CHICO, Calif. — Moita Lindgren, a nurse and mother of three, had the recipe picked out long in advance of Thanksgiving.
Her father-in-law, Papa Forrest, had died this summer at age 76. Someone would have to make the vegetarian stuffing he prepared every year, a favorite of her children. Luckily, Lindgren had taken the recipe down by hand five years ago, aware that she would need it someday.
This was the year.
But then the family’s home in Paradise, Calif., was incinerated in the wildfire that has choked wide swaths of this state with flames and smoke — one of the more than 13,000 homes to be destroyed in the catastrophic Butte County blaze. And up went the recipe, too.
Still, Lindgren, 46, said she and her husband felt a profound sense of gratitude, having escaped with their pets, despite the fact that they had lost just about every possession they owned.
“You really see the true kindness and beauty of people that you don’t typically see on a day-to-day basis,” she said, after leaving the main post office in this college town of 90,000 to pick up her mail. “And it just highlights what’s truly important. So I feel tremendously blessed.”
Lindgren’s optimism is shared by many of the tens of thousands of evacuees who have spilled out into shelters, tents, hastily arranged rental units, and the homes of friends, family and even strangers. Despite the devastation the fire wrought in this area, dozens of evacuees said it has brought the true meaning of the holiday into stark relief, though it has removed some of its more celebratory trappings.
“It’s probably the best Thanksgiving of my life,” said Liza Johnson, a Paradise evacuee who is staying with her husband and son in a trailer on loan from a friend. “Being alive — and my family being alive — it makes you realize.”
Thanksgiving marks two weeks since the fire swept through this part of northern California — the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in the state’s history.
And many evacuees admitted that their holiday plans were a sign of just how off-kilter their lives have become. For some, the holiday typically spent with family in a warm home will be spent with strangers at a shelter or in a tent in the rain.
For others, like Johnny Morgan, 55, it required navigating delicate family dynamics that in a less fraught time, would perhaps have been easier to avoid.
Morgan, who lost his home, said he was staying at the shelter in Chico because of friction between his girlfriend and his family that had invited him to stay with them.
“I am stressed out,” he said. “It’s just nuts.”
Kevin Alcott and his wife, whose home was destroyed when the fire flattened Paradise, are more lucky than many; they quickly found a long-term shelter in the form of two rooms that they are renting in a local woman’s house. They’ll be spending Thanksgiving with her, cooking a turkey donated by their church.
“It doesn’t really feel like a holiday that much,” he said.
The day before Thanksgiving, Alcott sat with his wife, Arin, at a Starbucks in the city’s downtown, listing the worries that are piling up: When will they be able to get back to work? Will they be able to pay the bills? How will they restart their lives? Where will they find a new home?
But he too said he felt a profound sense of gratitude that things did not turn out worse.
It was a sentiment shared by Paradise resident Deborah Laughlin, 63.
“I’m thankful because I now have a place I can go to, someplace where I can rest my head,” Laughlin said, as she stood outside one of the several shelters set up to help evacuees here.
Though her trailer home was destroyed in the fire, Laughlin said she was filled with hope. Two volunteers helped her get set up with a new place to live, in a mobile home on another volunteer’s property.
“She’s already offered for me to get a small dog,” Laughlin said.
The Camp Fire has burned more than 150,000 acres, destroying more than 14,000 buildings — 13,500 homes — in hillside towns like Paradise and Magalia. And it continues to burn, with at least 80 percent containment, the thick smell of smoke in the air in Chico persisting even through a heavy rain. At least 83 people were killed by the fire, though hundreds more remain missing.
Cynthia Johnson, 54, sitting outside the shelter at the Neighborhood Church of Chico, said she doesn’t know the fate of her mobile home in Paradise. Still, she listed off her blessings.
“I’m thankful for everything,” she said, beaming. “Most of all, I’m thankful that the one thing I love the most, my service dog, is safe and she’s with me. ”
A woman drove up in a truck and handed her a new blanket.
Last year, Johnson cooked a big Thanksgiving meal for nine people in her trailer park; this year, she’ll go to her daughter-in-law’s aunt’s house outside the fire zone.
And across Chico, people were coming together to help others.
In two bustling buildings at California State University at Chico, dozens of volunteers helped workers from chef José Andrés’s nonprofit World Central Kitchen plan for a massive Thanksgiving meal for evacuees and emergency workers on Thursday. They unfurled long white table clothes in the Bell Memorial Union auditorium, as workers outside wheeled in carts with hundreds of turkeys waiting to be cooked. Whispers about visits by chefs like Andrés, Guy Fieri and former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger filled the auditorium.
Representatives for World Central Kitchen said they were preparing to feed some 15,000 people.
Volunteer Cindy Rogers, 59, said she is spending her Thanksgiving helping serve evacuees after her plans changed: Her brother was going to host Thanksgiving this year, but he ended up leaving his house so a fire evacuee could temporarily move in.
Jackie Legg, a volunteer and Chico resident who was registering others at the hall’s entrance, said her 25-year-old son, his girlfriend and the girlfriend’s mother were staying with her after they lost their homes in Paradise.
“I think we’re more thankful,” she said. “Families are more connected right now.”
Lindgren, the mother of three, said the fire had clarified the family’s priorities.
“When you lose everything, you realize that you really don’t need a lot,” she said, “and that the things that are truly important are the things you took with you when you left the fire.”