“Rachel Lighthall—California, USA,” Liahona, January 2020
Walk around the ashes and rubble where Rachel used to live, and of course you notice all that’s gone. But even after the fire that destroyed Paradise, California, you’ll notice Rachel’s faith as she speaks of how she has seen God’s hand in her life.
Richard M. Romney, photographer
We’re used to having fires in this area, so when I saw the sky looking really smoky that morning, I wasn’t too worried. I was somewhat new to the area, but those who’ve lived in Paradise for a long time—especially those who live by the canyons—have been evacuated before.
This time, however, high winds carried the fire so fast that officials completely underestimated how long it would take to reach us. Most of us had no idea what was going on until the town was burning everywhere. Our situation went from “slightly concerned” to “emergency! Get out!” within one hour.
The evacuation was chaotic—and fast. Most people had to drive through fire to get out of town. As I drove out with my kids, smoke was everywhere. Embers had blown all over town and fires erupted everywhere. A lot of people left with their homes on fire or their neighbor’s home on fire. I didn’t know if our home would be destroyed or not.
As we drove, I had a conversation with God. I prayed that we would get out safely and that our home would be spared. We had only been in our house about two years. As a family, we worked together on improvements. My husband and children helped me redo the countertops and the floors. We called it our “cabin in the woods.” I loved my home, but I tried to be strong enough to submit my will to God’s will.
A few days later, we found out our home was gone. We had made it beautiful, and now it had burned down. But looking back, the time we spent in our house was such a wonderful time. I’m so grateful that God gave our family that time in that house.
One of the most beautiful things I’ve seen and heard as a result of this fire is the testimonies of people with what I call “big faith.” These people saw how God was in the details of their lives. “Big faith” like this is not something you can get overnight. It takes a long time to build.
It reminds me of the parable of the ten virgins. If you don’t have your lamp full, the time to turn to God is before the crisis. When disasters like this fire happen, that’s not the time to start filling your lamp. It’s like when you get in the car and ask your kids to put their seat belts on. Imagine them saying, “I don’t need a seatbelt. When I hear you screaming, then I’ll buckle up!” In a crisis they’d never have time.
After the fire, I’ve noticed that people here with “oil in their lamps” have not suffered as much. They’ve still been mourning, they still have challenges, but they still believe that God cares about them and is in the details of their lives. They know that God is powerful enough that He could have spared their homes from the fire, but they also don’t get mad when things aren’t fair. They accept His will. That’s what I call “big faith.”
Everyone who believes in God has seen His hand in this fire. You probably couldn’t prove to somebody that there’s a God because of one huge miracle, but God has brought about a million small miracles here in Paradise. If you believe in God, you can see His hand everywhere. Even though it’s been challenging, it has also been miraculous. God has helped us learn exactly what we need to learn.
Having “big faith” didn’t spare anyone from mourning their losses. One of the hardest parts about this whole experience is watching the mourning of those I love. I’ve probably done more mourning with them than I’ve done on my own account. Yes, it’s been challenging for my family, and we lost a lot. But we also gained a lot.
Members of the Chico California Stake did so much to serve those affected by the fire. Every person who came to the stake center on evacuation day was housed within hours by other members of the stake. They brought us into their homes and helped us get the things that we needed. I was also amazed by the donations of every kind that we received from Saints all over the world. We’ve been blessed and supported, and we can feel their love. It’s so great to be a Latter-day Saint. I will shout that at the top of my lungs!
When the fire happened, I prayed a lot because I needed to be able to mourn and I needed to teach my children how to mourn. God had some beautiful things to teach me. I learned the importance of “clean mourning.” What this means to me is that you don’t go to dark places with your mourning or go to a place of fear. You don’t let your thoughts go to a place of anger or shame. You mourn the way God would mourn. In this way, mourning is beautiful and healing. It feels more like love.
In this situation, the biggest challenge is the unknown. There are more questions than answers for everyone. We don’t know how fast Paradise can be rebuilt, or if it can be rebuilt because the amount of destruction and loss is incredible.
God has worked with me for years to prepare me for this situation. I’ve had other “disasters” in my life that have helped me know that God is beautifully guiding my life.
There’s nothing hard I go through that doesn’t have perfect and beautiful purpose and meaning. I’ve noticed that when I’ve allowed God to teach me, I’ve always learned from my challenges. God allows us to go through these challenges so we can come to trust Him and love Him. I know that when things get hard, He’s always there.