A Wall of Destruction
Paul Rickson’s mind was whirring. He had to stay calm and manage his operation, all the while worrying about his team’s well-being and the safety of his own family.
Stepping out of a conference call in the early morning on November 8, his division manager Jeff Kendall informed him that a wildfire had broken out “on the hill” near his hometown of Paradise, California.
At first, Paul was not particularly concerned. Wildfires are quite common in the area around the Chico facility, where he works as a UPS Business Manager. “It’s just another fire,” he thought.
He looked around. Preloaders were working, and drivers were starting to arrive. As he would for any unusual event, Paul started to work through his contingency plans, determining how to continue operations and keep his drivers safe. All was normal in the center.
It would be the last “normal” moments the people of Chico would experience for quite some time.
At that very moment, a raging wall of destruction was headed toward Paul’s home, family, and neighbors – his community – at nearly 50 miles per hour. By the end of the day, the town of Paradise would be in ashes, and thousands of people – including many of the UPSers who had come into work that morning –would learn they had lost everything they owned.
Before the Camp Fire (named after the area where it started near Camp Creek Road) was contained, it would become the most destructive wildfire in California history. It would destroy over 18,000 buildings including nearly 14,000 homes. 52,000 people would be evacuated, and 85 would perish.
Paul’s phone started ringing. Driver after driver called to say they couldn’t come to work. “There’s fire all around me, all around my yard,” one driver said. “I have to take care of my family.”
“One driver sent me a picture of an ember that was as big as his hand,” Paul recounts. “It was surreal.”
Assuring the drivers that they should take care of family first, Paul turned to his next concern: his own family.
“My wife was across town, and the agony of trying to find out where your loved ones are in a time like that is probably one of the most traumatic things you can go through,” says Paul. “I was 15 miles away in Chico, and all I wanted to do was gather my family and get them all into a safe place. It was gut-wrenching.”
“It’s a mountainous region, and there are only a few roads in and out,” says Herb Garrett, Northern California District Director of H.R. “Every single road was blocked by cars trying to get out. It was bumper to bumper traffic and there was fire all around.”
“Some of my family members had to get out of their cars and run,” Paul says. “The only way to get out of town was to run as fast as they could.
“It swept through the town so fast you couldn't react,” Paul adds. “It was everything you could do to grab your vehicle and your loved ones and get out of town. We had a lot of preload employees that were already here. They never got a chance to get anything out. And many of the drivers didn't, either.”
Working as a Family
The Camp Fire would blaze for another two weeks before firefighters could contain it, but the damage in Paradise took only a matter of hours. With flames persisting and even threatening the city of Chico, the rebuilding began.
“In typical UPS fashion, our employees’ attitude remained steadfast and phenomenal,” says Herb. “They continued to work as a family even during those extreme circumstances.”
Indeed, UPSers across the West Region sprang into action. With more than 20 UPSers losing everything to the flames, Chico would see an outpouring of generosity and UPS pride.
“We wanted to do whatever we could to help out,” says H.R. Area Supervisor Khrystal Kester. “We started collecting items to donate, gift cards, whatever we could get for our employees who didn’t have anything. We filled up a trailer in a day and a half.
The Chico employees’ attitudes were just amazing,” says Khrystal. “They just stayed really positive, thankful for everything they had.”
North Cal Community Relations Manager Kevin O’Brien worked with the Red Cross and United Way to set up a direct line for UPSers in need. He found himself overwhelmed by the resiliency of the Chico group.
“Incredible teamwork, incredible family atmosphere,” Kevin says. “Everyone came to work despite their challenges. A lot of tears, a lot of support, a lot of hugs. Everyone really stepped up.”
“A lot of people, partners I’ve worked with, have reached out and sent clothes or a gift card,” says Paul. “They've all come together just to help employees the best they can. No matter where we work, we're all partners. And it really showed during this time.”
“We wanted to let them know that we care. They're not just employees. They’re people we care about,” says Khrystal.
The most requested item? “They just needed more driver uniforms,” Khrystal says.
Keeping Customers in Mind
Even during these hard times, the UPSers in Chico know that customers depend on UPS for vital deliveries and service.
“It immediately became apparent with all the structures down and the people displaced that we needed a dynamic solution for our community,” Herb says.
The Chico Center set up an “expanded customer center,” holding packages for as long as needed for Paradise residents to pick up. Using temporary POD containers, they organized the packages by route for easy pickup for displaced residents.
“For a lot of our customers, the things that they had ordered prior to the fire and the things that they ordered right after the fire were the only possessions they had they had or they were going to have,” says Herb.
“It’s very gratifying to see the smiles on our customers’ faces and hear them share their stories when they come to pick up their packages,” Paul says. “It’s a good feeling to be able to make a positive impact.”
“It’s an emotional time,” says Jeff. “But when you walk into the Chico building, you wouldn't even know it from our employees’ attitudes. Everybody was here for each other, for the community and just doing the job.”
“It’s going to be some time before the wounds heal,” says Paul. “We’re going to have ups and downs, but as long as we have each other, we’re going to be okay. It’s a long road, but we’re marching down that road together as a team.”
The UPS spirit shines brightly in Chico, more brightly even than the flames of the Camp Fire. The people of Paradise have lost their homes, but their community stands. And UPS is there, “doing the job” with teamwork, togetherness, and grit, offering an extended family to our employees and the area they serve. It’s what UPS pride is all about.