It was after her husband died in 2015 that Karen Crook became a Lion, at least that is the official story. But it really goes back to her parents – and Paradise. That is the name of the Northern California town located in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountain range where Crook’s parents moved in 1998. They actually lived in Magalia, a community just above Paradise, but many people simply call it all Paradise.And it was — Paradise that is. The area is filled with oak and pine trees. “It’s just beautiful up here,” says Crook, who is 63.ParadiseWhen she looks out her back door, she sees a forest of green. The trees shade her deck. They provide a closeup of nature that can’t be found in the San Francisco Bay Area, where Crook and her family formerly lived. It was because of the trees that Crook followed her parents here after she retired from her job as a life and job skills workshop leader in 2015. She had planned to move with her husband, but he died 11 days before she relocated. Left without a job or a partner, Crook felt lost. She didn’t know what she was doing – or what she wanted to do. What she did know was that she didn’t want her elderly parents making the drive through the mountains to attend the Paradise Host Lions Club’s evening meetings alone. She started driving them to and from the meetings and by default became a regular attendee. At one meeting her father demanded, “When are you finally going to join the club?” The answer, it turned out, was that night.Crook had known about Lions ever since her parents, Charlie and Pat McIntyre, joined in the late 1990s. Charlie was looking for something to do after retiring from his job as a district manager at PepsiCo. He remembered that the Lions had helped him out in the 1970s when he was photographing and fingerprinting children as part of an effort to identify them should they become lost. In Paradise, he decided to attend a meeting and ran into one of the Lions who had come to his aid years before. His fate seemed decided. He became a Lion and went on to serve as governor of District 4-C1. According to Crook, her father also helped save the club after a number of members left to form a separate club.“My mom and dad and two other couples stayed together and rebuilt the club,” says Crook.Charlie died in January 2017, Pat in November. Throughout their illnesses the club was by Crook’s side. At the first meeting after her father’s death she looked at everyone in the room and told them how she felt.“When I joined this club, you were my parents’ friends. Today, you are my family.”The Fire (2018)The morning of the fire the sky was blue and clear. When Crook’s neighbor said they needed to evacuate Crook took her time packing her car. It was only once she was driving that she saw signs of trouble. Going down the mountain was the fastest way out, but she soon discovered the only way out was up the mountain and further into the forest. It took her five and a half hours to make a drive that would normally take her an hour and a half. As she drove Crook saw flames coming up over a nearby mountain and helicopters flying overhead with loads of water. If she had still been living in her home in Paradise, and not in her parent’s home in Magalia, Crook would have had to drive through the flames. When she saw Paradise from the safety of another ridge it was engulfed in flames. The Camp Fire destroyed almost all the structures in Paradise and displaced most of the city’s 25,000 or so residents. At least 85 people were killed. More than 15,000 homes and 5,000 businesses were lost and 50,000 people were evacuated from Paradise and the surrounding area. It took 17 days to contain the fire. It took three weeks for Crook to find out her home had been saved. The fire came within a mile and a half of her house. It took one day for Crook to start checking on club members.The morning after she evacuated Crook was sheltering with family out of the path of the fire and went to a nearby church to use their Internet so she could email club members. She soon discovered that of the club’s 37 members, 30 had lost their homes. Like the town itself, the club was decimated. But Crook wouldn’t let it die. She couldn’t. She had just lost her parents. She was not going to lose the legacy they had left her.“It was like, there’s no way in hell I am going to let this club fall apart,” says Crook. “I have to keep them intact. I have got to keep the family together.”How Are You?After checking in with club members, Crook did what Lions do – she set to work helping her community. When the District 4-C1 governor approached her about setting up a disaster relief center in nearby Chico, Crook found a spot quickly. Money came from a US$10,000 grant from Lions Clubs International and donations from Lions clubs around the world. In total Crook estimates the relief center went through around US$290,000. They stocked the center with groceries, clothing, diapers, bedding, pet food and anything else survivors might need – including hugs.The embraces started on the first or second day of operation. A woman handed Crook her paperwork without making eye contact. Crook pushed the paperwork aside, caught the woman’s attention and asked: “OK. Now, how are you?”The woman began to weep.Crook came around her desk and held the woman in her arms until the woman stopped sobbing. After that just about every single person who came into the center got a hug. Even today when people see Crook on the street, they sometimes ask for a hug.For more than two months Crook helped run the center. Working alongside her was the club’s then vice president, Karen Sanders. A retired nurse, Sanders lost her two-bedroom home and a cat in the fire. She lost antique furniture passed down from her mother and grandmother.“You just look around your house, and all the little things that you collect and live with every day, and you don’t realize how much stuff it is until all of a sudden you don’t have it and go: ‘Where are my nail clippers? Where is this and where is that?’” says Sanders, who is 70.Yet Sanders knew there were those who lost more, those who lost loved ones. She had not. It was true she had lost her home, but she was not homeless. She had family she could stay with. At the center there were those who had nowhere to go and nothing left. Helping them helped her.“Giving somebody else what they need kind of diminishes the pain of your own loss,” says Sanders.It also helped her understand why fire victims sometimes sleep in their cars instead of in a shelter. It was all they had, and they didn’t want to risk losing it. Now that her car was all she had, Sanders understood.“Nobody knows what it feels like, like a fellow survivor,” says Monica Nolan, executive director of Paradise Ridge Chamber of Commerce.As for Crook, Nolan calls her a “true treasure of a human being with a huge service ethic.” After the center closed, Crook and Sanders used the leftover money to buy people gas and grocery cards. One of the recipients of regular gas cards was Kristine Alaways, a teacher’s assistant in Magalia who lost her Paradise home and a dog in the fire. Alaways’ husband was out of work and her job was the family’s sole income. Evacuated more than an hour away by car, Alaways was struggling to pay for gas to get back to the area for work and to deliver her oldest son to his high school. The regular gas cards – and hugs – Crook brought her were a “saving grace”, says Alaways. Without them she might have lost her job, which would have been financially devastating. But it would also have been hard emotionally on her and her son to lose the consistency, the last bit of “normalcy” they had left.Without Crook’s help, she says: “We would have lost everything. Everything.”Look for the Gold VestThere were others helping out, says Alaways, but the Lions were easily accessible to the survivors. When you needed help, all you had to do was “just look for that familiar gold vest,” says Nolan.It’s what people across the nation and world have been doing for decades. But in California, as wildfires increase in intensity, the Lions have taken on an even greater role. Prior to the Camp Fire, the California Lions Foundation gave grants to California clubs and districts, says Larry Dicus, a founding member of the foundation and a past international director.“Then the fire happened,” says Dicus. “And the disaster in Paradise happened.”The foundation decided to expand their work to accept funds that could then be given to Lions in the Paradise area. They received about US$90,000 and another US$40,000 in August 2020 when fires once again raged across California. The money comes from Lions – and others – around the world who want to help.It is badly needed. In September 2020 the August Complex fire became the largest fire in California history. Before October the state had seen six of its largest fires in history.Climate Change Has Made the Fires WorseFires are not new to California, but they are growing in intensity. Scientists like Crystal Kolden, a professor of fire science at the University of California, Merced, cites a number of factors. A century of fire suppression has changed the structure of forests creating a high density of trees and allowing for vegetation, deadwood and biomass to build up. This policy has contributed to the fires, says Kolden, but it is amplified by climate change. The same goes for invasive grasses, some of which have higher flammability.Everything is tied together, says Kolden, but “the big major change and the driving factor is climate change.”There are three main impacts of climate change affecting the intensity of the California fires, says Kolden. The first is drought. California’s droughts last longer and are of greater magnitude. The second is the overlapping of California’s two fire seasons: the hot summer season in the mountains and the fall season along the coast, mainly Southern California, caused by hot dry winds. As hot weather stretches later into the summer the seasons have started to merge. The third thing is extreme weather. None of these are going away, says Kolden. But there are things California can do to mitigate the fires such as vegetation management and the use of prescribed fires. We have mitigated well for other disasters like hurricanes, says Kolden, but with wildfires “we haven’t really done a very good job of implementing those types of widespread mitigations.”The result was another record-breaking year for fires in 2020. Before October, Paradise residents had evacuated – twice. Thousands of the dead trees from the 2018 fire have yet to be removed. Driving through town Crook sees steps that once led to a business and now lead to nothing. A town that once had around 25,000 people now has 4,000 or 5,000.“We didn’t just lose our house, we lost the grocery store clerks, and the restaurants and the favorite waitresses that we knew by name and the mailman, the fire department, police department,” says Sanders. “We lost our whole community and that was probably the hardest thing.”The Lions Club RemainsWhat they didn’t lose was the 80-year-old Paradise Host Lions Club.Even though 16 members moved away after the fire, the club grew from 37 to 43. The pandemic has since diminished the number to 34. Among the new members is the club’s current president, Jerry Smith, who left his own nearby club to join the Paradise Host Lions Club. Crook is now 1st Vice District Governor for District 4-C1. Another new member is Jan Hardy. A first time Lion, Hardy, 76, not only lost her house in the fire, she also lost thousands of Mickey Mouse items dating back to 1955. Her collection of Mickey Mouse clothes, shoes, dolls,and other memorabilia was so impressive the Guinness Book of World Record was scheduled to interview her in January 2019.The fire came first. Her house and all the Micky Mouse treasures were lost.Two years later she has rebuilt her house and is working on rebuilding her collection. Her new home has a Mickey Mouse archway, two Mickey Mouse driveways and a Mickey Mouse bathroom.“It’s called the Mickey Mouse house of Paradise,” says Hardy. But despite the home’s unique décor, Hardy is following in a long line of big footsteps. She’s doing what the Paradise Host Lions have been doing for decades: rebuilding.