Nearly three weeks after the deadliest wildfire in California’s recorded history began, it is fully contained, thanks in part to recent rains, which have also helped to make the smoke-filled air breathable again.
But the catastrophe is far from over for residents of Paradise, California, and surrounding communities. Thousands are living in makeshift shelters. Even those few whose homes and shops survived the firestorm have been unable to return. As often happens, florists are among those who have taken the lead in reaching out to victims of the fire.
“We have 50,000 people who fled their homes,” explained Pam Young of Cambray Rose Florist in Chico, California, “and thousands who had no place to go at all. Everyone I know, including myself, has been working in shelters. My new vocation is working with World Central Kitchen, an amazing organization. I have learned how to prep meals for 8,000 to 10,000 people a day! They’ll be here to help us out as long as we have those kinds of numbers — which we do anticipate, for a long time — because that’s what they do.”
Young still has her own flower shop to run, but like others, she said she is trying to help wherever she can. She also worked on an event to feed and honor first responders — firefighters, dispatchers, and police — on the Tuesday of Thanksgiving week, with flowers for centerpieces donated by Mayesh Wholesale Florist.
The fires have not directly affected California’s major flower-growing regions.
In Sacramento, about 80 miles south of Chico, owners and staff at wholesale florist Flora Fresh Inc. and Floral Resources Sacramento opened the building as a donation site, delivering the donated items to the shelters in Chico. The donations were needed, since most evacuees had to flee their homes so quickly they were able to carry with them little more than the clothes on their backs.
“The outpouring has been incredible,” says Marty Espe of Flora Fresh — so much so that the wholesaler had to stop accepting donations, because the organizations receiving them are backed up with sorting and distribution. Gift cards, redeemable at stores like Walmart or Target, have also been a popular way of providing assistance to the evacuees: more versatile and practical than cash, but more personal.
Flora Fresh has also offered warehouse space to florists who might need it to keep working. For example, Fuller’s Flowers — the long-established, best-known flower shop in Paradise — has a shop that is still standing but inaccessible behind closed roads, and most probably lacking such basics as water, power — and customers, since the town is essentially demolished. The Fuller’s Facebook page testifies that they will fulfill earlier commitments for weddings in January. Beyond that, “at this point they’re probably letting the dust settle,” said Espe.
Other florists, including Oroville Flower Shop in Oroville, California, have offered to share workspace with any who have lost theirs but still have weddings on the books.
“We have a really big shop, with space for another business to work in tandem,” said owner Julie Jackson. Thanksgiving business was slow, and she expects that trend to continue through the holidays. Even 20 miles from Paradise, “people’s minds are on other, emergency things,” she surmises.
The volunteer efforts happen through informal as well as official channels.
“People have contacted me — family members, sorority sisters, people I know on Facebook — to ask, ‘What can we do for the community?’” said Rachelle Neal of Flowers by Rachelle in Chico. “Some have sent me blankets and things that we delivered to the tent cities. Others had a whole truckload, so I sent them to my pastor. I will say that I’ve been overwhelmed by the generosity of the community and people from outside the community.
With searchers still counting the dead, the path ahead is not much easier.
“We’re not looking forward to when the families start trickling in, looking to plan Celebration of Life ceremonies,” Neal said. “That’s going to happen, and it’s going to be hard.”
Bruce Wright is a contributing writer for the Society of American Florists.