The country watched in horror as the Camp Fire in Paradise, California, quickly became the most deadly and destructive fire in the Golden State’s history. According to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, over 18,000 structures were destroyed in the fire.
Among those structures was Elisabeth Earley’s family home.
The 21-year-old Berkley student first heard about the fire that was threatening her hometown while in Chile for a semester-long study abroad trip.
“I was glued to my phone for the entire day in shock and disbelief,” she told Liftable, a brand of the Western Journal. “I watched as a seemingly harmless brush fire (of which we are pretty accustomed to by now) turned into an inferno that destroyed over 18,000 buildings in town in a matter of hours.”
The “humble, pine-tree strewn” town that she called home had been destroyed, her family’s law office and many close friends’ homes included.
Even her childhood home, which the family built in 1999, had perished in the Camp Fire flames.
Thankfully, none of the 86 deaths included members of Earley’s family or friends, but the “emotional impact” is something she has said will last for a while.
“Many people, including good friends, were trapped on the roads due to traffic and many had to drive through the flames or escape on foot with anything they could carry in their arms,” she recalled. “For many days no one knew the status of their homes because the fire was only around 90% contained.”
Eventually, a family friend was able to check on Earley’s family’s property and tragically confirmed it had been destroyed.
“I had to steel myself for seeing the first photos, but after having seen so many pictures and videos of destruction, my own house was so unrecognizable that it could have been any one of the thousands of photos coming through on Facebook,” she shared. “It wasn’t until I stepped foot on the property with my parents more than a month later that it began to feel like reality.”
Since the fire, Earley and her family have been slowly re-acquiring the essentials they lost, including tables, chairs, silverware, towels and toiletries. Books weren’t high on the priority list, but Earley soon realized how much peace she felt while reading.
“I’ve realized that the happiest I’ve been since the fire is when I’m deep in a book, protected from the stress and sadness, if only for a few chapters,” she told Liftable.
So her journey to rebuild her beloved library began.
While on a trip to visit her boyfriend in Oregon, Earley knew the popular Powell’s City of Books in Portland was the perfect place to start.
A few friends pitched in and helped her buy around 20 books that first day. She mostly focused on replacing favorite books from her childhood which proved to be more emotional than she originally anticipated.
“Running into familiar stories from my childhood (like Robinson Crusoe) or familiar covers (two iconic Joseph Heller novels) felt like I could grab onto a piece of what home used to be and hold it in my hands again,” she explained.
Wanting to share the moment with fellow book lovers who could fully understand the emotions of replacing beloved books that have been lost, Earley posted in the closed Facebook group “Page Turners by BuzzFeed,” including pictures of her most recent book haul.
The community immediately flooded her post with kind words and many members asked how they could help. Some even encouraged her to post an Amazon Wishlist full of the books that she had not yet replaced.
It only took 24 hours for her wishlist to be completely fulfilled.
“I was deeply touched by the outpouring of love and generosity from the community and it helped remind me of the brightness in the world, especially at a time when things only seemed ash gray,” she said.
The book-lover community gifted Earley with books that she didn’t have the money to replace on her trip to Portland, including the first books of many of her favorite series. Although she still has many books that still need to be replaced, she felt extremely blessed.
The online community, which had originally been a place for Earley to connect with other readers across the world to discuss favorite books, get book recommendations, and receive encouragement, has turned out to be a place filled with more love and support than she ever could have imagined.
“One of my favorite authors, Jorge Luis Borges, once said, ‘I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library,'” she told Liftable. “I may not have Paradise to return to for a long while, but the wonderful members of Page Turners did help build me a library, which is the next best thing.”
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