The Fire This Time
by Karen Laslo
It was 7:00 A.M., November 8th, 2018, when I awoke to the sight of a darkening cloud, tinged with pink and yellow, covering the whole southern sky and moving rapidly towards me. A strange light illuminated the tops of my neighbors’ trees. In my sleepy morning confusion I thought, “It’s going to rain.” But there hadn’t been any forecast of rain for the entire week. In fact, the drought had increased, bringing unseasonably warm and dry weather. Then confusion turned to fear – fire!
In the few minutes it took for me to realize what was happening, the morning light had darkened to evening and then to night. In the next few hours, the “Camp Fire” had reduced the town of Paradise and sections of Butte Creek Canyon, Concow and Magalia to a pile of toxic ash, leaving thousands of people homeless, some barely escaping with nothing but their lives. I was later to learn that 85 people are known to have died in the fierce hurricane-like fire.
In the weeks that followed, the people of Chico witnessed the shock and despair of the Camp Fire survivors. We volunteered at shelters, food and clothing distribution sites, and put in long hours at the FEMA headquarters in the old Sears building. We worked to reunite survivors with their pets and fretted over what might have happened to the wildlife that had no escape from the smoke and flames. We adjusted to the dramatic increase in traffic and the long lines at the local pharmacy and post office. And we made a place in our neighborhoods for the sudden influx of travel trailers and RV’s as shelters for those who’d lost their homes.
Those of us in Chico, who hadn’t lost homes to the fire could barely comprehend what it might be like to lose everything within the span of a few hours. All about us, refugees from the burnt mountain lay scattered among us like leaves blown on a dry wind.
And through it all, the suffocating, toxic smoke invaded our lungs, leaving us isolated indoors. And it was then that the Synergism women’s chorus decided to not cancel their concert at First Baptist Church on Palmetto Avenue but rather to bring their message of hope and understanding to whomever might have need. And when the hour for the concert arrived, the church sanctuary was filled with those among us who felt the need to be together with our townspeople where our sadness and loss could find common expression. And so we listened to the sweet women’s voices that drew us together as one body and brought tears to our eyes and healing to our hearts and minds.