In November 2018, Elizabeth Jernberg was preparing to make her lifelong dream a reality: She was gearing up for the grand opening of her first food truck and arcade store, a family-owned business in Paradise, California.
But days before the November 13 opening, the Camp Fire tore through the town, burning Jernberg’s dream – and most of the town – to the ground. It was the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California history.
Jernberg’s home, which was in a neighboring town, sustained fire damage but was deemed livable. But the arcade attractions and the food truck, which she had named E&J’s Mobile Kitchen, were gone.
“All my dreams were taken away,” Jernberg told CNN. “I have always dreamed of having a restaurant, and I was just so close.”
That month was among the worst of her life – but Jernberg said it also opened her eyes to the needs of fire survivors like her. As she navigated the next steps of recovery with her husband and three teenage daughters, the first step became finding a way to rebuild their kitchen and offer free meals to their devastated community.
“When we were evacuated … once in a while you got these trucks where somebody would come in and you got a real home-cooked hot meal, and it was like the best thing ever,” Jernberg said. “And so that is what we wanted to be able to provide.”
“That little bit of normalcy that we enjoyed personally, we wanted to give back,” she added.
It wasn’t just Paradise that Jernberg decided to help. In the years since their loss, the pair got a new mobile kitchen and began traveling across the state as wildfires devastate California’s communities year after year. They offer free meals to evacuees, lend an ear to concerned residents and offer resources that they themselves found they needed when they were in the process of recovery.
It started with helping families that escaped the Camp Fire, Jernberg said, “and then it just kept going.” They’ve since helped survivors of fires including the North Complex fire last year.
“This year, it’s the Dixie Fire,” she said.
They collected donations and set up fundraisers for Dixie Fire survivors. They helped an evacuated family of seven set up tents when the blaze threatened their homes. They traveled to a grandmother caring for her two grandchildren who needed food and sleeping bags.
The Dixie Fire, now the state’s largest active wildfire, has burned more than 880,000 acres in California and and is about 55% contained. The fire has devastated parts of Butte, Tehama, Plumas, Shasta and Lassen counties, destroying communities such as Greenville – and at times burning unnervingly close to Paradise.
Now, as a fresh round of survivors face loss after a devastating wildfire season, survivors of the 2018 Camp Fire have put their own trauma to the side to extend a helping hand – offering free meals, clothes, donations, insurance advice, legal resources or even rooms in their homes for evacuees.
“It really isn’t ever easy. There’s a lot of tears,” Jernberg says. “I always tell people at the end of the day I’m just a food truck, but when you really think about it, at the end of the day we’re family.”
‘I know exactly what they’ve been through’
The help comes in different ways. Often, it starts with social media posts. Last month, when one organization posted on Facebook that a firefighter had lost his home in the Dixie Fire, and that he was looking for a place to park his trailer with his fiancée and two young children, a Camp Fire survivor volunteered a spot in her home.
Another woman posted that she survived the Camp Fire and was looking for ways to help, offering donations of clothes and maternity pieces. Another survivor urged those who may have recently lost their homes to reach out if they’re unsure what their next steps should be, writing, “We might be able to help you or point you in the direction of someone who can.”
Pfc. Secily Chapman decided to join the California National Guard to help with wildfire response after the Camp Fire destroyed her childhood home in Paradise, the force wrote in a Facebook post last month.
“I know exactly what they’ve been through and just being a voice and someone to be there with them through it is an awesome thing to be able to do,” Chapman said in a video posted online. She said her unit was dispatched to Greenville after the Dixie Fire to help keep looters away.
“It’s tough, but to be able to help others through this experience just makes me feel like it’s all meant to be,” Chapman said.
As he watched the fire burn through the town of Greenville and around Chester, Jim Flanagan also decided to help – from the other side of border, in Nevada. Flanagan opened his restaurant, Mamma Celeste’s Gastropub & Pizzeria, in the city of Sparks last year, after the Camp Fire destroyed the one he owned in Paradise. He and his staff quickly began putting up posts across social media offering free meals to evacuees.
“For a good two-week period of time every day, we were serving people that were evacuated,” Flanagan said.
It wasn’t just meals they were sharing.
“They are looking for a connection,” he said. “They know that we completely understand where they’re at. … They know we lost it all in Paradise.”
Flanagan’s previous location was open for just five months before it burned down. Those who visit his restaurant now, he says, are often comforted by the experience the owners and staff share, and their understanding.
“It’s the worst day of your life. You go from the high of having a successful business and a home that you’re building with a family to the very next day (it’s) all gone in the blink of an eye. You get out with the clothes on your back and a box of personal items, if you’re lucky.”
From one survivor to the next
Since losing his home in the Camp Fire, Stephen Murray has dedicated much of his time to helping rebuild Paradise and supporting other fire survivors as they get back on their feet.
“I helped in the Bear Fire just with water,” he said. “When the Dixie Fire was right in our backyard, I realized that I had to take initiative and start helping.”
Murray launched into action: He used a non-profit organization he created after the Camp Fire to help raise more than $10,000 for hotel rooms for Dixie Fire evacuees. And he set up a donation center in Paradise and recruited volunteers to help serve the dozens of people who came in each day. Murray and other volunteers gave out cleaning supplies, food, gas money and gift cards, air mattresses, tents and sleeping bags, and they helped connect families who had been forced out of their homes with people who had spare rooms or space in their yards for trailers.
Murray also traveled to other locations, including Greenville, to deliver food and supplies to survivors. Still scarred from his own loss – Murray lost his job and spent eight months in a travel trailer with his wife and baby after the fire – he dove into providing the resources that would best help those who were going through what he had experienced.
“I used to say for 31 years, another day in Paradise. And I haven’t said that in a while,” Murray said in a Facebook post almost 10 months after the Camp Fire. “I’m depressed, I’m down and out, all I want to do is to have my job back. I want to have my life back.”
“This is a tough time for everyone and I ask that no matter where you are … hang in there. That’s all I’m going to say. That’s what I’m going to do,” Murray said back then, vowing, “I’m going to help support you and your steps forward.”
Last week, Murray announced the donation center he set up next to a Paradise coffee shop would be closing as he began to look for a new job. But he said he’s trying to find new ways to continue his volunteer efforts and continue helping others trying to rebuild their lives after a fire.
“When the fire calms down and the fire’s out, there’s still a need and I just want people to know that,” he said. “The struggle for me has gone on for almost two years and nine months and I’m still faced with a lot of complications from the Camp Fire.”