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In Paradise, finding reasons for gratitude amid destruction of California fire

In Paradise, finding reasons for gratitude amid destruction of California fire
A young Camp fire evacuee waits in line to receive a free Thanksgiving meal Thursday in Chico, Calif. (Justin Sullivan / Getty Images)

As of Thanksgiving Day, the devastation logged by the Camp fire in Northern California was nearly 14,000 homes, more than 150,000 acres and at least 83 lives.

Some of the thousands displaced by the fire, mostly from the town of Paradise, said they nonetheless counted themselves among the lucky and found things to be grateful for this Thanksgiving. Here are their stories.

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Steve Weathington, 67, and his girlfriend, Irene Schwab, 65, are pretty sure their "little green house in the forest" is no more — but they made it out with their two trucks and four pets.
Steve Weathington, 67, and his girlfriend, Irene Schwab, 65, are pretty sure their "little green house in the forest" is no more — but they made it out with their two trucks and four pets. (Corina Knoll / Los Angeles Times)

For the kindness of strangers, and the capacity to start over

They called it their little green house in the forest. A two-bedroom mobile home with a birdbath out front on Skyway where deer and bobcats roamed.

It is probably gone, they think, because they have seen a map of the burn area — a cloud of red over where they lived for four years.

Steve Weathington, 67, and his girlfriend, Irene Schwab, 65, now lay their heads on green cots in an exhibit hall at the Yuba-Sutter Fairgrounds. Their possessions are few, but they made it out with their two trucks, two dogs and two cats. A fortune compared to what others escaped with, they know.

The morning the fire broke out, the couple had sat down to waffles and eggs when they noticed the sky was a smoky orange. Schwab went outside to settle a patio umbrella that was thrashing in the wind. A manager of their mobile home park started driving around honking.

Grabbing clothes, toiletries, medicine and the animals, Weathington hopped into his truck. Schwab followed behind in hers.

“It was burning on both sides of the road — you could feel the heat from the flames.” Schwab recalled. It took them more than three hours to get to Chico, usually a 25-minute drive.

They are grateful to be alive, to have had insurance on their home, to be capable and willing to start somewhere new. They may stay and find a place in Yuba City, a community they’ve grown to appreciate.

When they venture out of the shelter, an act of kindness is usually bestowed upon them. Waitresses have bought them dinner, a barber refused money for a haircut. They have picked out clothes for free and marveled over the donations that file in daily.

“We get a little teary-eyed because it’s really emotional,” said Weathington, a retired commercial painter and veteran of the U.S. Marines, his eyes growing red.

Still, the timing of everything is hard to take. The couple used to host Thanksgiving dinner for family with a spread of traditional fare, including pumpkin cheesecake and homemade biscuits. The holiday rings a bit hollow now, eliciting memories of what they once had.

Patrick Sweeney, 60, lost his Paradise home to the Camp fire but was feeling grateful for an RV offered to him by a stranger, a new home found for him by his brother and a fresh start.
Patrick Sweeney, 60, lost his Paradise home to the Camp fire but was feeling grateful for an RV offered to him by a stranger, a new home found for him by his brother and a fresh start. (Laura Newberry / Los Angeles Times)

For a temporary roof and bright green Chuck Taylors

On the day before Thanksgiving, Patrick Sweeney sat beneath an awning at Bidwell Junior High School in Chico and watched the rain fall.

Sweeney had been at the temporary shelter for Camp fire evacuees for five days. This was his last. Like so many others, he lost his home in Paradise, a condominium next to the high school he had lived in for two years after retiring from his job as a computer drafter.

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The 60-year-old was alone at the shelter. His pug-chihuahua mix, whom he shared the condo with, was being taken care of at the Chico airport. He buys books at the Goodwill down the street and tears through them. It keeps his mind busy.

Sweeney insisted he feels lucky, despite it all.

A benevolent woman offered her RV to him, no questions asked, after connecting with him on a website made for evacuees in search of housing. That’s where he will stay until he moves into a condo in Chico in January. His brother, a well-connected money manager, found the place for him. It hadn’t even been put on the market yet.

Gazing down at a pair of bright green Chuck Taylors he got for free at the Goodwill, Sweeney said he is grateful for the food and water and clothes given to him by the Red Cross. He is grateful for a fresh start, even though he was not prepared for one.

“I feel like a different person. Part of me is lost up there,” he said of Paradise, “and part of me is found down here.”

This sense of peace has not come easy. Sweeney has been talking to a minister at the shelter to work through his trauma. He is often overwhelmed by confusion. Many years sober, he’s had an urge to drink over the last two weeks. But he hasn’t given in yet.

He is proud of that.

“I don’t want to go backwards. I want to go forward,” he said. “I want to feel and understand and maybe even help people along the way.”

Victoria Gray watches her mother, Tamra, try on shoes she bought for her. The family lost their Paradise home of 20 years and three dogs in the Camp fire.
Victoria Gray watches her mother, Tamra, try on shoes she bought for her. The family lost their Paradise home of 20 years and three dogs in the Camp fire. (Laura Newberry / Los Angeles Times)

For family to support her through it all

Tamra Gray’s Facebook friends have started posting photos of their newly decorated Christmas trees. When she stumbles upon the images of normalcy, she can barely hold it together.

“It’s hard to think about the holidays right now,” she said as she sat at a table in the Chico Mall food court, where she and her husband were discussing their options with a home insurance company representative. “I don’t have a home to put a tree in right now.”

Gray and her husband, Scott, lived in their Paradise home on Oak Way for 20 years. What she will miss the most are the pine trees in her backyard and the cool shade they provided, a simple pleasure she could count on even when the mercury hit 100.

At 10 a.m. the day of the fire, Gray’s 19-year-old son, Dylan, came running down the street. He had gotten stuck in gridlock traffic on Wagstaff Road. Seeing the plumes of black smoke ahead of him, he ditched his car in the closest parking lot and darted home, the only one he’s ever known.

“There’s a fire, we gotta get out,” he shouted. They had not received an evacuation alert.

Gray did not think the house would burn. They lived a block from a fire station. Before leaving, she touched a redwood keepsake box that contained her children’s first teeth. “If I take this to a shelter, it could get stolen,” she thought. She left it.

The family also left three dogs behind, taking several others with them in separate cars. Gray’s thinking was this: If there was looting, the big dogs would protect the home. Gray found the dogs’ remains when she returned to Paradise last week. She is consumed by guilt.

Gray, and her family — four adults and two kids — are staying in an RV as they search for a rental. Her 29-year-old daughter, Shannon, also lost her home in Magalia.

“I feel lost. I just feel so homesick and I can’t seem to get past that yet,” Gray said, tearing up. “It’s hard for me to think about where I want to be in the future."

Just as she was being asked what she is grateful for on the eve of Thanksgiving, Gray’s teenage daughter, Victoria, bounded up to her in the food court smiling as she held several shopping bags.

“I got you shoes,” Victoria said, pulling out a pair of gray Champion slip-ons. “They were on sale.”

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Gray pulled off one of the brown Ugg boots she got at a shelter. She tried on a sneaker.

“I’m grateful that my family made it out alive,” Gray said, returning to the question. “It’s easy to answer that when it’s staring me right in the face. It’s when I’m alone that I go into a dark place.”

John Owens lost his home and car, but has his wife, dog and part-time manufacturing job keeping him going.
John Owens lost his home and car, but has his wife, dog and part-time manufacturing job keeping him going. (Ruben Vives / Los Angeles Times)

That his time on Earth isn’t over

John Owens, 57, lost his home and car in the fire. He said he was clinging on to what he had left: his wife, dog and a part-time manufacturing job.

Wearing a reddish hooded rain poncho, Owens shivered in the tent city erected in Chico for fire refugees.

Owens said he hasn’t left because transportation to his job is best from where he is now. He said he has to commute between Chico and Yuba City, about 45 miles.

“This stinks,” he said. “I told my boss I can’t hang here for too long. If it’s going to be like this, I won’t last long. I’ll have to quit my job and go to the shelter.”

He and his wife are sharing a tent together. They planned to have Thanksgiving with their daughter.

Owens didn’t want to stay with her because he didn’t want to be a burden. Despite the losses and his enduring the cold, wet weather, Owens said he’s grateful to be alive.

“You only got a short period of time on this place,” he said, referring to Earth. “You gotta have a good time.”

Duane D'Amico in Chico after fleeing flames in Paradise, Calif.
Duane D'Amico in Chico after fleeing flames in Paradise, Calif. (Ruben Vives / Los Angeles Times)

For his dog, Zero, and cat, Monkeys

Duane D’Amico and his dog, Zero, walked back and forth on a grassy knoll next to a Burger King in Chico as the rain poured.

Wearing a torn, smoke-stained Santa Claus hat, D’Amico, 60, said he lost his home in Paradise as he was trying to help save a neighbor’s home. He and his dog narrowly escaped the flames.

As the fire began to move into the town, D’Amico’s cat woke him up. He ran to his neighbors’ homes, kicking doors down at times to make sure they evacuated.

“My toes are black from all the kicking,” he said, adding that he didn’t feel the pain until now.

He said he saw some trailers blow up and assumed the explosions were from gas pipes and propane tanks left on.

Amid the chaos, he said his cat, Monkeys, jumped out of his gray Ford truck as he was packing to leave.

When he and his dog fled, the town was burning.

Since escaping, he has been sleeping in his truck. He doesn’t want to go to a shelter, noting that a norovirus outbreak was reported at one Chico evacuation center.

He has family in Los Angeles who will bring him a trailer even though they’ve invited him to stay with them. He has declined. He prefers to be close to his adult daughter, who lives nearby. He doesn’t want to stay with her and be a burden, he said.

The rain got heavier, and D’Amico stopped walking Zero and opened the driver’s side door of his truck. The dog hopped in.

“Things will be okay,” he said.

He is alive. Zero is alive. As for Monkeys?

“They found him 13 miles away with burned paws,” he said.

He’s grateful for the help he’s been getting. But as for enjoying a traditional Thanksgiving, he said, “there is none. There’s no Christmas either.”

“But things will be alright.”

Times staff writer Victoria Kim contributed to this report.

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