In 2018 a terrifying natural disaster occurred in California. A wildfire, called the Camp Fire for the street it started on, began in Butte County and spread over the neighboring areas of Concow and Paradise. As the destruction escalated, countless people were made homeless. One such individual was Wayne Williamson. He lost everything he had, in fact. But in the aftermath of the fire, he happened to encounter a compassionate stranger.
The Camp Fire was the worst American wildfire in terms of fatalities since 1918. Many factors contributed to its creation, with low humidity and high winds among them. People first spotted the fire on Camp Creek Road on November 8, 2018, and the situation quickly turned into a major emergency.
Unfortunately, the location of the fire made it even more problematic. Camp Creek Road was an unpaved mountain track. Fire officer Captain Matt McKenzie recognized that disaster was coming and radioed in for water tanks and firefighters. But even as nearby communities started to evacuate, the fire grew stronger.
Paradise, a town of 30,000 people, was evacuated. But by that point the fire was so deadly that firefighters could only assist the evacuees, not hold back the blaze. “There was really no firefight involved,” Captain Scott McLean of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection told STL News. “These firefighters were in the rescue mode all day yesterday.”
Sadly, the death toll rose in the following days. It took until November 25 for the fire to be fully contained, in fact, and by then Concow and Paradise had both almost been wiped off the map. The air was also polluted from the debris, and recovery workers had to test for pollutants that could cause further damage.
Moreover, many people were left with little more than the clothes on their back and whatever they could grab as they fled. One high-school teacher, The Guardian reported, departed with just a pile of essays from her students and a blanket. Another woman, meanwhile, took food with her but left behind a valuable old mandolin.
It was a terrible tragedy. Nonetheless, stories of hope, heroism and human kindness did also emerge from the devastated region. For example, bus driver Kevin McKay drove 22 schoolkids out of the fire, at one point tearing the shirt off his back to make breathing filters for the kids. As a result, every last one of them survived.
And a 93-year-old woman named Margaret Newsum also found an unexpected savior. With the electricity supply down, she couldn’t call anyone for help when the order came to move out. Newsum subsequently waited outside her house for somebody to come by, and eventually a garbage truck appeared. The man driving it had been advised to go home, but he hadn’t done so.
The driver, Dane Ray Cummings, had been ordered to leave the area due to the approaching danger. Nonetheless, he’d kept driving in order to look in on the older people he knew were living on his route. It was a good thing that he did, because he found Newsum and got her into his truck, helping her at a time she couldn’t help herself.
Healthcare workers did their jobs under the most difficult of circumstances as well. Surgical nurses Nichole Jolly and Karen Davis helped evacuate their hospital, getting all the patients out in roughly 20 minutes. And as the fire started spreading towards the parking lot, they then began getting themselves to safety.
On the road, however, the fire was much worse. Jolly was saved by firefighters after being forced to flee her vehicle and eventually met Davis again at a hospital triage center. Both had assumed the other had perished. However, there was barely any time for reunions, as escapees from the fire were arriving with injuries.
“There were maybe 50 patients that weren’t admitted but came because they had no other place to go,” Davis told NBC on November 11, 2018. “And there were about five or six dogs, so we filled bedpans with water for the dogs.” As firefighters worked to stop the flames reaching them, the nurses continued to help people.
Eventually, the medics were forced to evacuate, and once again they made sure the patients went ahead of them. The situation was still very dangerous, however. “When we got everyone evacuated, Nichole and I got in a doctor’s car, and we drove,” Davis told NBC. “It was thick smoke where we had to look at the stripe on the road to make it through, and there was a downed power line we had to drive over… and then the air opened up.”
“Nichole and I, we stuck together and people go, ‘You’re a hero.’ But when we got back to hospital after losing our vehicles, we just kicked into that mode,” Davis told NBC. “It wasn’t anything heroic. It was just: we have to do this, we’ve got to do that.” In addition, the nurses’ own homes were destroyed by the fire.
A lot of the evacuees from Paradise ended up in the neighboring town of Chico, where the Red Cross started creating emergency centers for those who needed them. And once the immediate danger of the Camp Fire was finally gone, the survivors and the residents of Chico began to look after each other.
Survivor Denise McClaskey told her story to USA Today on November 26, 2018. “It’s unreal, the people who have helped us in Chico, restaurants we’ve gone in and eaten and they could tell I’m in tears. They’ll buy our meal,” she said. “And then the next day, go in again and try to pay them and they’re like, ‘Nope, as long as you’re here, you’re not going to pay us.’ Everybody’s been really, really kind.”
Other people set to work helping the animals that had been lost and injured during the fire. Jeff Evans, one of the few people left in Concow, began searching for animals in need of rescue and taking them in. He also fielded requests from neighbors who were unable to get back into town and wanted to know if their houses were still standing. Unfortunately, they usually weren’t.
A steady stream of donations also came in from people wanting to help the survivors. Stations giving out clothing and other essentials were established in Chico. And when the Paradise Adventist Academy went to play a volleyball game against Forest Lake Christian School, their rivals surprised them with new clothes, equipment and thousands of dollars.
Yet there were still problems. The scale of the destruction was so vast that such issues were sadly inevitable. News crews subsequently went out to interview the displaced people. And one of them was Wayne Williamson, who had lost not only his home in the wildfires but also his place of work. He was going to be unemployed for the foreseeable future as a result.
So Williamson, along with many other former Paradise residents, found himself in a bad place. He was living in a hastily constructed “village” in a Walmart lot. “I think it’s not gonna last long here. It’s not sustainable. The rains are coming. With all these low spots, it’s gonna fill up with water. I see a lot of trash,” he told KTVU.
Problems such as these were what Willianson had to contend with as he began hitchhiking to a job interview. He had to travel from Yuba to Chico, in fact, with no car. Willianson told ABC10 what his mindset had been like at that time. “I can’t think. I can’t formulate thoughts,” he recalled. “A million things are on my mind. So, I tell myself, ‘Just keep walking a little further.’”
There was help on the way for Williamson, though, and it came in the form of a driver on the road. “This car pulls up right next to me. I’m not even paying attention, and this gentleman, he looks decent,” Williamson told ABC10. “I’m like, ‘Oh my God, I got a ride!’” In fact, Williamson ended up receiving even more than that.
Williamson subsequently detailed the whole encounter in a Facebook post. “This man is amazing!” he wrote beside a picture of himself and his unexpected savior. “I’m hitchhiking from Yuba City to Chico for a job interview today because my company is no longer on the map. This man picks me up, we start talking, finding out we were neighbors in Paradise.”
“He takes me all the way to my interview and waits for me, buys me lunch, asks me for my phone number,” Williamson continued. “I explain somehow in all the confusion I lost my phone during evacuation. He buys me a new phone after I tell him please no. I wish you the best Greg in your new adventures, I’ll never forget today and your kindness… and I have a new job.”
The “Greg” whom Williamson encountered was Greg Beyelia, another Paradise resident. “Something told me, I think God told me, let this guy have a ride,” Beyelia told ABC10. “So, I pulled over and he jumped in, and we didn’t know each other. And we started talking and realized we both came out of that fire.”
Beyelia himself had also had an encounter with a kind stranger upon evacuating the town. “I told people I ran out of gas, and one lady pulls up and she’s like, ‘You need a lift?’” he told ABC10. “‘Yes, I do.’ And we rode all the way down the left lane.” So Beyelia ended up paying forward that act of charity with one of his own.
Williamson’s Facebook post then went viral, picking up almost 280,000 likes, 27,000 comments and 69,000 shares. “What a wonderful gift you were given! God bless this man and his generous nature. Congratulations on your new job!” read one comment. “Tragedy brings out Humanity!” somebody else wrote.
Another person who discovered the Facebook thread, a woman called Judy Ann Cortez-Garcia, happened to be an acquaintance of Beyelia. “I know Greg personally,” she wrote beneath Williamson’s post. “He was one of my veteran clients whom I met in 2012, helped him get his VA benefits, helped him get back on his feet etc.”
“He moved to Paradise from Fresno in the spring of this year. When I first heard of the fires in Paradise, I thought about Greg,” Cortez-Garcia continued. “I was able to hear from him the Monday following the breakout of the fires, and boy it was such a relief knowing he was alive and well. He did lose everything in the fire.”
“So, Wayne, if you could help Greg out in any way you can that would be the best way to pay him back,” Cortez-Garcia added. “Greg is a kind man, and I’m glad you were able to meet him.” Williamson responded graciously. “Well, basically he is my dad now, and I’m telling him all the time, anything I can do for him I’m there until the end,” Williamson wrote.
Williamson told ABC10 that the whole event “brought tears to my eyes [and] opened my heart.” He sang the praises of Beyelia, the new friend he’d made in terrible circumstances. And Williamson was impressed that “someone who had been through so much could share still and reach out still and help somebody else.”
Moreover, Williamson eventually began to put the past behind him. In January 2019, for example, he posted a picture of something he’d recovered from one of the fires, an object burned beyond all recognition. “This was at my work, emotions all over again,” he said of it. And later on, Williamson updated his profile picture to read “Paradise Strong.”
Unfortunately, there is still a lot of work to do to render Paradise livable once again. In February 2019 NPR interviewed some of the people working towards that goal. “We’ve been staring at these same businesses and these same homes, burned down in our neighborhoods for over two months,” volunteer Duane Crowder said.
In addition, the water in Paradise also isn’t safe to drink anymore thanks to the fire. Toxic substances entered the water supply and contaminated it. An aid station set up at the Magalia Baptist Church gave away hundreds of cases of bottled water in the aftermath of the fire, but services like that won’t be able to continue on forever.
A lot of people have given up on the idea of rebuilding their homes, if they even entertained it in the first place. Trauma keeps people away, too. “We just don’t want to go back up there,” Bob Oslin told NPR. “I don’t know if I could sleep well if I woke up at two o’clock in the morning and heard the wind blowing 40 miles [per hour] and it’s 80 degrees out.”
In addition, many of those who escaped Paradise and the wildfire struggle with survivors’ guilt. Some who didn’t lose their houses feel bad that they were spared, for example. “I feel guilty for not being happier that it’s still standing,” survivor Brook MacKay told the L.A. Times in November 2018. “But what use is a home in a destroyed community?”
It’s a matter of debate whether Paradise should be rebuilt, in fact. With the threat of climate change and more wildfires hanging over the whole area, not all locals are sure it would be a good move. “We see these populations coming out of Paradise, they want to stay with their community, they’ve been here for decades,” housing authority director Ed Mayer told NPR. “But really, that’s not an option.”
Those who are determined to stay in Paradise want to make it work, however. And in March 2019 the first permit was issued to rebuild a house in the town. It went to Jason and Meagann Buzzard, who had reportedly never even considered leaving town after the fire. Nonetheless, that’s just one home out of more than 10,000 that burned down.
Still, a lot of money has been put into the rebuilding of Paradise. Some $2 billion has gone towards that goal, in fact, thanks to the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the state of California. Steps are also being taken to ensure that such a disaster isn’t repeated. California is preparing to use the National Guard, for instance, to take away dead trees and other objects that could cause a future wildfire to spread.
Many people who lost things in the fire are grieving the loss of the community more than anything else. It’s a situation that’s almost impossible to understand for those who haven’t lived through a natural disaster. Schools, shops, all sorts of meeting places have gone. Nonetheless, small acts of kindness such as the one bestowed upon Wayne Williamson prove that community spirit, at least, survived.