As is tradition during Thanksgiving week each year, the Chico News & Review shines a light on a handful of people who go above and beyond to make the North State a better place to live. We call them local heroes. That’s because they do so out of the goodness of their hearts.
Butte County certainly has much to be thankful for in this first full year after the Camp Fire. We’ve watched a swell of volunteerism over that time—countless people stepping up to help a variety of worthy causes related to the disaster.
We couldn’t possibly feature all of the wonderful people giving selflessly of their time. Take, for example, Kevin and Sandy Lindstrom and their helpers at the Magalia Community Church, who set up and continue to run a recovery center aiding Ridge survivors (see “Ground zero,” Cover story, Nov. 7). Or, recall Lynne Spencer and her crew operating the Gridley Camp Fire Distribution Center (see “Home, sweet temporary home,” Cover story, Sept. 5).
In this special annual issue, we’ve chosen four individuals and a couple who deserve recognition. Some are new to volunteering, having felt the calling after the disaster. Others are longtime helpers. What they have in common is that they all were personally affected by the fire but have chosen to give freely of themselves to better their communities.
Cheers to them, and happy Thanksgiving to all of our readers.
Robert Catalano of the Honey Run Covered Bridge Association (HRCBA) became reflective on a recent morning at the site of the historic bridge over Butte Creek that’s no more. He and the association have been leading the effort to rebuild the county landmark after its destruction in the Camp Fire. A year after the disaster, progress is slow but steady.
“I’m a man with a mission,” he said. “My life has always been about looking forward and helping others. … We and the HRCBA believe that rebuilding this bridge is creating hope where there is little.”
That mission has been twofold. Catalano, president of the HRCBA, has been working to rebuild his life as well as the bridge. His home in Butte Creek Canyon, where he’s lived with his girlfriend, Christine Jennings, since about 2010, also burned in the fire. Over the last 12 months, he’s moved more than 15 times, staying with friends, neighbors, in hotels and, most recently, in an RV on the burned-out lot where they will rebuild. Catalano and Jennings expect to move into their new home by Christmas.
Despite his transient circumstances, Catalano is committed to re-creating the bridge. He’s been the face of the rebuild effort, organizing pancake breakfasts, manning fundraising booths at community events and communicating with the county, which owned the structure.
He described the grueling process of rebuilding his home and the bridge as taking two steps forward and one step back. The work has taken a toll. Catalano says he sometimes has trouble recalling words when speaking, something he was advised was related to stress. Nevertheless, he’s determined to move forward.
Built in 1886, the bridge connected the Paradise Ridge with the communities below. Even after its destruction, Catalano says the iconic structure is still connecting folks, albeit symbolically. The rebuild effort has garnered support from people near and far.
“The whole purpose of the rebuild is to return to normalcy and give people hope that if we can rebuild the bridge, they can come back and rebuild their homes,” he said.
So far, HRCBA has raised about $650,000 in cash, pledges and materials, Catalano said. That’s short of the estimated $3 million price tag, but fundraising continues and it’s hoped upcoming activity will spur more interest to donate.
Work has started on a new caretaker’s cottage at the park nearby. Further, the association expects to begin work on the bridge’s foundation in April, an expense estimated at around $530,000. After that, the structure’s framework—which is being designed as a replica with modifications to adhere to modern building standards—could be up by the end of next summer. That’s if all goes according to plan.
The association is working to take ownership rights to the bridge from the county, and Catalano said that process is showing progress. He added that negotiations remain active with a private-property owner to expand the park to the east side of the creek.
Once rebuilt, the bridge will reconnect the county to its history, Catalano said.
“What happens so many times—America rolls on and it leaves its past behind,” he said. “So, we want to re-create the past so we never forget where this area came from, what its history is [and] what we’ve done as we go forward. It gives people a foothold into knowing where they are and who they are.”
Friend of the animals
As an ominous glow rose in the sky above her Paradise home the morning of Nov. 8, 2018, Sandy Doolittle began to load her car with animals—her two big dogs and two cats, as well as three doves and two possums in cages.
“I just started throwing them in, and … I called [my friend] Shelly [Rogers] and said, ‘I’m bringing possums and birds and can you please take them?’ When I got to Chico, she opened the door and she goes, ‘How did you get these in here?’ I said, ‘Adrenaline!’ We could hardly get them out of my car.
“We made it. But I did think, ‘They’re going to find us dead in the car and they’re going to go, Why did she have possums in her car?’”
For anyone who knows Doolittle, the only surprise is that there weren’t more wild animals crammed into her sports car. As president of Bidwell Wildlife Rehabilitation (BWR)—an organization that rehabs wild animals in Butte, Colusa, Glenn, Sutter and Yuba counties, and which she’s been with since 1974 (when it was known as Bidwell Nature Center)—Doolittle often has up to two dozen animals in her care during the nine-month-long breeding season. It had just started winding down for her and Rogers, another BWR volunteer and the group’s secretary.
The fire, of course, disrupted everything.
Doolittle, who has lived in Paradise since 1970, lost her home and everything in it. But before processing that and figuring out how to recover, she started helping more animals. In addition to work with BWR, Doolittle is a co-founder of North Valley Animal Disaster Group, which has been assisting with animal evacuations and sheltering during disasters since 2002. The morning of the fire, before she realized that Paradise would be evacuated, Doolittle was preparing to go join other NVADG volunteers.
“When I looked up, I saw the glow. I thought, ‘Oh, Concow’s on fire.’ So I put on my uniform, getting ready to be activated.”
With the only clothes she now owned being her volunteer gear, she figured, “I might as well go to work.” Doolittle volunteered for a few days on-site at the temporary animal shelter at Chico Municipal Airport, and another few on the phones securing donations of medicine and other supplies for volunteer veterinarians to help with the influx of animal refugees.
“And then after that, I was like, ‘I’m done. I’m empty. I gotta deal with where I’m gonna live. What am I gonna do?’”
She eventually secured an RV and was invited to park in Butte Valley on the property of another volunteer, and despite the cramped quarters, resumed her BWR duties once the 2019 breeding season was underway, cramming cages of possums, squirrels and birds wherever she could fit them.
“I would feel bad if I didn’t do wildlife [rehab] in the summer. Because that’s me,” she said. “I’m not going to let the fire take that, too.”
Doolittle notes that she is one of many helpers, and that neither NVADG nor BWR could operate without an army of volunteers. And though she stepped down from the role of public information officer for NVADG (after 17 years), she’ll remain as a volunteer for that group while also staying on as BWR president.
“I’ve just been a weird animal person all my life,” Doolittle admitted. “It’s not what I do, it’s who I am.”
Leading by example
Teri and John Rubiolo
John Rubiolo was hard at work constructing a deck a few weeks ago with a volunteer laborer from Germany. They were laying a foundation to stretch between the two RVs on Rubiolo’s Concow property—one of them he and his wife, Teri, live in; the other serves as a kitchen. Teri, meanwhile, was out delivering a freezer to a neighbor. It had been donated and she’d matched it with a woman in need. That’s what she does best—she connects the dots.
The Rubiolos, like the majority of their neighbors, lost their home to the Camp Fire. But they’re not letting that hold them back. They’ve lived in Concow since 2001—having moved down from Paradise—and had built a welcoming home there over those years. A shared love of Jesus sent them on a path of helping others—for Teri, “it’s not about religion, it’s about relationships. Jesus had compassion and wanted us to truly love one another and take care of one another.”
About four years ago, the Rubiolos started opening their home to hungry neighbors. Teri said everything fell quickly into place. Their refrigerator had broken and she was offered one out of the blue. “We didn’t even have a dining room table,” she said. But that week, her daughter said she had a table she needed to get rid of. Then Teri’s brother called asking if she’d like half a pig. Obviously, they’d chosen the right path, she decided. They dubbed their home I Am’s Garden.
“We started out making dinner for four people,” she said. “Then there were five. And then we were serving 35 to 50 people six days a week.”
That was before the Camp Fire. Since then, most of the Rubiolos’ regular dinner guests have returned, Teri said. And now there are more. They still serve about 35 to 50 people at their home, these days just three times a week. The other three days, they make deliveries—to anywhere from 90 to 120 people. Needs go up later in the month, Teri explained, as paychecks and Social Security begin to dwindle.
“A lot of older people lost their vehicles [in the fire] and can’t get out,” she said. So, deliveries became a necessity. Generous donors keep the Rubiolos’ storage shed full of everything from canned goods to shampoo to clothing. They also get larger donations of generators, propane and even cars and trailers. The couple know who in their community needs those things the most and connect those dots. When their neighbors come over for dinner, they’re welcome to their washer and dryer, and their shower. Many of them are sleeping in tents.
“We’re working on building a shower house,” she said, pointing to one area of their property. On the other side are the horses, pot-bellied pigs, donkeys, chickens and a mule—they also take in animal rescues. Five of the horses came from slaughter yards and one from a racetrack, she said, and four, like the Rubiolos, were Camp Fire survivors.
“I know we’re doing what we need to be doing because there’s always someone helping us to help others,” Teri said, gesturing toward their German visitor who was constructing the deck for people to eat on out of the elements. “It’s about leading by example. I’m basically homeless, but my life is good still and I want to share that.”
Sweet on history
Bill Hartley has a passion for local history. He’s made plenty, having been honored as the Paradise Police Department’s officer of the year in 1998 and co-founding the Paradise Chocolate Fest—a benefit for local youth programs—in 1995 with his wife, Pam, with whom he co-owned the renowned confectionery Joy Lyn’s Candies for 30 years. More than his own, though, Hartley loves sharing the stories of Ridge pioneers.
Take Yellowstone Kelly. Around four years ago, while at a marine shop getting his boat serviced, Hartley noticed a small memorial to this Wild West figure he’d just seen an old movie about. He was surprised to discover not only that Kelly was “a real person,” but also that he had ties to town.
Hartley learned more. Luther Sage Kelly, aka Yellowstone, fought in the Civil War, guided an Alaskan expedition and commanded in the Philippine-American War. A friend of President Theodore Roosevelt, he died in Paradise in 1927. He’s entombed in Montana, though his wife, Alice Mae, is buried at Paradise Cemetery.
Hartley inquired about Kelly at the Gold Nugget Museum, repository of things historical to the Paradise area. The museum had a few pieces (uniform buttons) but scant information. Officials there asked Hartley to join the board and chair a committee on Kelly.
He obliged and, in 2016, set to work on what would become the Yellowstone Kelly Heritage Trail—a place to commemorate the people who shaped Ridge history.
“I could go on and on about the number of roads in this town named after pioneers,” he said. “We know the names, but we don’t know the stories—and the stories are important. It’s important to know how the spirit of this town came about.”
The museum unveiled 34 heavy metal markers along a 5-mile section of the town’s paved bike trail, heading up from the Depot Museum at Paradise Community Park, in September 2018.
Two months later, the Camp Fire struck. It spared the markers and the Depot Museum, but not the Gold Nugget Museum; that property on Pearson Road—like the majority of Paradise, including Joy Lyn’s on Bille Road and the Hartleys’ home off Neal Road—burned to the ground.
The Hartleys, who’d sold their business to their son and daughter-in-law shortly before the blaze, are helping rebuild Joy Lyn’s, which is set to open in phases starting next month. They’re also building a home on a new property in Paradise.
Meanwhile, Hartley has plans for the museum. He’s vice president—working with Don Criswell, the president, and other board members to re-envision the facility as a collaborative space for multiple community groups. Prospects include Theatre on the Ridge, Paradise Grange, Norton Buffalo Concert Hall, Paradise Gem & Mineral Club and the Butte County Fire Safe Council. They took a major step two weeks ago by acquiring a new site: the former Ridge Transmissions auto shop situated “a stone’s throw from where our old museum was.”
Along with including arts, culture and other educational offerings, Hartley said, the new Gold Nugget Museum will “start educating more on what grew our community, and how all these people contributed to our community. Gold brought people here, but they stayed because of the farming and the beauty of the land.”
Now, more than ever, “that’s the story that needs to be told.”
Driven to help
On the morning of Nov. 8, 2018, Stephen Murray drove through Apple Tree Village Mobile Home Park, a community of 281 seniors in Paradise, honking his horn, calling out to residents and stopping to kick down doors whenever he saw a car parked in a driveway.
The Camp Fire was fast approaching their neighborhood. He had to get everybody to safety. He helped two residents into his truck, and after he made the rounds, he plowed through the park’s back fence and led a convoy of tenants to safety down the bike trail into Chico, where he was reunited with his wife and two young children.
Murray had lived in Paradise for 31 years, and worked at Apple Tree Village for the last five as a handyman/groundskeeper/jack of all trades. He called it his “dream job.” He found out later that every resident in that development survived.
Murray lost everything that day, but it didn’t stop him from continuing to help his community. For more than a year now, he has simultaneously grappled with relocating and re-establishing his family, organized countless fundraisers and events, and founded a nonprofit, the Coral Apple Foundation, to help survivors rebuild. He’s taken in a lot of donations, but he’s also indebted himself in the process.
Murray says he’s driven approximately 100,000 miles to help more than 80 survivors tow RVs to their new properties. He’s organized several events, too. On Easter, he held a massive celebration at Bille Park—3,000 people attended and some 900 Easter baskets were given to Ridge children.
He’s the kind of person who doesn’t get intimidated by a challenge. A prime example: He showed up at the Red Cross shelter at the Silver Dollar Fairgrounds shortly after the fire with donations, and was told he would not be allowed in unless he had enough for every person. So he drove to Target and bought 431 pairs of jeans.
“You’re not gonna stop me from helping my people,” he said. “I don’t like roadblocks, so I try to figure out how to get under and over and through.”
Jeanette Bright, a former resident of Apple Tree Village, told the CN&R via phone from her new home in Washington that Murray saved her life the day of the Camp Fire. She sat in the passenger seat of his truck as he drove them to safety.
Murray was good to her before the fire, she said. He knew she didn’t have a lot of money, so he would fix things around her home, like a leaky sink, without charging her.
Now, she considers him a grandson. “He’s got such a kind, kind heart,” she said. “He’s just got that instinct of helping people and saving people and not taking care of himself.”
Murray admitted that he’s emotionally exhausted. He just returned to work in September, and it’s become harder to balance everything in his life. But he can’t imagine halting his volunteer efforts.
“I just care for people, y’know what I mean?” he said. “I’ve been down and out. I know what it’s like to have nothing. I know what it’s like to need help and not get it. … I’ve realized that things can get better, things can be better. You just gotta know who to ask.”