Devastation from the California wildfires has displaced tens of thousands of people, including members of the Oklahoma Christian University community.
The “Camp Fire” began spreading through Paradise, CA on the morning of Nov. 8 and has burned 149,000 acres thus far. Recent reports show the fire is 55 percent contained.
The death toll from the Camp Fire has risen to 76 confirmed fatalities, while the list of unaccounted persons has increased to 1,276, making it California’s deadliest wildfire in history.
The wildfire claimed the house of Harlo and Eleanor Southwick, grandparents of Oklahoma Christian sophomore Talynn Lee. Both of Lee’s parents, Geitzy Lee and Melanie Southwick Lee, are Oklahoma Christian alumni.
Eleanor Southwick said the Paradise community did not receive much warning about the Camp Fire because it began early in the morning outside the city and moved quickly.
“We’ve been through fire drills before, and that turned out to be very useful,” Eleanor Southwick said. “But this one was unique in the fact that no one knew there was a fire. It started eight miles outside of Paradise and it was about 6:30 in the morning and it was still dark. Most people had no clue there was a fire in the area. My son actually called just a few minutes before we got the mandatory call from the town. He lives in Chico and he could see the smoke from there.”
Eleanor Southwick and her husband were able to evacuate in time to their son’s home 15 miles away in Chico, CA, but were unable to save any of their possessions. Eleanor Southwick said she thought only for their safety as she left behind irreplaceable family heirlooms and photos during her last moments in their home.
“I had the mentality of, ‘If they say go, I’ll go and not take anything,’” Eleanor Southwick said. “I sat there a few seconds trying to grasp that I had to get out of there. Then, I grabbed some clothes by the door for my husband to put in the car. I walked by things that were irreplaceable that didn’t even compute in my mind to grab. I just walked through the house and I said, ‘Lord, this is your house, not mine. If You want me to have it, it will be here when I come back and if not, You have a plan.’ I got in the car and I left.”
Just a day after evacuating, it was confirmed the Southwick’s home had completely burned. Despite losing everything they owned, besides the clothes on their back, Eleanor Southwick said they kept their spirits up by focusing on their faith.
“I thought about it and realized that I had nothing when I was born, my husband and I got married and started with nothing and one day, God will take me home with nothing,” Eleanor Southwick said. “When I get there, I will have everything. God has a plan for me then, and He has one for me now. I looked in the mirror and said, ‘Yesterday, you had a house full of things. You’re standing here today with absolutely nothing and you’re still the same person you were yesterday.’ Our faith, our family, our friendships are intact.”
Talynn Lee said she is thankful for the people her grandparents have inspired and helped throughout their lives who are now stepping up to help them through this tragedy.
“My grandparents are some of the most inspiring people I’ve ever met,” Talynn Lee said. “There are so many people they welcomed into that house that weren’t family, but they treated like family. They are the type of people that would give up everything they have for other people. A lot of people who are giving and helping them are people who have been helped by them in the past. Seeing people that were helped by my grandparents in their times of need turn around and help them is amazing.”
People across the nation have reached out to provide food, supplies and shelter for the people of Paradise in the wake of the wildfire. Eleanor Southwick said the best things people can give are gift cards, so displaced people can get basic essentials they left behind in the evacuation.
“The responses to this have been wonderful,” Eleanor Southwick said. “There’s organizations and companies providing meals and supplies to people—just a lot of little things like trucking in food helps so much. What people really need are gift certificates to Target and Walmart—places people can physically get things they need like blankets, soap, an extra pair of shoes. A lot of people didn’t even have $10 in their pocket when they got out.”
Although it will take an estimated 18 months to two years for the Southwick’s to return to Paradise, Eleanor Southwick said she is just happy her loved ones survived and showed her gratitude for the tightly knit community formed through the hardship.
“We spoke to many people we know that drove out of Paradise through flames,” Eleanor Southwick said. “We have heard from four of our neighbors, and we think all of our friends got out safely. It is one community—we are one through the kindness, the goodness, the positivity that we’re seeing in the responses to our tragedy.”