A Day in Paradise's Inferno
November 19, 2019:
An Interview with Jim Collins
Jim Collins is Grand Knight for Council 7773 located in Paradise, Calif., an area that the Camp Fire wildfire has devastated. The wildfire is the most destructive and deadliest in the state's history, with almost 16,000 structures destroyed and claiming 79 lives. Nearly 700 people are still missing. Meanwhile, the wildfire has been 70 percent contained. Collins' council has established the Arise and Rebuild Program in order to bring disaster relief to people affected by the blaze. The following is an account of Collins' day on Nov. 19, 2018:
Another challenging day in the Arise and Rebuild program for St. Thomas More Church and Knights of Columbus Council 7773, Paradise, CA. The plan was to start the day with daily mass at St. John's in Chico. On the way, a text caught my attention. Kitty Campbell needed a place to stay because she will lose her hotel lodgings in a few days. Our Brother Knights had helped her pick olives in their small family olive grove a week before the fire. Her husband and Brother Knight, Larry, was losing his battle with cancer and could only watch. A few days after the harvest, Larry and Kitty fled the Camp Fire as their home was reduced to ashes. Then, safe in nearby Chico, Larry suffered a major stroke. When I visited Kitty in Larry's ICU room, she explained her plight with the hotel and that she hadn't heard if the olive grove was burned (it wasn't insured). I promised to find her a place, squeezed Larry's ankle and said a Hail Mary before heading to our temporary parish center in CSU Chico's Newman Center.
By 9:00, a Brother Knight from Council 13765, a parishioner, and a bi-lingual volunteer from Oakland had arrived to help return hundreds of calls from evacuees and possible donors. A while later our council's Advocate [Greg Kidder] who had escaped the fire with only the clothes on his back conferred with me about the day's agenda and helped configure replacement laptops and cell phones. Our District Deputy [Lou Gervais], who lost his home and vintage car in the fire, called to update the parish website to list ways to donate to the parish and council. Then our Lecturer and his wife [Ron and Sue Martin] joined us to sort donations for distribution. Our Brother Knight and Pastor, Fr. Godwin (he lost everything in the ashes of the rectory), dropped by to check on our progress and to minister to a drop-in parishioner.
In the afternoon Brother Dave [Lemire] joined the laptop and cell phone efforts. He lost his only truck and trailer (home to himself and his two children) in the fire because he waited too long helping others evacuate. He asked about using the Newman Center's kitchen to prepare meals for his family and others who he had bonded within an evacuation shelter. His eyes brightened when I told him a Brother Knight from Council 1137 was setting up RV spaces on a vacant lot owned by Our Divine Savior Parish. My thoughts returned to Kitty. If I could only find an RV for her to stay on the vacant lot. I called the Knight setting up the lot and he volunteered his fifth wheel for Kitty. This was an answer to a prayer, so I called Kitty. She thanked me then told me that her family was gathering by Larry's bedside because his breathing apparatus had been removed.
Back at my son's home around 5:00, my wife, Barbara, had prepared a fabulous meal for my son, Jeff, and me. He joined us after a rough day supervising volunteers for Red Cross. Jeff gave me an update on local resources for our parishioners. I updated my list of Brothers who lost homes in the fire and prepared to send the latest version to Columbian Charities. We had just opened the overnight mail: 22 checks for $3,000 each for those whose homes were burned. I prepared to send nine more Brothers' names for checks. Our council has 107 members on the books. If we can contact all of them, we expect that 80 percent will lose their homes. We also need to raise fund for those who lived in trailers and rentals who will not qualify for the $3,000 checks. I am also raising money for the 80 percent of our 800 parishioners who are projected to join the list of destroyed-homes victims.
Paradise has been compared to Hiroshima after the Bomb. It's not much of an exaggeration. My home still stands, so I can help with the Arise and Rebuild program. We haven't been allowed to pick up anything from our home yet. We hope to be allowed a short visit by the end of November. Then it will be a month or so before electricity, gas, and water will be restored, and we can adjust to life in a very toxic zone.
The fires are ongoing, and many are displaced. To tell us your story, feel free to email Andrew.Fowler@kofc.org