Home Trendy News Camp Fire survivors gather for Thanksgiving feast: ‘We still have our hearts’

Camp Fire survivors gather for Thanksgiving feast: ‘We still have our hearts’

Camp Fire survivors gather for Thanksgiving feast: ‘We still have our hearts’

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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, bspillman@rgj.com

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.

List: Names of people missing in the Camp Fire

Watch: Scenes of destruction from the Camp Fire

Chef Guy Fieri is among the hundreds of volunteers in downtown Chico, Calif., preparing Thanksgiving dinner on the morning of Nov. 22, 2018 for  evacuees of the Camp Fire in Northern California.

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Chef Cheryl Fulton of San Francisco loads a tray of salad onto a cart in an auditorium kitchen on the Chico State University campus on Nov. 22, 2018. Fulton is among volunteers preparing Thanksgiving dinner for evacuees from the Camp Fire in Paradise, Calif.

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Paul Love and his dog, CocoTwix, enjoy a Thanksgiving meal in an auditorium at Chico State University on Nov. 22, 2018. Love and his wife, Colleen, lost their home in the Camp Fire.

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Robert Stouffer of Yucaipa, Calif., checks the temperature of one of the many turkeys volunteers will serve evacuees from the Camp Fire. Volunteers like Stouffer, a retired CalFire firefighter, started cooking long before sunrise on Nov. 22, 2018. Stouffer is the Southern California State Lead for Operation BBQ Relief, which provides hot meals to disaster victims. The cooker holds 48 birds at once. Stouffer drove it from Yucaipa just days after returning from extended stints at other disasters, including more than 50 days in the southeast U.S. following hurricanes.

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Volunteers in Chico, Calif., get marching instructions from chef José Andrés as they prepare to serve Thanksgiving dinner to evacuees from the Camp Fire on Nov. 18, 2018.

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Chef Jose Andrés in the kitchen of the Bell Memorial Union Auditorium on the Chico State University campus in Chico, Calif., on Nov. 22, 2018. The renowned chef, who was still mourning the recent death of his father, Mariano Andrés, was among hundreds of volunteers cooking Thanksgiving dinner for evacuees from the Camp Fire which devastated the nearby town of Paradise, Calif.

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Val Armstrong, a chef from San Francisco, stirs gravy in preparation for Thanksgiving dinner for Camp Fire evacuees on Nov. 22, 2018. Armstrong said she read about the need for cooks at the disaster site and it reminded her of how fires last year near Santa Rosa affected her sister. “I really couldn’t think of anything but coming up here,” Armstrong said.

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Katya Phillips (bak to camera) prepares to to serve evacuees from the Camp Fire a Thanksgiving meal. Phillips also lost her home to the fire.

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Misty Sullivan, 47, Madison Sullivan, 12, and Katya Phillips, 33, lost homes in the Camp Fire in Paradise, Calif. They volunteered to serve Thanksgiving meals to other displaced residents on Nov. 22, 2018.

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Colleen Love of Paradise, Calif., gets a Thanksgiving meal along with other evacuees from the Camp Fire on Nov. 22, 2018 in Chico, Calif. Love is among thousands of people who lost homes in the fire.

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Jane and Justine Balsiger, who are mother and daughter, show photos of the family's Paradise, Calif., home before and after it burned in the Camp Fire.

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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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