Sometimes life just goes along – things get busy and you’re kind of caught in the thick of thin things and then, out of nowhere you are awakened from life’s tasks and you re-evaluate everything you hold dear. That’s what happened to me the morning of November 8, 2018 – the day of the Paradise Fire.
Cookbooks and Family Stories
But let’s rewind a couple of weeks. My son Joseph had been serving a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the California Roseville mission for nearly 14 months. The last week of October he was transferred to the Paradise, California area. He was beyond thrilled. He called himself a “mountain man” because he was living in a beautiful mountain town, similar to the one his mom grew up in (Lake Tahoe) and his grandmother was raised in Westwood, a logging town not far from Paradise. He felt in touch with his ancestors who had lived in the area and also with some second cousins that still lived there. The minute one of those second cousins caught wind that he was in Paradise she reached out to her sister who lived there. Joseph and she (Jayne) would attend church in the same building! That next Sunday she sought him out and invited him over for dinner. He was thrilled at the idea to have a family connection. Home sickness can be a real thing for a missionary.
Upon his arrival, Jayne brought him into her kitchen and pulled out a book – but just not any book. It was the Morris Family Cookbook. The red, spiral-bound cookbook jumped out at my son and in an instant he was taken home to his kitchen in Ogden, Utah. He had cooked from this family cookbook for his entire life! “It was a real tender mercy for to see that cookbook,” he wrote to me that week. I was moved to tears to see the photo of he, Jayne and the cookbook and felt very grateful for a great aunt who insisted that we all submit recipes over 20 years ago. This great aunt was a strong family historian and pushed us all, even at times to the point of the old eye-roll to get our recipes in so she could get the book done. And of course, in the first few pages, was a descendency chart. My 22-year-old self laughed at the chart then, but I cherish it now. Anyway, my missionary and second cousin talked about the book and made plans for many future dinners – she “booked” him for Thanksgiving, Christmas and her husband’s birthday. I think everyone in the whole family was thrilled beyond words. Words like “blessing,” “special gift” and “our ancestors are watching over our son” may or may not have been brought up several times in our home. But little did I know how true that would become.
He felt a sense of home in Paradise. I could sense his happiness and joy for his new area in his email and his desire to do all things good in Paradise.
Related: How cookbooks inspire family stories
Fire and Fear
Now let’s back to November 8. I had just sent off my younger kids off to school and was doing a little work when I got a text from my cousin Shelley. She had lived in Paradise at one time, but now lives in my town. Her best friend was still living there. In the text she told me that Paradise was being evacuated due to a very large fire. “We will be praying for all them!” she texted. I got a little lump in my throat, the usual worry that comes from being a mom of a missionary. But I also knew that evacuations of homes and missionaries had been all too frequent in Northern California since my son had been serving there. So many fires! But it felt like it was routine and once evacuated he would be back in no time. I went forward with my morning. About a half hour later my phone rang, it was this same cousin calling. I could hear panic in her voice. “Rachel, it’s really bad. You need to try and find out where Joseph is living and maybe you should contact the mission president. Houses are exploding. I don’t want to panic you, but I thought you would want to know,” she said with urgency. I hung up the phone and felt more than a little panicked. I immediately fell to me knees in fervent prayer. I pled that my son would be protected if it was meant to be and I prayed that he would be brave, strong and obedient. I then went straight to my computer and emailed the mission president to see if he knew the status of my son. I would then endure the longest 10 minutes of my life. I sent a text to my husband who was in meetings all morning, telling him the situation. He calmed me and told me all would be well. I then sent a text to all of our children explaining what was happening and asking them to say a quick prayer for their brother. At almost the exact same time another cousin who lives in Chico (the town about 15 miles from Paradise in the valley) was trying to find where my son was. “I will find him and make sure he is safe,” my cousin assured me. I trusted him completely, but I was scared. News reports were grim. I paced, prayed and shed some panicked tears while I waited. Lucky for me, the mission home didn’t take too long to respond, even though it felt like ages.
Related: Prayer and the Uncanny
“Your son was evacuated and he is safe,” came the quick reply from the mission secretary. She explained they would be sending out an official email but sent me to a website where I could follow the progression of the fire. She further explained that they were able to get out before things got “really bad.” I felt relief, but there was this nagging sense of worry – I wanted to see him, hear his voice, something to be sure my son was safe. Because the thing is, when a mother sends her 18 or 19-year-old child out to serve as a witness for Jesus Christ you feel that you can sacrifice your child for what they are doing, but you don’t really think you’ll have to – you feel they will be spared and protected. But there are some who aren’t. Some you send out and who don’t come back to their earthly home. And that fear is always in your missionary mom heart. It’s deep and buried, but it’s there. And that fright was rearing its ugly head big time.
A bit later an official email came out that the four missionaries in Paradise were safe along with eight other missionaries that had been evacuated. I still needed a signal of some sort from my son that all was well. By about 4 I got another witness. My son, who knows his mother all too well, went onto Facebook and marked himself “safe” in the Paradise fire. Relief, for a few hours.
At first we were told he was in Chico at the stake center there, but then were told he had been evacuated to Oroville because of the quickly-moving fire and then to Gridley where they could be out of the fire line entirely.
Paradise Fire – Paradise Lost
That night I sat in a church meeting with my husband when a text came through from a fellow mom with a picture of my son – saying he was safe and he was being taken care of. I happily flashed the photo to my husband who was sitting next to me. He then whispered, “Did they say if he lost everything?” A feeling of horror swept through me. My son may have escaped with only the clothes on his back. And sure enough, that was the truth. He grabbed a toothbrush, a towel, his scriptures, his bag with his teaching materials and that was it. All his personal items and mementos were a total loss.
The next few days were filled with phone calls and texts with wonderful volunteers (angels on earth) who were coordinating with me to get my son what he needed to continue to serve. He would basically need a whole new set of everything he had taken on his mission – two new suits, 10 white shirts, a grundle of socks, new ties: every item he would need to survive. He lost the big ticket items too – his bike, his coat, all of it. Plus, I still hadn’t heard anything directly from my son – was he okay on the inside – what horror did he face and how was he feeling about it? As I watched footage of the fire play everywhere I looked I felt horrified by all of it. As I read stories of people being trapped by fire in the worst possible ways it was hard to grasp that my son had been 10 minutes on the other side of being one of those statistics. It is still in the back of mind now, over a month later.
But the miracle of tragedy is that there are countless angels on earth who stepped up to offer help – as soon as people started hearing about the fire on the news texts from friends all over the world started pouring in inquiring about my son. People sent us money to re-outfit him, people sent clothing directly to him, people who didn’t even know him and the other displaced missionaries were sending and taking them clothes. Good friends who used to live across the street from us but now live in California loaded up vital items like sheets and blankets and took them to a gathering place. Envelopes with cash were put in our mailbox or slipped to us at church. I really have no words for the outpouring of love I felt from so many. It reminded me of classic quote from the beloved Fred Rogers:
“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”
And this was the case. And I know the people of Paradise have witnessed this tenfold. While all of this was happening I was waiting to hear from my boy. But in the meantime I was feeling this wide range of emotion. Terror in moments, wondering about the horrors my son saw and experienced and complete joy for his safety and for the kindness of others. Joy and thankfulness for a mission president who felt a prompting to evacuate those boys while they could still get out safely. A full heart for a cousin who spent the better part of a Saturday night getting a new inhaler for my son who was struggling to breathe in the terrible smoke-filled air. A thankful heart for my pediatrician who acted swiftly to not only get an inhaler but additional medication called into a random pharmacy in Chico so my cousin could get that prescription and then a mission president’s wife who would travel to Chico to get the prescription to my son.
When Sunday came (the fire was Thursday) I woke up to a Facebook post from my boy:
This picture (above) was taken by my companion as we drove down the Skyway out of Paradise and the smoke from the fire was just starting to choke the sky. While that drive will go down as the scariest of my life, I wasn’t scared. My mind caught a hold of a scripture that I had learned on my mission.
D&C 84:80 And any man that shall go and preach this gospel of the kingdom, and fail not to continue faithful in all things, shall not be weary in mind, neither darkened, neither in body, limb, nor joint; and a hair of his head shall not fall to the ground unnoticed. And they shall not go hungry, neither athirst.
81 Therefore, take ye no thought for the morrow, for what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink, or wherewithal ye shall be clothed.
82 For, consider the lilies of the field, how they grow, they toil not, neither do they spin; and the kingdoms of the world, in all their glory, are not arrayed like one of these.
88 And whoso receiveth you, there I will be also, for I will go before your face. I will be on your right hand and on your left, and my Spirit shall be in your hearts, and mine angels round about you, to bear you up.
What was true when I read this the first time is still true today. Through everything I have come closer to my father in heaven, who wants more than for us than just being ok people. There has been no greater peace than that I’ve found in service and no greater joy than in being surrounded by people I’ve grown to love. My testimony of the plan of Salvation is sound.
Thank you all for your love, prayers, and support, luckily I know that one has already gone before me to let you know the difference you have all made. Many of you have made that promise ring true in my life another time.
While my mission may have changed drastically on Thursday my purpose as a missionary hasn’t. As I’ve been sent here to share the gospel I can testify that I know that Christ Lives and all of our challenges physical, mental, and spiritual will be overcome if we go to him.
If you want to learn more about him go to
As each member of my family awoke that morning and read his words we all pretty much sobbed. That day in church as a gentleman sang the tender song, “Peace in Christ,” it was hard to compose myself. My husband had to excuse himself, because we were seeking that very peace for our son.
Related: How does God show tender mercies in your life?
My son is a person that thinks deeply about all things and experiences take a while to process. If he admits that a drive was scary a mere two days after the drive occurred, that is saying something. The next day, when I would finally hear from him in his Preparation Day email he would tell me that the mission president (President Ward whom I have come to love deeply) called him and told him he had five minutes to evacuate he and the other three elders and to leave as soon as possible. My son was the district leader and in charge of the boys and their safety. My son, being one for exact obedience, said he went to work, grabbing things for he and his companion so they could make a quick exit. As they left town more people were coming into town than leaving at the time because they were coming back to get personal belongings, families and pets. But things got crazy as they drove out. The fire was hot, the road was hot and one of the other missionaries wrote that they worried that their tires would melt to the road. Because the town was heated on propane, things were exploding everywhere and the young men could hear it as they drove. It’s hard for my mother heart to grasp the fear my son felt not only for himself, but for those three other boys put under his charge.
I had the opportunity to speak with the mission president’s wife and she talked of my son’s obedience and her gratitude for his diligence and goodness. “He is special that one,” she told me. Yes, I know it. But a mother always knows it.
His days since the fire have been spent organizing donations, sleeping on the floor for a few weeks until new areas got settled and battling a severe cold due to the poor air conditions and his asthma. As people would text me pictures of my son, wearing a mask and working so hard to help others I could see the pain in his eyes and worry filled my heart. He was hurting, but marching on. He even told me in one of his letters that it was a test to strengthen us, and of course I always need strengthening. So I determined I would follow his lead of optimism and determination. He admits he thinks about Paradise and worries endlessly about the people there who have lost so much. He aches to talk to many of the people again. He would never tell anyone what he needed because he insisted that things be given to others who had lost all. But I know the other missionaries were exactly the same – giving as much as they could so others wouldn’t suffer. We are slowly learning what he is still missing and are meeting his needs thanks to the help of so many. Some things will never be replaced – his journal with only four pages not written in. His scrapbook of family testimonies and photos. But as he says, it pales in comparison to what others have lost.
For him, he still wondered if anything was left of his little apartment he had grown to love but when he received a picture he learned he had absolutely nothing left. I suspect it’s tough for a 19-year-old to wrap his head around such loss for so many. It’s hard for me.
Related: Poignant changes in family life
Changes, Healing and a Family Cookbook, again
Now that just over a month has passed, my son has a new mission companion and is sharing the love for the “Light the World” celebrations for Christmas. He still feels nagged by the fire, which I suspect he will for the foreseeable future. His new area is in Gridley – which borders his old Paradise area, which for obvious reasons is non-existent right now. He said he will probably not see Paradise for the rest of his mission – nine more months. We will be taking him back there right after he gets home, for sure! For me, when I watch video clips of the fire and its devastation I still feel a sense of pain and grief for all who are suffering. But I also see all the good people are doing through donations and relief.
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People are still sending money, notes and cards for my son. My heart is more than full. And then this week I received a note from my second cousin about her sister, Jayne, who has a little surprise in store for my son this week. She ended up not losing her home and her family and extended family are focusing all their efforts on helping others who lost everything. “I’m going to drive to Gridley to deliver them some gifts,” she wrote. She admitted to feeling “broken-hearted” she won’t be cooking more meals from the Morris cookbook for Joseph which he had carefully gone through and earmarked several recipes for her to cook. But her goal is to do it again before he comes home, somehow. So after reading this text, I told my mother about his desire to feel that sense of home – that family history – and she went and copied the cookbook for him and it was sent with love as a Christmas surprise on Monday.
I guess we never know the impact something as simple as a family cookbook will have on a person – even a young boy who sometimes grumbled when he had to help mom in the kitchen. Now it gives him a sense of love and joy in the midst of tragedy. And it gives a mother, who is trying to send every piece of love to grief-stricken son – a sense of peace.
Related: Writing about the hard stuff
Rachel J. Trotter is a writer at Evalogue.Life, where we tell personal and family stories that inspire, and help you tell yours. She has worked as a writer since her college days over 20 years ago and has articles published on Mormon.org, LDSLiving.com and Meridian Magazine. She loves telling people’s stories. She lives in Ogden, Utah and is busy raising six children and loves working on family history alongside her husband, Mat.
28 thoughts on “A missionary, a family story and the Paradise Fire”
Dorcas is safe. Sbe is a dear friend of mine. She is living with her son Mike and his wife in Chico. Jackie Gridley
Having grown up in Gridley and having extended family in the Chico and Paradise areas it was emotional and almost incomprehensible to see fire destroy a complete town. I have always loved the mountains in that part of Northern California and being familiar with the rugged terrain I knew that suppressing the fire would be an impossible task. It was certainly a miracle that more lives were not lost. One of my ancestors is Simeon Moak who along with two brothers settled in the Chico area in 1860. In fact he and a number of relatives lived in the Westwood area working in the logging industry. When I was in the 7th or 8th grade one of my teachers (Joan Carlin) took a group of students to Paradise one evening to a meeting at the Butte County Geneological (or Historical ) Society. I had taken some family history materials with me. When I set these materials on a table a very old man became excited and told me several times “that is Sim Moaks book”. I had brought a copy of a short book written by my great-great grandfather Sim Moak about the early history of the area. Some of my classmates thought it was really funny because this elderly man wore one pair of glasses then put on a second pair to read with . He related that as a young boy he would wave to Sim Moak as he drove the engine with a train of logs coming into Paradise out of the high country on the narrow gauge rail . My parents joined the LDS Church in the 1950’s in Gridley and Yuba City. This short book titled “The last of the Mill Creeks and early life in Northern California” is available to download from the Library of Congress in pdf format. May the Lord bless your son and all these young missionaries laboring in the vineyard.
PS – It was neat to see Ron Curtis post the response to your blog. I remember he and his family quite well.
What a wonderful story! Thanks for sharing. It is such a beautiful area. My cousin who lives in Chico agreed that in some ways the fire was a disaster waiting to happen because it would be so difficult to put the fire out. It is a blessing that not more lives were lost. People did move quickly. It is so wonderful when we can do our family history and have such great experiences as yours. Thank you for sharing and thank you for your kind thoughts!
Your son was in my daughter’s ward in Paradise. Her husband is one of the two Bishops up there. They lost everything also. Your son had been in their home not long before the fire and my daughter said he was one of the good missionaries. (Some missionaries are more obedient than others.) Anyway after the fire he was assigned to our ward in Gridley where he is still serving and was surprised when the Sunday after the fire he came to church to see the Bishop and his family in the same ward as himself. Our daughter and her husband “the Bishop” have come to stay with us until they can get a new place to live. I think it helped my grandchildren to see some normalcy by seeing the missionaries from their ward at church on Sunday. Your son continues to serve faithfully. He looks great. What a trial of their faith.
Oh my son loves your family! He talked much of their faithfulness and how they had lost everything. He was so touched to see them at church that Sunday – he mentioned it to me. I’m glad to hear he is a good boy. As a mom, you think that of your son, but it’s nice to hear that others see that in him as well. Thanks to all of you for being so kind and taking such good care of him!
for all those in Chico and those that lived in Paradise.
I’m a convert and many a time Missionaries both Elders and Sisters have come to my aid. What a wonderful Missionary your son is and what a beautiful example he sets for all those he comes in contact with. I was converted in New York 42yrs ago. Best thing I ever did. I’m now living in Bountiful Utah. Your son will be in my special from now on.
Thanks for your kind thoughts about my son. Missionaries are truly special and have such an important work to do!
Thank you for using your talent of writing to share your family’s experience. It is helpful to me to read stories like these, in showing the Lord’s hand in our lives. It is a very good reminder that He is near and watching over us…. especially his missionaries.
I too grew up in Westwood. You are correct in saying that it was a pretty small town. The name Furnis sounds familiar. My grandparents lived there for many years as did my parents. I’m sure your grandmother knew them. Wes and Oral Blanchard are my grandparents and my parents are J & E Nelsen. Les Bingham was the patriarch that gave me my blessing.
Thank you again for sharing your story and testimony.
Thank you so much! It is always a wonderful reminder to see the Lord’s hand in our lives in so many different ways. My mom remembers your parents and grandparents and said that maybe your brother taught her how to ride a bike! It’s fun hearing these stories and names. And yes, my great Uncle Les was a patriarch. What a wonderful thing!
Rachel, thank you for sharing your story. I grew up in Paradise, joined the Church of Jesus Christ there, and left soon after for a mission to France. I’ve never lived there again but visit family and friends there regularly. It is devastating to see all the destruction but also inspiring to see the Lord’s protection and guidance in so many people’s lives. People will be stronger for this.
Missionaries like your son taught me and I’ll always be grateful to them and the Paradise members who fellowshipped me into the Kingdom over 40 years ago.
Thank you for your kind words! It has been both heartbreaking and faith-building to see everything that has come of the fire. So much kindness in the midst of so much devastation. I’m so glad the missionaries were guided to you!
Jan 4 Healthy New Year. I had a son, years ago, serve in Anaheim from Manitoba Canada. I love to hear stories of Missionaries and now live in BC Canada . I still have friends but no family in CA, and my heart and prayers go out to them all. So thankful I am for your sons obienience to the prs “s call for if he would have allowed himselv and his companions to take time to pack a suitcase, none of them would have been here now, to tell the story and to help others. I am 87 and send many prayers to help all of those who are still in need.
Thank you for your kind words. Obedience was so important for all four of those missionaries!
I just have to ask because it is such a small world. My Mom grew up in Westwood and we have cousins in the Chico and Paradise areas as well. But I am thinking my Mom might have known your son’s Grandmother–the timing might be about right. My Mom’s family name is Van Blaricom.
I will ask my mom. Her maiden name is Furniss and my family in Chico are the Tiners. My mom’s aunt and uncle that also lived in Westwood were Binghams. I hope we can make a connection. Westwood wasn’t a big town!
I think there is a connection–maybe even more than might be expected. My Mom thinks that would Kay Furniss. This quoting my Mom’s email to me: Her Grandmother would be Kay. She is the oldest in her family. My father asked Mona [my Mom’s oldest sister] what she would like for my middle name. Because of Kay Furniss she liked the name and chose it for me. She is about 4 years older than I am. I always liked her and when we saw her and her husband at school reunions, she always talked to me. Her mother’s sister was Vella (I think that is right) who was married to Les Bingham. Our neighbors were Norman and Carma Bingham. I think Les and Norman were brothers. Then there was another family, her name was Tammy, I can’t remember her husbands but it was possibly Burt. I can’t remember their last name but they were also related. She [meaning you] is right, Westwood wasn’t a big town, especially when you narrow it down to the LDS Church. (Addendum to her email): Talking to Dad about the related Westwood families I think the last one was also a Bingham. Tammy and Burt Bingham. I think he was a cousin to the others.
I am touched by all of this information! Kay is actually my aunt. My mother is Vicki Furniss, not sure if your mother would remember her as she is about six years younger than Kay. My Aunt Kay is the best! They now live in Utah. And yes, Vella is my great aunt and it is her daughter that is in the picture with my son with the cookbook. Tammy and Bert Bingham are also family. What a small world we live in! I am excited to share this info with my mom. She talks of her growing up years in Westwood with great fondness. Thanks for sharing. The internet can be such a wonderful thing. 🙂
Thank you so much for responding. We sometimes have lived in a bubble where we think we are the only ones with Westwood connections. It’s great to learn a little bit more about that part of our family history from other perspectives.
So true. I have loved sharing these comments with my mom and listening to her tell some more stories of her life there. It was a pretty magical place!
Thank you so much for sharing this. I grew up in Paradise, and three of our four family members’ homes were lost, including my childhood home. I went back with my parents last month, and it was heartbreaking to see our sweet town decimated. The goodness and service from others is what has brought hope and peace to so many suffering. Thankful to your son and so many others who are serving the people of Paradise! I am returning for a visit next weekend, and will be at stake conference. If I can bring your son anything please let me know! I live in Holladay, UT.
Wow, I’m so sorry to hear of your family’s losses. The people there are amazing. One of the “Just Serve” coordinators there texted me a couple of days ago and asked if anyone was coming to the area from Utah as there were some things being donated from Utah that could be brought back. I will email you and give you more details. Thank you for your kind words and thoughtfulness!
Rachel, I finally took the time to read your story after the busy holiday. I should have looked at this sooner because of the title. We lived in Paradise for 2 years and my 38-year-old daughter was born there on December 23rd. She was going to visit during Thanksgiving, but of course, she was too late! I feel bad that we never kept in touch with anyone there and have looked a few people up and some are deceased, but one was still living there, Dorcas Keel. If your son knows her it would be nice to hear if she is safe. Does anyone still need any help? (I live in the same city as you and have met you at conferences.)
Thanks for your comment, Joyce! I will ask my son in my email this week about Dorcas Keel. I know that people still need help. There are still lots of people who need help. The following link is a sign up to help families at Christmas, but I think there are ways to donate from here. We have used this. https://www.signupgenius.com/go/4090b4faaa622a13-camp1 Thank you much! I hope we get to catch up again!
I lived in Paradise for 34 years and knew Dorcas,
You can look up Camp Fire paradise on Facebook and you may find where she is.
I know Sister Keel I’m not sure where she is now but she was in our ward. I went to school with her daughter.
Dorcas is safe. Sbe is a dear friend of mine. She is living with her son Mike and his wife in Chico. Jackie Gridley
We lived in the Gridley Stake for twenty years. Our daughter still lives there. Looks like Justin Tolman’s son in the picture with your son and his companion. Really enjoyed your story. Brought back many memories. When our family moved from Thousand Oaks, CA to Chico in 1976 I delivered bread in Plumas County. I delivered bread to Young’s Market in Westwood. We camped at Lake Almanor one summer and attended church at the Westwood Branch. We have a son that has a Chico address but actually lives off the Skyway on Eagles Nest Dr. He was evacuated. We moved from living in Chico for fifteen years to Bountiful in July 2012. We have many friends and some family that lost everything. The good people in Gridley will take care of your son. Ask him if he knows Jennifer and Tony Walton. Our daughter and her husband.
Thank you for sharing this info. You have many ties to the area like we do! I will ask. Did you ever know the Tiner family? That’s my aunt and uncle that lived in Chico for nearly 40 years. Their son still lives there. It’s a special area! Thanks for your kind thoughts and comments.
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