MAGALIA, CALIF. - One year after the deadliest and most devastating fire in California, Natalie Fox still does not have a place she can call home.
“I don’t feel like I belong anywhere. I don’t feel like I’m safe anywhere. And that’s really hard,” Fox said.
Before the Camp Fire, Fox lived in Magalia, a community in Northern California near the town of Paradise. It was like living in a forest, with homes nestled among tall trees. Her house stood behind the historic Magalia Community Church.
On Nov. 8, 2018, fire destroyed about 90% of Paradise and much of the surrounding communities. According to the California governor’s office, before the fire, there were about 26,800 people in Paradise. Now, just more than 2,000 remain.
Magalia’s population was 11,310, but the fire destroyed 2,158 houses, leaving many in the community homeless, including Fox.
She had been living with her mother and now, in a friend’s trailer. Coping with being displaced and the trauma of the fire has not been easy.
“One day, I just looked at an old bill, and I just start crying. Somebody yelled ‘fire’ one day, and I just started crying,” Fox said.
Symbol of solace
The small, one-room church — a brown wooden A-frame building with a white door, white trim, a steeple and a white cross on top — has become much more to Fox and the remaining residents. It has become a symbol of solace.
Behind the Magalia Community Church is a large parking lot where people with motorhomes can park. Next to it is a much larger modern building that has become a refuge for Fox and other Camp Fire survivors who are physically, emotionally and spiritually exhausted, and hungry for help.
Since the fire, the larger building has been serving as a distribution center where fire survivors can pick up fresh produce, food, clothing and household items once a week. There are even trailers with showers and laundry facilities on-site for those displaced by the fire. Counseling is also available.
About 300 people of all ages come daily for provisions, because for many survivors, not much is normal one year after the fire.
“Unfortunately, here we are. We just celebrated the anniversary of the fire, and we’re still in basically a catastrophe mode,” Kevin Lindstrom, pastor of Magalia Community Church, said. “People are still living in trailers, in cars, in tents, and still because we also lost a lot of jobs in Paradise.”
There are no houses for people to rent, and rebuilding on now-empty lots will also take time.
The church was almost lost, but a few brave men saved it.
“We are so blessed by four men who stayed and helped fight the fire around the church using dirt that they’re throwing on the fire from their hands. In fact, one of the guys just told me that when the tree close to the chapel would catch fire, he was literally beating the bark of the tree with his hands,” Lindstrom said.
About four weeks after the Camp Fire, after Lindstrom returned and started cleaning up the area, the Red Cross saw the space and asked if the church grounds could become a distribution center.
“We said, ‘Whatever God wants us to do, we’ll do it,’ and it’s just blossomed from there,” Lindstrom said.
The Red Cross left a long time ago, but the donations kept coming from across the U.S.
The main building behind the church has shelves and tables of dried goods, fresh vegetables, toiletries and new clothes. A separate tent houses used clothes for men, women and children. Another tent contains books, toys and other household items. There is even a tent filled with furniture for residents who eventually find a home.
“Everything that we have taken in, somebody needs it,” Lindstrom said.
He said the church’s distribution center is beholden to volunteers, many of whom also lost their homes to the fire. However, helping other survivors has strengthened his and the volunteers’ faith, Lindstrom said.
“We see miracles happen here every day. During the summer, our utility bill used to be $300 or $400. (It) went to $5,000, and two times in a row, we would get the bill for $5,000 and a check for $5,000 (would come) in the same mail,” Lindstrom said.
“It’s like blessings like that have happened over and over again,” he said.
Lindstrom’s newfound role in the community in the past year has reaffirmed his faith journey, he said.
Before becoming a pastor, Lindstrom worked in the motion picture industry as a driver and film editor. He said he felt a calling for the church and, after retiring from making movies, he went back to school and eventually found himself at the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, as pastor of the Magalia Community Church.
The distribution center and the “angel” volunteers have become a source of hope and comfort for the survivors who seek help.
“It is (a comfort), to know that people that are from here are here to help. That’s nice,” Fox said.
Lindstrom said he will keep the distribution center open as long as there is a need and the donations continue to come.
“God has just been so busy in this community,” he said.