As 52,000 people fled their homes as the deadliest fire in California history raged around Paradise, California, one Latter-day Saint drove toward the flames.
Reserve Deputy Sheriff Bryant Smith* was in Chico, California, when he heard at 8:30 a.m. that evacuations had been ordered for his hometown of Paradise. Though off-duty, Bryant immediately jumped in his car and traveled toward the smoke and blaze that would soon consume his home.
"I went to my house, put on my uniform, and went straight to the nearest intersection . . . and started helping out the other deputies that were directing traffic," Bryant says.
With few exits leading from the town and tunnels of fire forming around the roads as the flames spread, Bryant describes the intersection as a gridlock. After five hours working at that same intersection, Bryant traveled all over the area helping the Butte County Sheriff's Office with evacuations and knocking on doors to notify residents.
As Bryant witnessed flames and smoke enveloping entire neighborhoods, one simple image stuck in his mind—a house where the owner had attached a sprinkler to her roof to try and protect her home.
"I thought, 'Well, that’s a pretty good idea. Maybe I could save my house,'" Bryant says. "Toward the end of our shift, I was talking to my partner and I said, 'Let’s go by my house. I want to try to put a sprinkler on my house. Maybe I can save my house.'"
As the two approached Willams' neighborhood, he recalls, "There was fire everywhere and there were powerlines falling in the street, dangling. . . . It was really scary and the whole time I was driving down toward my house I kept thinking, 'This is a really bad idea.'"
While dodging live powerlines and scorched debris in his car, Bryant says, "I wanted to turn around, but something kept telling me to keep going. . . . I am convinced it was the Spirit guiding me."
When he reached his house, Bryant discovered an apocalyptic-type scene. "The fire was two houses away from my house," he says. "[The homes] were fully engulfed and the winds were probably 50 miles per hour, pushing that fire directly toward my house. There were balls of fire debris falling in my yard and on the roof."
Directly across the street, Bryant saw his neighbor, a petite woman in her later 80s or early 90s, standing alone in her driveway as sparks and charred debris fell all around. "She is standing in her driveway holding her cane and she is just looking around," Bryant says.
Bryant ran to the woman, asking if she had a car and could drive herself to safety. That's when he learned the woman's husband had driven to Chico early that morning. When he heard about the evacuations, the roadblocks had already gone up, keeping him from returning for his wife. Though she had a car, the woman could not drive and was stranded in Paradise, watching the fire approach her home. "The fire was right there, and that little, old lady was going to die. She couldn’t get in her car, she couldn’t run, and the fire—I don’t know how long it takes for 50-mile-per hour winds to blow the fire to her house—I am guessing 15 or 20 minutes," Bryant says.
He continues, "When I saw that lady, the thought came to my mind, 'She is not a member of the Church, but she’s a child of God.' And even though she is old, Father in Heaven was protecting His daughter."
Bryant led the woman to his partner's car and then ran into his home to grab a few important documents and possessions before driving to safety. But Bryant takes none of the credit for saving that woman's life for himself.
"My partner is the one who put her in his patrol car and drove her to safety," Bryant says. "He had turned his ankle that morning, five to seven hours prior, and he wouldn’t go home. He kept working, so he’s the one who saved this lady’s life. . . . He drove her to safety, and he did it with a broken foot."
Bryant also recognizes the role our Heavenly Father played in this experience, and many he's had the days following. "The whole time I’ve been [helping with] the fires—I am on my eighth straight day now—I’ve felt the Spirit with me, and I know it is because my friends and family are praying for me," he says.
While Bryant has been able to witness God's love and hand, even amidst indescribable destruction, he still experienced the loss of his home. And Bryant's home was one of nearly 14,000 destroyed. With more than 80 lives lost in the Camp Fire, some might question how such loss and devastation can fit into a loving Lord's plan of happiness. While we might not have all the answers, Bryant has personally witnessed how Heavenly Father loves and cares for each of His children, even in the midst of heartache.
And, he adds to those who might now be suffering now, "There’s a lot of us that have lost our homes up in Paradise . . . and I just keep telling them we’re all in this together and we are going to get through this, someway, somehow . . . that’s my faith."