Guy Fieri provides his own brand of Thanksgiving disaster relief for Camp Fire evacuees in Chico, Calif. on Thursday, Nov. 22, 2018. He shares a turkey recipe, too.
Benjamin Spillman, firstname.lastname@example.org
On Nov. 8, the most destructive wildfire in California history turned Misty Sullivan’s life into chaos.
Two weeks later Sullivan, 47, got a chance to reclaim some order, if only for a few hours.
She and her daughter Madison, 12, were among the volunteers who turned out to serve Thanksgiving meals to survivors of the Camp Fire, an unprecedented inferno that destroyed nearly 14,000 homes and killed at least 83 people.
“We lost our stuff, we will get new stuff,” said Sullivan as she stood ready to serve evacuees. “This is what changes lives.”
Sullivan, who lost her house to the fire, said the community meal on the campus of Chico State University was a reminder of what makes home special.
“It was just nice to get off work and put my feet up,” she said. “And to have my daughter playing with her phone while I’m making dinner.”
Sullivan’s friend, Katya Phillips, 33, who also lost her home, said the decision to volunteer was a no-brainer.
“We lost everything, but we still have our hearts,” Phillips said.
The dinner Sullivan helped make Thursday was no small affair.
Organized with World Central Kitchen, an organization founded by celebrity chef José Andrés that provides warm, high quality meals in the aftermath of disasters, there was enough food to feed thousands of people across several locations.
Andrés wasn’t the only celebrity chef helping the cause. Outside the auditorium where Sullivan was serving dinner, chef Guy Fieri helmed several large cookers packed with turkeys.
Fieri brined 7,500 lbs. worth of turkeys with sage, rosemary, thyme, mustard, garlic, salt, pepper and olive oil and cooked them slowly at about 250 degrees.
“It is just super tender, delicious, great flavor,” Fieri said.
“It is all about reminiscent flavors you smelled when you were a kid when your mom and dad were cooking turkey in the house.”
Robert Stouffer was among those helping Fieri cook the birds. Stouffer towed a cooker big enough to roast 48 birds simultaneously from Yucaipa, Calif., nearly 550 miles from Chico.
Stouffer is a retired CalFire firefighter who went on to become the Southern California State Lead for Operation BBQ, a relief organization that provides hot meals in disaster areas.
“One year you are putting out fires and saving people, and this year starting fires and saving people,” Stouffer said. “Most people haven’t eaten in days in a disaster and you are giving them a hot meal, that counts.”
Back inside the auditorium, displaced residents loaded up plates and sat down at long banquet tables covered with white tablecloths.
Paul Love and his wife, Colleen, lost a home they spent decades improving. Since the fire they’ve bounced from a shelter, then to a hotel in Sacramento and then, when the rain tamped down smoke from the fire, they returned to Chico.
Love said he’s spent the days from the fire thinking about the phrase “Paradise strong,” instead of “Paradise lost.”
It was something he wanted to share with others who came in from the rain for a meal.
“We knew about this meal, we wanted to sit with and commiserate with our new friends and loved ones,” he said.
Nearby, Jane Balsiger laughed and joked with her daughter, Justine Balsiger, a student at Butte College in Oroville, Calif., and Justine’s boyfriend, Lenny Blumenthal.
Jane Balsiger lost a home she owned in Paradise and Justine and Lenny lost their apartment.
The trio cracked jokes about how they lost their homes but, somehow, the plastic flamingos that decorated their yards survived.
Although they kept the mood light, Justine Balsiger acknowledged that relief and joy aren’t the only emotions that come with survival.
“It comes in waves,” Justine Balsiger said about the emotional fallout of the disaster. “We are in good moods when we are talking to people we don’t know. When you are behind closed doors, it is a different story.”
Balsiger wasn’t the only person on an emotional journey.
Satellite images show how the Camp Fire destroyed nearly 12,000 homes in Paradise, California.
Just before service Sullivan recounted how she and Madison barely escaped Paradise with their lives.
She said they spent eight hours trapped in traffic and surrounded by flames. At one point they left the vehicle and soaked blankets in water while making plans to try and shelter in place with strangers.
“There was fire, there were propane tanks exploding,” Sullivan said. “I called my mother to tell her goodbye.”
From the safety and warmth of the auditorium, however, she preferred to count her blessings and think about the importance of a holiday meal to people who are displaced from home and tradition.
“It is sad, but it is good at the same time,” Sullivan said. “They have a place to socialize and be human, and human interaction is the most important thing.”
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