After the inferno: Frontline chaplains reflect on California wildfire disaster on fifth anniversary

By Jamie Holmes ’86 M.Div.

“It was just stuff. I was downsizing anyway to move into senior housing. In some way, the Camp Fire saved me from having to make decisions about what to do with all it all.”  She paused. “But still, it was my stuff.”

This lament was shared with me by an eighty-something survivor of the deadliest fire in California history. On the morning of November 8, 2018, a firestorm moving at the rate of 80 football fields a minute overtook most of the mountain towns of Concow, Magalia, and Paradise. Four hours later, the statistics in Paradise, my hometown, were etched in history: 85 known fatalities, mostly people over age 60—not counting those who died in the hospital in days following. 14,000 residences burned. 30,000 people displaced. 5,000 firefighters dispatched. 17 days of flames and smoke. $8.4 billion in insured claims.

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Now, as the three partially rebuilt towns plan their fifth anniversary commemorations, we are watching all-too-familiar footage of catastrophic fires in Canada and Maui. The death toll in Lahaina has already exceeded ours. It’s a heart-sickening distinction. Ironically, residents in both towns can say they’ve lived “in Paradise.”

I’m a Spiritual Support Volunteer at Enloe Medical Center, a 298-bed Level II regional hospital in Chico, California, eight miles down the ridge from Paradise. On the day of the fire, my cohort of seven chaplains was called in by the Emergency Command Center to help patients and their families.

Like almost everyone else, we weren’t prepared for what we encountered then or since. I recently asked my colleagues for their reflections on these past five years. Here are some of their thoughts.

Physical and psychological outcomes

Since the Camp Fire, we have seen an increase in the number of patients with respiratory illnesses, cardiac events, stroke, infection, cancer, and psychological troubles. These are likely due to worsening of prior health conditions, fire-related injuries, and the effects of trauma. We are hearing about possible future consequences, such as cases of dementia linked to inhaled nano-particulates.

Buddhist chaplain Nancy Smith found that psychological issues, not spiritual, were more of a concern in the beginning. “The loss, the devastation, the fear, the anxiety, the homelessness, the separation from loved ones—these traumas are what I remember now five years later.”

The Paradise diaspora: An alum’s first-hand account — Read Jamie Holmes’ 2018 piece on the Paradise wildfire

In response to traumatized patients, Episcopal chaplain Roger Cutler affirmed the greatest need was deep listening: “People needed nonjudgmental responses, not evaluative comments.”

Psychological hardiness

I observed a certain psychological hardiness from survivors who found helpful— perhaps unique—ways of coping in the beginning. One person explained:

I was in blissful ignorance in the beginning. It was like a game where I was just dropped off from another planet and I didn’t have a past. But I had insurance money and a job, so I had to figure it out. The game worked well until my insurance company made me list everything I’d lost. I spent three hours a day for three months doing that and began focusing on my losses. I lost my fantasy. Before, I had felt like a little kid looking at everything for the first time, like “This planet has trees!” It was fun while I had it.

For others, psychological hardiness emerged from a more urgent need to rank priorities. As one victim noted, “A lot of us had more than one loss going on. Life doesn’t stop just because you have one disaster.”

For Episcopal chaplain Alan Rellaford and his wife, Daria, the fire itself became secondary to her cancer treatments. She had just arrived for her second chemotherapy treatment at the hospital in Paradise when its evacuation began. Had her appointment been a half hour later, she might have been among other drivers who died on her evacuation route.

Alan reports another outcome for which they were thankful. Although their house wasn’t destroyed, fire damage made it uninhabitable for six months. He tells me he’s reluctant to refer to himself as a fire survivor “because so many other people lost loved ones, pets, homes and livelihoods.” But as a chaplain, he has found being able to say, “Yeah, I lived through it too” helps others talk about their experience. 

Unexpected trauma responses

We know that survivors who took advantage of individual counseling or support groups for post-traumatic stress have fared better than those who didn’t.

Chaplain Supervisor Joy Todd noted, “People turning to alcohol and drugs was pretty prevalent after the fire. But there were lots of opportunities for interventions like grief support groups. As one who lost everything, it was good for me to hear others’ experiences.”

Many people in our area immediately took evacuees and their pets into their homes for days or weeks. Nancy Smith, the Buddhist chaplain, recalled how one guest became fearful of a burning candle and the flames in her fireplace. Frequently broadcast videos of the inferno raised the anxiety of survivors, especially children who didn’t comprehend this wasn’t real-time footage.

Some victims’ initial reactions were predictable: anxiety, disbelief, anger, and despair were understandably common. But shock predominated. Joy recalled the aftermath as she waited many times in long lines at the disaster relief center. “At first, we all smelled like smoke. Everybody looked so ragged. I remember we were mostly old people, standing in line, kinda dead.”

But some reactions to the trauma didn’t become evident until long after the ground had cooled. “There is one odd thing I hated to shop for after the fire. I’d go to a home goods store and would see something homey, and my brain would turn it into the burnt version of itself. I’d see that cute and sweet thing lying in ashes and I’d just leave. I still feel that way.”

Consequences for communities

The winds that hurled the flames were capricious. Unscathed homes remained next to neighbors’ rubble. When authorities finally allowed residents to return to their lots, many had to live in RVs, trailers, and tents. Some still do.

They found themselves in decimated towns with no electricity and few sheriff patrols. People were afraid. Alan described it as “the Wild West.”

Community morale sank. The town of Paradise had a population of about 27,000 before the fire. It declined by 90% in one day and had grown back to only 5,000 residents as of last year.

As one person recounted, “A lot of my friends have moved away, and when they do interact with me on Facebook, they’re really not doing so well. They lost their homes and foundation and they’re kind of floating somewhere. To lose your community is a whole different thing than just your stuff.”

But later, she discovered how freeing it can be to lose all one’s possessions.

When you die you can’t take that stuff with you. It’s kind of like a first death. You experience detachment like Buddhists have—not by choice, though. But if you can accept it, there’s a certain simplicity. I pulled up to my rental with my dog and two cats and my photo album and I thought, “This is the easiest move I’ve ever done. I just walk in the door.”

Spiritual resilience, theological depth

As chaplains, we saw that patients who had a meaningful faith or spirituality to rely on had an easier time coping. But whether they do or not, we listen closely, avoid judgment and agendas, and match our responses to what is spiritually meaningful to them.

Some people expressed a spiritual hardiness through attributes of gratitude and confidence, maintaining “I’m so blessed. I only lost my house, my animals, and everything I owned. I know God is in control.”

However, I quietly resonate with the survivor who countered this perspective by saying,

That’s not my definition of being blessed. It struck me how people’s theology seemed unhealthy when they’d just gone through a shitload of stuff. When people feel like they’re so blessed—like stories when people said there were angels protecting them—why didn’t those 85 people who died have angels, too?

Resilience and recovery

At this five-year mark, perhaps the best we can do is try to understand Joy Todd’s conclusion as a person of faith:

You’re forever changed. Mortality is a weird thing. In the fire and with recently having to move my dad from a house into one room in assisted living, I realize eventually all our belongings are going to go and nobody’s going to care. Even photos. We think it’s so important. It brings us to the temporal nature of this planet. We don’t know what eternal life is going to be like, but I don’t think it’s going to be diaries and filed bank statements. I’ve thought about that a lot. What are the things that are eternal? What are the things that matter? It’s our relationship with God and with others.

May it be so.

September 6, 2023