After seeing the devastation caused by the Camp Fire in Butte County, California, on the evening news last November, Dean and Courtney Fox of Canyon City felt driven to offer a helping hand. It was California’s deadliest wildfire, killing 86, destroying 13,900 homes and displacing up to 50,000 residents.
The city of Paradise was decimated as well as nearby smaller towns, burning more than 150,000 acres.
The Foxes started a fundraiser in November with the idea of hand-delivering donations to people in need before Christmas while also offering encouragement.
Many Grant County residents and businesses contributed, including locals who, like the Foxes, survived the Canyon Creek Complex fire, which started in August 2015 south of Canyon City, destroying more than 110,000 acres. The Foxes were among 43 people who lost their homes in the fire, but no lives were lost.
At the time, the couple hoped to save their home and thought they had time to gather their belongings, but as the monstrous, wind-driven blaze spread quickly, they escaped with little more than the clothes on their backs.
After their experience, which they said left them numb and in shock, the couple felt a need to “pay it forward.”
Courtney said the people they met during their Dec. 17-20 trip to Northern California were extremely grateful for the new blankets, quilts and clothing, plus 56 $100 Visa gift cards they distributed on behalf of Grant County residents.
“We found people sifting through what was left of their houses,” Courtney said.
“Some people were very distraught — a lot of tears on both sides,” Dean said, adding they also found three families with Grant County connections.
Courtney said it felt great to give people something that didn’t require paperwork or a long wait time.
”To get some excess help like that has got to be refreshing,” Courtney said. “There are people we’ll probably stay in contact with for forever.”
“We want to give a special thanks to everyone who helped pull this together and make this event possible,” she added. “We’re so grateful for all the monetary donations and items and time spent helping organize.”
Megan Cateron and her father, Wayne Cateron, were rummaging through piles of ash where their home once stood in Paradise when they noticed a truck drive past.
Megan, 34, said she thought it was likely workers involved with the cleanup, but then she looked up and saw the Foxes walking toward her.
“They introduced themselves to us, and immediately I felt this heartfelt rush,” she said. “We started talking to them, and in a matter of minutes it felt like we’d known each other for years. We just clicked really well.”
She said most of her family lived in Paradise, and they are now scattered, living in RVs or motel rooms.
Megan said the Foxes gave them some gift cards and blankets. She gave one quilt, made by ladies of the John Day Seventh-day Adventist Church, to a friend’s daughter, and the gift is well-loved.
Megan first heard the sirens at 6:30 a.m. Nov. 8 as she left her home for work at the Feather River Hospital where she was an oncology pharmacy physician.
”I noticed a bunch of smoke, and I wondered, ‘What’s on fire now?’” she said.
After clocking in, she and a coworker went about their routine of mixing infusion treatments for patients that day. They worked from the second floor and had a good view of their surroundings outside.
“Within 30 minutes, I noticed new smoke right behind the hospital,” she said. “It spread pretty quick.”
Five minutes later they were told to evacuate.
“It reminded me of a movie — total chaos, everyone was running,” she said.
Megan visited with her dad for a moment at home, and he stayed behind. She picked up her dog from a doggie daycare and was stuck in traffic for about 1 1/2 hours on her way out.
She knew her dad wouldn’t leave home until he saw the house burning with his own eyes. ”I just prayed to God he would be all right.”
“The sky was on fire, people’s yards were on fire,” she said. “I could hear propane tanks exploding. ... McDonald’s was on fire, cars were driving on the bike path.”
An eerie sight was the school’s newest bus in the ditch. She said her dad, who is in his late 60s, helped a dozen residents of the senior mobile home park near their home to the safety of a Kmart parking lot.
Wayne lost fishing gear, including old wooden lures that once belonged to his father.
”Instead of worrying about grabbing what was most important to him, he spent his time helping others,” she said. “That’s why he’s my best friend.”
In years past, Wayne spent time in Grant County fishing and hunting.
Their other family members, and their four dogs, were able to escape the blaze to safety.
Now Megan and her dad live 10 feet from each other in travel trailers, staying at an almond orchard owned by a family friend in Gridley. Megan’s trailer was donated by people in Bend.
She said after the first week or two, she started feeling the effects of the experience, and now she’s taking it day by day.
The damaged hospital closed, and she said everyone who worked there will be terminated Feb. 5.
While Megan said she feels “lost,” she is grateful to be in contact with family, and she’ll soon start nursing school.
“I can restart,” she said.
Paradise Adventist School Principal Monte Nystrom noticed “a different look to the sky” at 7:15 a.m. Nov. 8 on his way to work.
At 7:30, as parents arrived with students, he asked them to stay in their car and head out, after learning the fire had reached a nearby town.
Nystrom made his way to the other side of town to pick up his paraplegic sister and his mother-in-law at a retirement center near the hospital — the fire burning about 50 yards away. An officer asked him to take as many other residents as he could, so three more people joined them, and as they drove past the Feather River Hospital, he also offered a ride to a nurse who was walking by with her face covered.
He said it was raining embers, which he would stop to stomp out, until it became too smokey. He said it took about three hours for a drive that normally would have taken 10 minutes.
“There was a fair amount of time that I was 99 percent sure that we weren’t going to make it with high winds blowing the fire,” he said. “When we did get out, it did feel miraculous.”
Nystrom’s wife, who was on the other side of town, also reached safety, but their home burned, and they now live in a motor home parked at a friend’s home.
”That’s such a blessing,” he said.Most of the staff and 166 students’ families also had their homes destroyed, but all survived.
A few classrooms were destroyed, so the remainder of their school year is being held in a church on the same campus as the Chico Oaks Adventist School until module classrooms arrive.
”We wanted to resume school after the (Thanksgiving) break to get students back to some semblance of routine,” he said.
The Foxes visited the school and, after handing out Christmas gifts, gave several Visa cards to Nystrom to distribute. One recipient was a mother who not only lost her uninsured home but was also in a serious wreck when her car was rear-ended on the freeway.
“I was able to give her several gift cards, and she was just so grateful,” Nystrom said. Last week (Jan. 9), a father of one of the students found some much-needed new clothing that the Foxes brought.
”It was a blessing, just their way of caring,” he said of the Foxes. “We appreciated the gifts they brought and, even more than that, was the love and compassion that they exuded while they were here.”
Teacher Dave Vixie was at his Paradise property on Jan. 10, waiting to speak with a work crew about hauling away debris, the remains of his house.
“I’m standing in the middle of ashes, like mud, like the ash of Pompeii,” he said.
Dave said he and his wife, Karen, were in the last vehicles on one of the three roads heading out of town. They hauled their eight mules in two trailers, and one of the trailers, designed for four mules, had six packed inside.
He said they could hear the roar of the fire, and embers were falling. Although the drivers on the road “might be panicked in their heart,” he said each person was considering others’ lives as valuable as their own, for the most part, not traveling in the oncoming lane which emergency vehicles were using.
”They behaved with compassion and consideration for the value of the lives of the people ahead of them,” he said. “That’s a great thing to be a part of — people like that make great communities.”
Dave, who teaches seventh and eighth grades at Paradise Adventist Church, lost almost everything, including old wagons and carts.
His interest in history, especially the explorers of the West, ties him to Canyon City. He is friends with Jim and Mary Jensen who own the Oxbow Trade Company where they sell and repair wagons, wagon wheels and carts.
Taking students on trail rides, for living history journeys, is a favorite pastime for Dave, and last summer he brought a group of students to John Day in a motorized vehicle to witness the total solar eclipse.
After the Camp Fire burned their home, Vixie met the Foxes while transporting two of their mules during the Thanksgiving break. The Vixies had planned a stop at the Oxbow Trade Company to pick up a repaired wagon wheel, and they ended up staying with the Foxes. Both families shared stories of the fires they experienced.
When the Foxes came to the school in Chico, Dave said he was especially impressed with Brooke, Courtney’s 10-year-old daughter, who helped distribute Christmas gifts to 10 kindergartners. Karen was the substitute teacher for the class that day.
Dave said, when Brooke went through the Canyon Creek Complex fire, not all her classmates understood what she was going through.
“Brooke understood these kids’ experience,” Dave said. “It was a neat interaction.”
She gave out stuffed animals, a play chainsaw and lawnmower, a Barbie doll and cars — bags of toys.
Dave said each time she pulled out a toy, one child would jump up and down and say it is exactly what they wanted.
”How could this have been so perfectly packed and perfectly assembled with something that would be the delight of each child individually?” he said.
He said Karen recently had an older elementary class draw a story from the perspective of a penguin, and one child’s penguin watched a tree fall on a car and a house burning.
Dave described a class assignment, where geometry students were drawing pictures with shapes on a white board. One boy drew a detailed picture of his house, then quickly erased it.
“All gone,” he said, then added another doodle — “All gone, except these tennis shoes.”
Other children who didn’t lose their homes are also affected, Dave said. One student said they had to drive through the smoke, he’s going to school in a church and there are eight families living in his yard.
The entire area is affected with traffic jams like L.A. in Chico, more accidents, more demand on services and fewer places to rent, Dave said.
In a recent history lesson, Dave said they learned about the spread of Christianity in 300 AD and that one of the attractions was creating a community where people took care of each other.
“As they read that, I said, ‘Does any of this sound familiar to you?’” he said, and responses included, “That’s exactly what happened to us.”
Through the experience, Dave said he’s also seen the students returning kindness, including a child who was offered $300 but asked for it to be given to someone in greater need because her home didn’t burn down.
“I wanted to say thank you to the communities of John Day and Canyon City for reaching out with kindness and compassion to lift the lives and courage of others,” he said. “This time it was Butte County, California.”