEGO sets.
Kaitlin Norton was there that day with her 18-month-old son, Josh. While her home in Magalia wasn’t destroyed, her family lost it all the same. They were renters, and the owner needed to move back in after losing his home in the fire. For now, they’ve been staying in an RV on a friend’s property—they are looking to buy, but the cost of living is steep, and fire insurance is tricky to secure.
“We’re in this gray zone nobody thinks about [after disasters],” she said. It’s been a struggle “just trying to get back to everyday normal life.”
Norton said she has felt financial pressure mounting after the fire, with more of her family’s expenses going to rising gas and food costs. “There’s just not enough to cover everything,” she said.
The church has been a “life-saver,” she told the CN&R. Without it, “there’d be months where we didn’t have diapers or wipes or food.”
Carey Livingston can relate.
Her husband, Tony, had to quit working because of the toll the fire had taken on his health, she said. That day, they were able to grab a case of water, fresh veggies and fruit, cereal, paper towels and other miscellaneous items.
Livingston recalled the first time her family returned to Paradise following the evacuation. Seeing the devastation, each standing home here and business there stood out in her memory. As they cried together, Livingston told her children: “These are little heartbeats. We have a pulse up here that’s not going anywhere.”
Until September, the family lived in an apartment in Chico. Recently, they moved into an RV on a friend’s property in Paradise. Their plan is to purchase a lot and build. Her family is so grateful that they were finally able to return, Livingston told the CN&R from the lobby of the Magalia church’s donation center.
“We were renters, so we didn’t think we were going to get the option of coming back up here,” she said, her voice breaking and tears welling in her eyes.
This past year has been exhausting, stressful and emotionally draining, Livingston said. There have been so many hoops to jump through to re-establish their lives post-fire. But she mostly feels overwhelmed with gratitude because of the kindness she has been shown by her community, like those at the church.
“I have cried, I think, more over my blessings than my losses,” she said.
Outside in the parking lot, Snow guided cars in and out of a designated area for RVs on the church property. He also talked to motorists arriving at the church to donate items, as well as departing volunteers.
“That’s what keeps this place going, bud,” he told one man who had dropped off clothing. “People donating.”
There are misconceptions people have about fire survivors, Snow said. Some carry the day-to-day burden of not knowing where basic necessities will come from, as well as a barrage of “what ifs”.
In terms of them getting back on their feet, people may ask, “Why don’t they just …” he said. “Well, it ain’t just.”
Securing long-term housing has been a challenge for Snow and Smith. They looked into Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) housing, but would have had to relocate farther from Chico than Magalia, which would mean more wear and tear on the van during Smith’s commute to work.
Snow said he’d like to rebuild on the property where his home burned, but he’s been embroiled in an ownership dispute. If the couple are forced to leave the church grounds, it would mean living in the van again.
“I do appreciate the volunteers that come in here and help run this place, because a lot of people need it,” Smith said. “And the ones that donate.”
Shell Morley, the Magalia Community Church’s office manager, said the facility’s PG&E bill is about $5,000 per month; the trash bill is about $2,000, water runs about $500. And food costs can total about $2,300 per week.
The operation relies heavily on donations, though a $50,000 grant recently awarded through the North Valley Community Foundation will help keep it open for the winter months.
Sandy Lindstrom said the church was told early on in community meetings that area churches likely would carry much of the load for ongoing relief. After the news trucks left, she said, many efforts by various other groups evaporated.
The Lindstroms maintain they aren’t experts in this type of service, and, a year later, they say they’re still in triage mode. It feels at times like they are putting Band-Aids on survivors, trying to steer them in the right direction, they say.
“We’re dealing with stuff that’s way over our heads,” Sandy said, noting a difficult experience she had with a survivor suffering from a mental health crisis.
“They’re overwhelmed,” she said. “They don’t know what to do or where to turn.”
The church offers counseling services on the property, but more is needed, Sandy said.
The Lindstroms’ children ask them how they continue to operate the recovery center.
“It’s where the Lord wants us to be,” Sandy said. “And He said, ‘OK, this is here, and I’ll help you if you do what I ask you to do.’”
Her husband echoed her.
“I basically can’t imagine not doing it,” the pastor said.