Collection center set up in a Wal-Mart parking lot in Chico. (Photo/Courtesy Chico Hillel-Kristy Collins)
Collection center for supplies for fire victims set up in a Wal-Mart parking lot in Chico, Nov. 2018. (Photo/Courtesy Chico Hillel-Kristy Collins)

Jewish community lends a hand in fire-ravaged north

UPDATED Nov. 27 to include additional details

The scope of the Camp Fire, which has left thousands of Butte County residents homeless and killed more than 80 people, is sinking in for Chana Zwiebel, rebbetzin at the Chabad center in Chico.

“The enormity of the devastation and loss and its effect on so many people is just beyond devastating,” she said.

Officials have called the Camp Fire the worst wildfire in California history. More than 150,000 acres burned, and with nearly 300 people still missing, the death toll is expected to rise.

Zwiebel said she and a team of volunteers have been working around the clock, preparing meals for hundreds of suddenly homeless families, many of them living in ad hoc tent cities. Typically, the menu features hot soup and fresh-baked challah.

“In the Jewish community alone we have been in touch with more than 20 families,” Zwiebel added, “ranging from young couples just starting out to seniors, who have lost their homes, workplace and everything in between. Many more have been evacuated and do not yet know when they will be able to return home.”

At the Chabad house she runs in downtown Chico with her husband, Rabbi Mendy Zwiebel, Chana Zwiebel has been allowing some evacuees to temporarily move in, and they are feeding many more. They also raised and distributed nearly $15,000 to assist fire victims. “There have been volunteers here every day to help cook and distribute hot food to displaced families in our community and in the community at large.”

In addition to fundraising and preparing meals, Zwiebel and her husband have launched an effort to provide cars to local residents who lost their vehicles in the fire. The couple has already rounded up some 20 donated cars and hope to get many more, though with nearly 500 people who have applied for cars, demand so far has outstripped supply.

The Israel-based humanitarian assistance nonprofit IsraAid has sent emergency responders to affected areas of California, where deadly fires hit both southern and northern parts of the state. The team includes mental health specialists.

Chico Hillel director Kristy Collins' 2-year-old son wearing his mask
Chico Hillel director Kristy Collins’ 2-year-old son wearing his mask

“We’ve seen a lot of disaster zones over the years, but this is a whole different level of devastation,” IsraAid co-CEO Yotam Polizer told the news site Israel 21c. “Everything has been burned to the ground, and there are so many people still missing.”

Kristy Collins, executive director of the Hillel at CSU, Chico, said her city of 90,000 is now dotted with tent cities of newly homeless people. “There are shelters like churches, and other resources in town. There are other places [evacuees] can be indoors. I heard some are getting upset because the media are here and they are taking up the hotel space.”

Collins noted that FEMA has moved in, taking over a shuttered Sears department store, providing assistance such as grief counseling.

Meanwhile, schools in Butte County will remain closed until after Dec. 3. It is unclear when classes at Chico State will resume, according to Collins, but she said she remains in touch with her students, most of whom have gone home or otherwise left the area.

Despite the devastation and trauma of the Camp Fire, Zwiebel said the community’s response has brought out the best in people.

“A significant amount of our volunteers were themselves people who were evacuated or displaced,” she noted. “There was this outpouring of love and care, and wanting to do whatever it took to help people.”

Bay Area Jewish Federations have set up a web page for individuals who want to donate to the cause. The Zwiebels also have established a fund to help displaced residents cover urgent immediate expenses, with 100 percent of funds raised going directly to the Camp Fire victims. To donate a car, write to [email protected]

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.