Burned Yet Blessed

Would we survive this devastating fire? Would we still have a home?

Delinda Hamilton lives in Paradise, California, with her husband and three children. She is involved in lay ministries and helping to rebuild the burned-out town of Paradise.

I HEARD A PANICKED, INSISTENT KNOCK at the front door. I opened it to find my neighbor standing there with sheer terror in his face. He burst out, “There’s a fire! You have to leave now!”

I will never forget that look. The fear in his eyes scared me. Panic and defeat flashed through his countenance as he added, “I’m afraid we are going to lose it all.”

I didn’t know then just how prophetic that statement would be. With that, the neighbor was gone.

I shut the door, and my mind began reeling. I tried to tell myself to think. What do I do? How much time do I have? What do I grab? The kids. The animals. My adrenaline was pumping, but my brain stalled. I seemed paralyzed. I didn’t know how to evacuate. I grew up with tornados, not fires. My brain just wouldn’t give me answers.

I yelled to the two kids with me in the house, “There’s a fire!”

They both yelled back, “What?” Unbelief and confusion sent them running into the room.

At that moment my husband called. He said, “I was about to drop [our daughter] off at school, but they told me not to. There is a fire blowing up the canyon by our house. I’ll be home in eight minutes.”

I told the kids they had eight minutes to grab what they wanted out of the house. My 8-year-old son went into action. He started snatching Tupperware containers to carry his lizards, snakes, frogs, turtles, and whatever other animals he had (he is a typical 8-year-old boy who catches anything that moves).

I envied his mind that seemed to be thinking so easily. The cat? Where was our cat? I ran outside to look for him. To my shock, the sky was now black. I was surprised how quickly things had changed in just a few minutes. Ash was falling like snow, and the sky was becoming darker by the second.

I called for the cat. Sometimes he would be gone for days at a time. Was he around? Would I find him? I had heard him meowing in the middle of the night. I kicked myself for not getting up in the night to let him in. Fortunately, I found him curled up in one of our Jeeps. I grabbed him. Then I ran for the cat cage. I saw it lying on the ground outside of our house.

We had just moved to Paradise, California, three weeks before, so we had not finished unpacking. There were boxes lying around. I put my hand on the side of the house as I reached with my other hand to grab the cat cage. As I did so, my shoulder popped out of joint. I now really was paralyzed! “God, please help me!” I prayed. “I don’t think I can drive out of the fire this way. Please make my
shoulder go back in.”

I stood there wondering what to do. The pain made me unable to function. How do I put my shoulder back in? I don’t know how to do it. Then miraculously it popped back in. I breathed a silent thank You to God.

I grabbed the cat cage and quickly put the cat inside. As I ran to the other side of the house, I saw my son loading his animals into the car. I put the cat in and headed back inside the house. My daughter was starting to become overwhelmed by her own thoughts. I tried calming her. I tried to assure her that everything would be fine. But would it be?

My husband pulled into the driveway eight minutes later. My other daughter climbed out of the car. We all felt an oppressive, impending doom. There just wasn’t time for anything else. I locked the front door, never dreaming that I would not return to this home.

My husband yelled, “Turn the cars around; we have to get out of here!”

We could now hear the roar of the fire approaching us. We heard explosions as the fire destroyed everything in its path. We all jumped in the cars and started pulling out. This fire was unique in that it did not burn in a straight line. The canyon was acting like a chimney, and the fire was blowing up and raining down burning debris on us. As we were driving out of our driveway, our yard was already
on fire!

How do we get out of town? we wondered. We were so new to this town that I knew of only one way out; even then I had to use my GPS. I’m sure you can guess the Scripture that I was saying over and over in my head: “When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze” (Isaiah 43:2, NIV).

As we merged onto the main road, we found ourselves gridlocked. Everyone was frantic to get out of the fire’s way. People were scrambling to connect with loved ones. Firefighters were attempting to put out the fires that had started in town, but the fire was raining down continually. Movement was painfully slow. People were becoming frustrated and panicked. Emotions were high. I noticed the
kids trying to hold back tears. We were all trying to talk ourselves through our emotions.

I got separated from my husband as we were driving. He decided to drive on the bike path in an attempt to bypass some of the congestion. We eventually reconnected and headed down into the nearby town of Chico. As we came into the next town, we could finally see some more light of day. We felt relief but at the same time a deep sense of despair. There were still people up on that ridge fighting for their lives. There were so many people up there and only three ways out. Would they make it? I felt guilt. I wished I had a list of people who needed help getting out.

The fire moved so quickly that we evacuated three times that day. Finally, by 10:00 that night we had landed in a sweet couple’s house; they gave us a bed to sleep in. The next morning we knew we needed a systematic way of checking on people. We wanted to know if they had evacuated safely, and we wanted to know where they were staying.

Immediately love and care started pouring out to us. Cases of water were donated. Toothbrushes and toothpaste arrived, as well as clothes. Thousands of people were displaced from the fire, and most of them had nothing. No food, no water, no clothes, no place to stay. Immediately we knew why God had called us to Paradise, California. People needed help! We started calling our friends. Churches, individuals, and organizations began feeding, clothing, and providing for the needs of hundreds.

News started trickling in of what buildings and homes had burned. We were not allowed to return to Paradise because there was still active fire, so we relied upon those firefighters, EMS personnel, chaplains, news reporters, and others who were allowed back in the area. There were often contradictory reports. If a picture was taken of the site, then we knew for sure that it was gone.

I remember unloading cases of water, and the man next to me got a text. He pulled out his phone and looked at it. He said, “Well, it looks like my home burned too.” He turned off his phone, put it back in his pocket, and kept unloading water bottles. One after another received the news that their homes were burned to the ground. I wondered about mine.

Finally, word came. My husband called and said, “It’s gone. There is nothing left.”

Tears welled up in my eyes, but I said, “Well, good. I can’t imagine trying to minister to these people with my home still standing.”

I now have a shared experience with most of my town. It is easy to start up a conversation. We have a painful shared reality. I am able to have empathy for those around me. I am able to share my struggles and how my God has helped me through the process of trying to rebuild. Could it be that God uses our greatest heartbreaks to be the bridge that connects us to others? Could it be that God allows His leaders to suffer adversity so they can be relevant to those they serve? Could it be that our pain is the pathway to helping others?

Are you in the middle of pain? Are you in the middle of loss? A trial or tribulation? Be encouraged. The very difficulty that you are in could be the means by which God is most able to use you to bless others. Jesus demonstrated this in the purest sense. He gave up the beauty and glory of heaven to come down to this old, dirty planet and walk as we walk. To suffer as we suffer. Jesus intentionally came to us in order to have a shared experience with us. He relates to us as One who has walked a similar journey to ours. There is more depth and meaning when words come from someone who knows the intensity of the journey firsthand.

God has given our family the gift of relevance in a region that is experiencing loss and devastation due to fires. Galatians 6:2 reminds us, “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ” (NIV). My prayer is that God will give you the courage to use your experiences of adversity to minister to those around you.