Harrowing stories, donations, firefighters represent strong ties between Paradise and Lake Tahoe
How to help
Financial donationsOfficials recommend forgoing donations of physical items and instead opt for cash or gift cards. In fact, CaliforniaVolunteers, the state agency that oversees volunteer efforts, reports that Butte County donation operations are at capacity and cannot accept any more material donations. “The best way to help at this time is through monetary donations to trusted organizations.” CaliforniaVolunteers recommends the following entities: United Policyholders North Valley Community Foundation Disaster Relief Fund Butte County Office of Education United Way of Northern California (or text BUTTEFIRE to 91999) California Community Foundation Wildfire Relief Fund Additional information on donations can be found at www.buttecounty.net/
Give directlyAll those impacted families in this story have set up GoFundMe pages. To donate to the Goslin family, click here (bit.ly/GoslinFamilyCampFire) To donate to the Dally-Greene family, click here (bit.ly/GreeneFamilyCampFire) To donate to the Russell family (organized by Felicity Monsees), click here (bit.ly/RussellFamilyCampFire) Additionally, GoFundMe has set up a general page to give to fire victims. Click here.
Provide shelter / volunteerAside from monetary donations, CaliforniaVolunteers suggest offering temporary housing and/or volunteering. Those interested in providing emergency shelter to people affected by the Camp Fire can sign up for the Airbnb Evacuee Program here. Anyone interested in volunteering should contact Caring Choices. CaliforniaVolunteers warns that due to the overwhelming response, their Emergency Volunteer Center is only accepting volunteer applications from California state employees and licensed medical personnel. Apply and find more information here.
Firefighters don HAZMAT suits over their fire gear. They’re searching for teeth, bone fragments, any sign of the people who called the smoldering rubble home.
A husband and wife, having driven down a highway engulfed by flames on both sides, head to bed in a stranger’s house. They lost their own home hours ago.
A concerned resident drives to the firehouse down the street to take inventory of donations. She will make a third trip to deliver needed goods to a community she has no direct ties too.
A 3 ½-hour drive separates Paradise, California — the epicenter of the state’s deadliest and most destructive fire — from Lake Tahoe. Despite the distance, connections run deep.
“This area has welcomed us with open arms,” said Michelle Dally-Greene, a lifelong Paradise resident.
Dally-Greene, her husband and their six dogs were among those who made a harrowing escape as the flames encroached. Their many years in the community afforded them the knowledge of an alternate route as they fled. Without the knowledge, they would have been stuck in a sea of gridlock.
“Had we not done that, we would not have made it through,” she said.
Friends in Berkeley put them in contact with North Shore resident Beth Moxley, who opened her Airbnb to the couple. They’re now staying in a cabin in Zephyr Cove, taking life on a day-to-day basis.
The home and three vehicles they left behind in Paradise are gone, putting them among the more than 50,000 people displaced by the blaze, named the Camp Fire.
South Shore resident Felicity Monsees grew up in Chico. Her mother and brother, Paradise residents, made it out in time to escape the flames but not the horror borne by the blaze.
“They saw people burning alive. They saw cars burning,” Monsees said. The family home was reduced to a wood stove, water heater and garage door.
Monsees’ mother and brother are currently staying with a friend in Susanville. They, like others, are operating day-to-day.
Amid the pain and the uncertainty — Monsees said she knows 13 people who are still missing — she is grateful.
“I’m really excited to see them on Thanksgiving and hug them. I’m just so thankful they’re alive.”
When the destruction is so great, the numbers so staggering, lesser degrees of loss can lead to feeling fortunate.
Gretchen Goslin lived in Kings Beach for 13 years before she and her family relocated to Paradise in 2009. In total, her family lost four homes. They’re all currently staying in Chico, having been lucky enough to find a long-term rental.
Even with the chaos and loss thrust upon them, Goslin notes her family’s situation could be much worse.
“All help is needed. There’s a lot of people out there suffering and less fortunate than we are.”
Since the fire started Nov. 8, 84 people have lost their lives, according to the most recent information available. More than 560 are still missing.
OUTPOURING OF SUPPORT
South Shore resident Jamie Sessions never lived in Paradise. She has no family members directly impacted by the Camp Fire. Still, she felt compelled to help.
Sessions sprung to action shortly after the fire started and put out a call for donations. Lake Valley Fire Protection District, where Sessions’ husband, Andrew, works, stepped forward to serve as a temporary collection center.
Sessions made a trip to Chico hauling donations from the South Shore community. Then she made a second trip pulling a U-Haul trailer that was donated.
This past Saturday she and several members of the Lake Valley Fire family were taking inventory in a large room filled with donations. Jamie and Andrew made a third trip, this time with their 4Runner and a 26-foot moving truck donated by U-Haul, on Tuesday.
“I just want to help others when I can and this is how I can do that,” she said.
The outpouring of support from the community, which experienced the destructive Angora Fire in 2007, has been unbelievable, added Kileigh Labrado with Lake Valley Fire Protection District.
The effort is emblematic of the broader community’s reaction.
After learning that over 50 families and five teachers from Inspire Charter Schools lost their homes, 13-year-old Jaymee Levin was moved to act.
She created a flyer detailing the needs of displaced students and distributed it at her homeschool’s enrichment academy and her Chabad Jewish Community in South Lake Tahoe. Donations poured in, according to Khymberleigh Levin, Jaymee’s mother.
Two days later, Jaymee had collected 39 children’s backpacks filled with supplies, gift cards and cash. She and her mom drove the donations down to an Inspire donation center in Rocklin on Nov. 15.
For South Shore resident Judy Clot, the Camp Fire — and the gravity of the destruction — hit close to home.
“I’ve been around so many fires. You’ll never see one like this in your lifetime,” said Clot, a former CalFire firefighter and engineer who lived in the Paradise area and still has a home nearby. Her house appears to have been spared — she is one of the lucky ones.
The fire has destroyed 13,906 residences, 514 commercial structures and 4,232 other buildings.
“Everybody has pretty much lost their home,” she said.
Clot spent several days collecting turkeys to deliver to Oroville Rescue Mission, with the hope of providing a holiday meal, and a small sense of normalcy, to some evacuees.
Beyond individual efforts, businesses and nonprofits throughout the Tahoe Basin have stepped forward to help. Liberty Utilities Tahoe organized a donation drive on both shores of the lake. Tahoe Regional Young Professionals raised over $5,000 for fire victims at its annual Winter White event. Vacation home rental owners have opened up their properties for fire victims.
“People have lost so much during a time when they should be looking forward to spending quality time with their friends and family. That’s why I decided to pull my VHR and offer it to a family who has been displaced by the fires,” said Phil Ferrante, a Bay Area resident who owns a VHR in South Lake Tahoe. “It’s a small gesture but I hope a family can get some brief respite during these times.”
IT CAN HAPPEN HERE
The Tahoe Basin also contributed manpower. Practically every fire district around the lake sent resources to help with firefighting efforts. As conditions changed, so did their roles.
Some went from fighting the fire to supporting evacuees. Others searched for missing pets. And others had the traumatic job of sifting through rubble for any signs of those who perished.
“Right now our guys and gals are seeing some pretty gruesome stuff,” South Lake Tahoe Fire Rescue Chief Jeff Meston said.
“It’s just different than what we’re used to.”
The South Lake Tahoe department sent an engine with four personnel and a member of the “critical incident stress team.”
North Lake Tahoe Fire Protection District also sent an engine to the fire. Fire Chief Ryan Sommers said after several days of fighting the fire, their mission transitioned to what he described as a “humanitarian effort.”
“They’re seeing a lot of things they didn’t expect to see but all in all they’re in good spirits and doing the best job they can.”
As the true depth of the devastation continues to unfold in Paradise and its surrounding communities, local fire managers worry about the reality of the situation: if it can happen in Paradise, it can happen here.
“There’s no question about it,” Meston said of the potential for a fire in the Tahoe Basin. “We have many, many similarities and some dis-similarities that are disadvantageous to us.”
Like Paradise, the Tahoe Basin has the potential for bottlenecking in the event of a mass evacuation. Unlike Paradise, Tahoe has large timber, which can help fuel fires. It also has massive numbers of tourists who likely don’t know the best evacuation routes.
Meston, who serves as president of the California Fire Chief’s Association, said Paradise was more prepared for a destructive wildfire than many communities.
“They’ve spent time and money on evacuation drills, great fuels management … all the things you’re supposed to be doing today, they did it.
“They’re a model community.”
Sommers, who earlier this month provided an update on the district’s forest treatment efforts to the Incline Village General Improvement District board, said it is imperative that fire managers learn from the Camp Fire.
“We need to study the Camp Fire and relate it to the Tahoe Basin and what we can do to overcome some of the circumstances that they were facing.”
Along those lines, Meston said fire officials have requested the National Institute of Science and Technology come in and study California’s deadliest fire.
As an industry, he added, there are more questions than answers when it comes to fire prevention and management.
“I’ve been around a reasonable amount of time. I’ve been around the profession for a reasonable amount of time, and I don’t have any of the answers anymore. And that’s pretty frightening.”