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.