In photo above, Jim Collins (center), grand knight of St. Thomas More Council 7773 in Paradise, stands with fellow members David Lemire (left) and Greg Kidder in front of the gutted rectory of St. Thomas More Church.
David Lemire was dropping off his 10-year-old daughter at school last November when he noticed smoke moving over the steeple of St. Thomas More Catholic Church. Minutes later, the smoke became darker. Then dense ash the size of potato chips starting falling from the sky.
Lemire became worried and informed Greg Kidder, the facility manager at St. Thomas More, that he was leaving with his daughter and son to pack supplies.
Today, ash is all that remains of approximately 19,000 buildings, including the homes of 69 Knights, in Paradise, Calif. At least 86 people lost their lives and 90 percent of the town’s residences were razed in the state’s deadliest and most destructive wildfire. Dubbed the Camp Fire, because it began on Camp Creek Road in Butte County, the blaze burned for two weeks, scorching over 150,000 acres.
Heavy winds caused the inferno to spread rapidly Nov. 8, and within hours it engulfed Paradise. Many of the town’s 27,000 residents, including members of St. Thomas More Council 7773, barely escaped, leaving their possessions behind.
“Paradise has been compared to Hiroshima after the Bomb,” said Grand Knight Jim Collins. “It’s not much of an exaggeration.”
Several members, including Lemire and Kidder, acted swiftly to save others, even as their own homes were about to be devoured by the flames. Joined by Collins and other local K of C leaders, they have since been instrumental in relief efforts. Meanwhile, Knights around the country also responded, sending supplies as well as donating more than $200,000 to assist in the recovery.
ESCAPE FROM PARADISE
When Lemire returned home with his children Nov. 8, he told his daughter to start filling the truck with clothes and other provisions while he checked on their elderly neighbor, Peggy, whom he had been helping for the past year.
“I told her, ‘Look, we got to get out of here, I think there’s a serious fire coming up the ridge,’” Lemire recalled.
Peggy refused to leave. But over the next half hour, the situation became critical. Lemire heard the sound of exploding propane tanks and people screaming in the distance. The sky became pitch black.
“I ended up having to pull her from her bathroom to the front door, and she started crying,” he said. “I kept saying, ‘I love you. I can’t leave you here!’”
Lemire helped Peggy to her car, raced back to collect her medicine and then evacuated the premises.
By now, the raging fire had reached his own doorstep, and there was no time left for Lemire to hook up his trailer. As he drove through the inferno, he told his children to keep their heads down and away from the windows.
“Fire was on both sides of the street,” Lemire said. “I could hear the whistling of the propane tanks, the relief valves going off. I could hear explosions. It sounded like a war zone.”
Lemire would know. A veteran of the Iraq War, he retired in 2007 after 25 years of service in the U.S. Army and U.S. Air Force.
He and his children prayed during the 20-mile drive to Chico, a trip that usually took 40 minutes but lasted more than five hours.
Kidder, meanwhile, was busy coordinating the evacuation plan back at the church and school, together with St. Thomas More’s pastor, Father Godwin Xavier. When he had first seen the smoke a few miles away, Kidder was unconcerned, since previous fires had always been contained. Before long, however, an emergency order to evacuate was issued.
“It was a matter of hours,” recalled Kidder, whose priority was the safety of the more than 220 students. A steady flow of parents soon began picking up their children.
“When we got most everyone off the property, we were down to 23 students, and we had to load them into cars,” Kidder said.
The cars, driven by staff, headed to an assembly point in Chico. Kidder stayed behind to check every room in the church and school and to shut off the gas and electricity.
“It was one of those things where you just act,” he said. “For me, it was executing the plan — processing what needs to be done, and crossing things off my list.”
Rubble lines a residential lot after the Camp Fire, burning in the distance Nov. 9, consumed a neighborhood on Skyway Road in Paradise. AP Photo/Noah Berger
In Chico, Jim Collins made an effort to contact all of the Knights in his council, and he learned that 69 had lost their homes.
“In my own neighborhood, six homes out of about 60 were left,” he said. “In other areas, where you had 100 homes, it was zero.”
Kidder also made phone calls to confirm the welfare of parishioners.
“The day after the fire, I just focused on our people. We made a gallant effort to gather them and keep them together,” Kidder said. “What they had was gone.”
Lemire went from shelter to shelter offering his services, volunteering up to 20 hours a day. He became a hub of information and helped place about a dozen families in homes.
The St. Thomas More community initially found refuge at the Newman Catholic Center in Chico, as well as support from St. John the Baptist Church and Chico Council 1137.
Later, the parish set up administrative offices at Our Divine Savior Catholic Church, also in Chico. There, Knights from Paradise collaborated with members of Henry F. Giroud- Robert Heimann Council 13765. Council 1137 also set up a centralized distribution center and hosted free dinners for displaced parishioners.
When Kidder arranged a campground in an empty lot next to the church, Lemire offered to put to use the engineering skills he learned in the military. He cleared the land and, together with local Knights, installed plumbing, septic tanks and electricity. The lot now houses five RVs, including one for a widow of a Knight who died several days after the wildfire started.
For many, the big question is whether they will rebuild in the Paradise or not.
“A lot of people have been walking around in a zombie-like state, just overwhelmed by having to rebuild and trying to figure out their next move,” said Collins.
To assist victims, Collins established a disaster relief initiative to distribute supplies and funds to those in need, with the motto “Arise and Rebuild.” Following Sunday Masses, Collins and other Knights, including Kidder, have handed out pillows, blankets, backpacks filled with supplies and over $10,000 in gift cards. The initiative has also raised $140,000 to cover one year of rent payments for 10 families in the community.
“If we just chip away at it, person by person, and we use the money wisely, we should be able to plug the holes in the dike and help folks get back on their feet,” said Collins.
Ronald Galla, a member of Council 7773, greets parishioners during a lunch Knights organized at Our Divine Savior Catholic Church in Chico.
MOVED BY CHARITY
Nearly two months after the Camp Fire left his neighborhood in ruins, Collins was allowed to evaluate the damage to his home.
“We have water now, but we can’t drink it because it hasn’t been purified,” Collins said. “We’re one of the lucky ones; at least we have something to go back to.”
Kidder and Lemire both lost their homes. It took Kidder almost a month to find a semi-permanent residence, an apartment in Chico, for him and his wife. Lemire currently lives on the campsite he helped set up and continues to maintain while assisting other service projects in the area.
In the weeks following the fire, Lemire heard from Peggy’s daughter, who thanked him for saving her mother’s life.
“The Knights at all levels have jumped in there and participated in the outreach,” said Kidder. “There’s guys within the parish who are saying, ‘I need to become a Knight, because they really take care of each other.’”
To help victims of the California wildfires through the Knights of Columbus donate to kofc.org/disaster.
To donate to the Diocese of Sacramento's Fire Assistance Fund to assist victims of the recent Northern California fires, visit https://www.scd.org/catholic-foundation/fire-assistance-fund.
ANDREW FOWLER is a content producer for the Knights of Columbus Communications Department. This article is reprinted with permission from the February 2019 issue of Columbia Magazine.