“All my dreams were taken away,” Jernberg told CNN. “I have always dreamed of having a restaurant, and I was just so close.”
That month was among the worst of her life — but Jernberg said it also opened her eyes to the needs of fire survivors like her. As she navigated the next steps of recovery with her husband and three teenage daughters, the first step became finding a way to rebuild their kitchen and offer free meals to their devastated community.
“When we were evacuated … once in a while you got these trucks where somebody would come in and you got a real home-cooked hot meal, and it was like the best thing ever,” Jernberg said. “And so that is what we wanted to be able to provide.”
“That little bit of normalcy that we enjoyed personally, we wanted to give back,” she added.
It wasn’t just Paradise that Jernberg decided to help. In the years since their loss, the pair got a new mobile kitchen and began traveling across the state as wildfires devastate California’s communities year after year. They offer free meals to evacuees, lend an ear to concerned residents and offer resources that they themselves found they needed when they were in the process of recovery.
It started with helping families that escaped the Camp Fire, Jernberg said, “and then it just kept going.” They’ve since helped survivors of fires including the North Complex fire last year.
“This year, it’s the Dixie Fire,” she said.
“It really isn’t ever easy. There’s a lot of tears,” Jernberg says. “I always tell people at the end of the day I’m just a food truck, but when you really think about it, at the end of the day we’re family.”
‘I know exactly what they’ve been through’
“It’s tough, but to be able to help others through this experience just makes me feel like it’s all meant to be,” Chapman said.
“For a good two-week period of time every day, we were serving people that were evacuated,” Flanagan said.
It wasn’t just meals they were sharing.
“They are looking for a connection,” he said. “They know that we completely understand where they’re at. … They know we lost it all in Paradise.”
Flanagan’s previous location was open for just five months before it burned down. Those who visit his restaurant now, he says, are often comforted by the experience the owners and staff share, and their understanding.
“It’s the worst day of your life. You go from the high of having a successful business and a home that you’re building with a family to the very next day (it’s) all gone in the blink of an eye. You get out with the clothes on your back and a box of personal items, if you’re lucky.”
From one survivor to the next
Since losing his home in the Camp Fire, Stephen Murray has dedicated much of his time to helping rebuild Paradise and supporting other fire survivors as they get back on their feet.
“I helped in the Bear Fire just with water,” he said. “When the Dixie Fire was right in our backyard, I realized that I had to take initiative and start helping.”
Murray launched into action: He used a non-profit organization he created after the Camp Fire to help raise more than $10,000 for hotel rooms for Dixie Fire evacuees. And he set up a donation center in Paradise and recruited volunteers to help serve the dozens of people who came in each day. Murray and other volunteers gave out cleaning supplies, food, gas money and gift cards, air mattresses, tents and sleeping bags, and they helped connect families who had been forced out of their homes with people who had spare rooms or space in their yards for trailers.
Murray also traveled to other locations, including Greenville, to deliver food and supplies to survivors. Still scarred from his own loss — Murray lost his job and spent eight months in a travel trailer with his wife and baby after the fire — he dove into providing the resources that would best help those who were going through what he had experienced.
Last week, Murray announced the donation center he set up next to a Paradise coffee shop would be closing as he began to look for a new job. But he said he’s trying to find new ways to continue his volunteer efforts and continue helping others trying to rebuild their lives after a fire.
“When the fire calms down and the fire’s out, there’s still a need and I just want people to know that,” he said. “The struggle for me has gone on for almost two years and nine months and I’m still faced with a lot of complications from the Camp Fire.”