Ground zero

Historic church is the epicenter for Camp Fire relief

Willie Snow and Laurette Smith have lived in an RV on the Magalia Community Church grounds for about five months.

Willie Snow and Laurette Smith have lived in an RV on the Magalia Community Church grounds for about five months.

Photo by Andre Byik

An unabridged version of this story and more coverage marking one year since the Camp Fire is available at

The dragon chased Willie Snow out of Magalia.

That’s the way he remembers the Camp Fire. A ferocious blaze that he said seemed to instinctively track and pursue the living.

Snow and his longtime partner, Laurette Smith, both 60, snaked through Paradise in a Nissan Sentra to escape the flames—at times surrounded by walls of fire and pitch-black conditions. Vehicles lined either side of the road. Some had people in them. Others were abandoned.

“When we left, I remember going through three, maybe four walls of fire, and the only reason we didn’t run off the road is because I knew it was a straight road, and I didn’t want to turn around,” said Snow.

The fire destroyed the couple’s home. A recycler paid $35 for their scorched car.

In the months that followed, Snow and Smith lived out of a white Ford van—first at the Walmart parking lot in Chico, then at Lowe’s. About five months ago, the duo moved to the grounds of the historic Magalia Community Church, a ground zero of sorts for survivor relief efforts on the Ridge. A year after the fire, the property surrounding the house of worship is filled with RVs, including the one donated to Snow and Smith. Since December, it’s also been the site of a recovery center offering clothes, furniture and weekly rations of food.

The couple consider themselves lucky.

Smith works as a security guard in Chico, clocking 40-plus hours a week. Snow is a former mechanic. He helps around the church, acting as a parking adviser and keeping watch on the grounds.

But did they envision being nomads a year after the Camp Fire sparked?

“No, man,” Snow told Chico News & Review. “I thought we’d be back to normal by now. At least in a different place.”

“At least have a permanent home,” Smith added.

Pastor Kevin Lindstrom presides over the Magalia Community Church. He landed there eight years ago, after working in the film industry as an editor in Culver City and then earning his master’s degree in education and leadership from the Golden Gate Southern Baptist Seminary. A family friend who attended the historic nondenominational Ridge church had told him the former pastor was set to retire.

Before the fire, the future of the church was in question. Its congregation was aging and shrinking, Lindstrom said. On Nov. 8, he and his wife, Sandy, fled their home in upper Magalia and traveled to Southern California, where they have another home. The Woolsey Fire was raging at the same time, and the couple’s Simi Valley residence was on evacuation watch.

About a month passed before the Lindstroms returned to the Ridge. They found their home intact and scorched buildings and burned-out sheds at the church property. But the historic chapel, whose construction traces back to the 1850s, had survived. The couple credit neighbors who fought the flames, they said, using dirt and a chainsaw.

Nearly a year after the fire, the church is greatly needed. But it’s the practical necessities—more so than spiritual offerings—that the region has come to rely upon.

Pastor Kevin Lindstrom of Magalia Community Church and his wife Sandy jumped into relief efforts as soon as they returned to the Ridge.

Photo by Andre Byik

A struggle for housing

Each month, the church serves thousands of fire survivors. According to data collected for the month of September, nearly 4,000 families—323 of which were new to the congregation—used the recovery center. Most reported they either live or had lived in Magalia or Paradise. Others had traveled from surrounding cities and hamlets, including Chico, Oroville, Yankee Hill, Concow and Stirling City, though others had come from as far away as Redding.

The church also saw a sharp increase in September of survivors living in a house, apartment or rental property. Nearly 600 families reported living in such accommodations, up from about 250 in August.

“That is very concerning to me,” said Doreen Fogle, a recovery center volunteer who has been lending a hand since last Christmas, “because it says people that have been in homes and haven’t needed help all of a sudden now need help.”

The cost to rebuild or find a new home is a common, significant barrier, Fogle said.

Sandy Lindstrom recalled the early weeks following the fire, when the Red Cross asked if the church could serve as a distribution center for supplies, including nonperishable food and warm clothes. The Lindstroms agreed, and the relief organization dumped “tons” of supplies in the church’s hall, said, “Thank you,” and left, she said.

“We looked at each other,” Sandy continued, “and said, ’Um?’”

The Red Cross was the primary relief organization immediately after the fire, but the last of its facilities closed at the end of January.

The Lindstroms called in support in the form of friends and church members. Other outside relief—such as Operation Blessing, the relief arm of the Christian Broadcasting Network—began coming in as well. After the camp site set up for survivors at the Walmart parking lot was cleared, the church was asked if it could provide meals and a place for some people to stay.

“Basically, our whole response to any question is … if God is leading us to do it, we do it,” said Kevin Lindstrom. The church, which has a commercial kitchen, began serving three meals a day and started allowing church members who lost everything to live on the property. An electric company installed RV hookups on-site, and the church continued allowing people to live on the property into the new year.

Shell Morley, the Magalia Community Church’s financial manager, said the facility’s PG&E bill is about $5,000 per month; the trash bill is about $2,000, water runs about $500. And food costs can total about $2,300 per week.

The operation relies heavily on donations, though a $50,000 grant recently awarded through the North Valley Community Foundation will help keep it open for the winter months.

The pastor estimates about two dozen people still live on the church property, mostly in RVs. Folks living on the grounds say that number is higher.

“Originally, when people asked us how long we’d be here, we thought about other disasters and we said, ’Well, probably 18 months to two years,’” Sandy said. “Because that’s … pretty much what you hear before people are back on their feet.”

But the unprecedented level of destruction wrought by the Camp Fire has upended those expectations.

Church officials say the biggest need nowadays is food. People are forgoing groceries to pay for gas to get to work below the Ridge. Survivors can “shop” at the church’s hall once per week, walking away with bread, cereal and assorted canned foods. Toiletries also are available. Everything is free.

On a recent Tuesday, a line snaked through the lobby of the food distribution center and spilled outside. Indoors, survivors checked in with Fogle, who was quick to offer a warm smile and help new visitors register. More of the church’s volunteers—many of whom lost their homes in the fire—were waiting in the wings, leading each household through rows of shelves with canned and boxed goods, various toiletries and even some novelty items: small potted succulents and LEGO sets.

Kaitlin Norton was there that day with her 18-month-old son, Josh. While her home in Magalia wasn’t destroyed, her family lost it all the same: They were renters, and the owner needed to move back in after losing his home in the fire. For now, they’ve been staying in an RV on a friend’s property—they are looking to buy, but the cost of living is steep, and fire insurance is tricky to secure.

Norton said she has felt financial pressure mounting after the fire, with more of her family’s expenses going to rising gas and food costs. “There’s just not enough to cover everything,” she said.

The church has been a “life-saver,” she told CN&R. Without it, “there’d be months where we didn’t have diapers or wipes or food.”