Members of the Hellbent Motorcycle Club 823 Chapter were handling security for a Camp Fire shelter at the East Avenue Church in Chico on Nov. 13. Alex Emslie/KQED
Members of the Hellbent Motorcycle Club 823 Chapter were handling security for a Camp Fire shelter at the East Avenue Church in Chico on Nov. 13. (Alex Emslie/KQED)

A Church, a Biker Crew, and Sheltering Camp Fire Evacuees

A Church, a Biker Crew, and Sheltering Camp Fire Evacuees

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he East Avenue Church in Chico on Tuesday was sheltering a few hundred people who lost their homes in the deadly Camp Fire, even though the church isn't on the official shelter list.

But it's played the role many times before, said Robert Warf, a Sunday school teacher who was directing traffic into the surrounding fields.

"I think we're extremely organized," Warf said. "We've been doing this every time there's a need."

The need has been overwhelming since last week, when the Camp Fire ravaged the nearby town of Paradise and displaced some 52,000 people.

Volunteers had separated donated clothing, bottled water, toiletries and other essentials in different areas around the church yard.

Warf said they had to start turning down clothing donations — the church received much more than was needed. He had a list of other donations that would be helpful: Visa gift cards of at least $28 so people can set up post office boxes to receive mail, tents in good condition and new sleeping bags.

"We need new shoes," he added. "These people don't have anything, and some of them were running down that hill and don't have shoes. ... They don't have to be fancy shoes."

People wearing medical scrubs and stethoscopes moved among the crowd, and food was available in a large hall inside the building.

A burned bus sits along Skyway road in Paradise on Nov. 13.
A burned bus sits along Skyway Road in Paradise on Nov. 13. (Alex Emslie/KQED)

Members of the 823 chapter of the Hellbent Motorcycle Club were also walking the grounds.

Chapter president Matt Straus said the club showed up Sunday with a bunch of personal hygiene kits to donate.

"I thought that there was only about 50 people here or so, and we made 100 of them," he said. "As soon as we showed up, we noticed that there was a need for a lot more. We barely even put a dent in anything."

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He said about a dozen bikers from his club and others have been at the church ever since, handling security.

"We're patrolling all of this area, making sure nobody is breaking into any cars because everybody knows that they've got their stuff in their cars," he said. "That's the last thing anybody needs — to be victimized more than they have already been."

Al Lopez and Penny Spaletta have been staying in a tent behind the church since Thursday, when they fled the fire that would destroy their Paradise home.

Al Lopez and Penny Spaletta fled the Camp Fire and took shelter at the East Avenue Church in Chico.
Al Lopez and Penny Spaletta fled the Camp Fire and took shelter at the East Avenue Church in Chico. (Alex Emslie/KQED)

They'd both noticed fire on a neighboring property early Thursday morning. Lopez said he grabbed a fire extinguisher and tried to put out some smoldering grass in the field across the street.

"A gust of wind picked up and it went about 50 feet up a pine tree," Lopez said. "I mean the flames just attached to that pine tree and it was ablaze in seconds."

His wife, Spaletta, had been trying to douse their own property with a garden hose. Both decided it was time to leave.

But they made a stop, to pick up Spaletta's mother. By the time they were headed down the hill toward Chico, traffic was moving slower than the fire.

"We're in this inferno on either side of us, and we can't go anywhere," Lopez said.

Spaletta said she could feel intense heat through the windows of her car.

"I honestly didn't think we were going to make it out," she said.

They did make it to Chico by late Thursday afternoon, but had no idea where to turn next.

Then a friend called and suggested they head over to the East Avenue Church.

"This church is wonderful," Spaletta said. "They're feeding us very well. They're giving us necessities to live day to day, and it's so wonderful."

Lopez said he was able to confirm their home in Paradise was destroyed.

"The only thing standing is the brick for the foundation and the chimney," he said.

A sign appears warped by heat off New Skyway road in Magalia on Nov. 13.
A sign appears warped by heat off New Skyway Road in Magalia on Nov. 13. (Alex Emslie/KQED)

The couple left three pet cats behind when they fled. Spaletta said she'd held out hope that they could have survived until she learned the house was gone.

"It goes in waves," she said. "I was hoping that three of our pets — that the house had stayed and they were inside. And when he came back and he told me the house was gone, I knew that they had been lost in the fire."

Spaletta and Lopez said they're not sure where they'll go next.

"We've never been through anything like this before," Lopez said. "All we can do is just put one foot in front of the other — you know, build a bond with these people that are going to go back up that mountain."

They said they found a new sense of community at the East Avenue Church. And when they can, both said they'd like to rebuild in Paradise.

"These people here, they're becoming our new family," Spaletta said.