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As a wildfire chased people from the town of Paradise, California, the traffic flooded right past Klean Kanteen’s headquarters in Chico. All four lanes of the highway were routed so traffic flowed only out of town. For difficult hours, some Klean Kanteen employees stood by that highway, staring at the passing cars, hoping to see their family members inside.
“There was a lot of concern that day that people were getting out, so people were on the outside of the warehouse, on the street, just looking for their family to drive by to see that they got out,” says Jeff Cresswell, who co-owns Klean Kanteen with his sister Michelle Kalberer. “There were people who had to get out of their car, because their car was about ready to catch on fire, they had to get out of their car and jump into the back of somebody’s truck.”
“Every story you hear is of people driving through fire to get out,” Kalberer echoes. “People barely, barely made it out.”
The fire started in the early hours of November 8, and by the end of the day, flames had consumed the entire town of Paradise, a community of roughly 27,000 just 20 minutes outside Chico. At least 63 people died in the fire, and 630 remain missing.
“The scary part is the number of missing people quadrupled since yesterday,” Cresswell says. “Today when I checked in the news, I was just blown away. I knew it was bad, but wow.”
The number of homes lost rose as well, likely because the fire has shifted farther from town and first responders have been able to do a more thorough count. Of 9,700 homes now gone, 12 belonged to Klean Kanteen staff. Another employee knows his house is still standing, but it’s the only one left on the block and will likely need significant restoration before it’s livable. As the community struggles even to tally the severity of what is now considered the state’s most destructive wildfire, the outdoor industry is among those to swell with support for the town’s many displaced residents.
“All of our staff was safe, which was the first mode of operation,’” Kalberer says. “But we went to bed that night saying ‘Wow, I’m not sure if we’re going to have a business tomorrow.’”
Klean Kanteen reacts to the Camp Fire
Klean Kanteen’s headquarters were near some of the areas in Chico that were initially evacuated. But firefighters fought to steer the flames from the town and, with wind working in their favor, the fire shifted away.
Klean Kanteen company offices closed for a couple days shortly after the Thursday the fire started, then re-opened the following Monday. In addition to keeping on top of the company’s business, Cresswell and Kalberer have been busy donating hundreds of bottles at local schools for kids who lost everything and coordinating about 30 employees to volunteer four hours sorting shipping containers of donated clothing that have arrived in Chico.
People have filled five of six open evacuation shelters and tent cities have popped up in store parking lots—and it’s cold, and people are getting sick. Animals, too, have been dropped off at shelters, Kalberer says, and rope leftover from a jump-rope business they’ve since sold has been chopped into dog leashes.
“Everybody is just in so much need of everything,” Kalberer says. “Some of our staff, amazingly, have shown up to work, and I think it’s because it’s normalcy.”
The company created a “fire relief” bank of time off to allow employees to take hours other than sick or vacation time to file insurance claims or look for new housing. The company website also directs donations to United Way of Northern California and American Red Cross. The fire has burned 142,000 acres, and one week in, is just 45 percent contained.
Cresswell and Kalberer have been shuffling tasks around to keep up, including stickering bottles themselves so they could ship a big order. It’s taken a lot of work, but the business is fine and on track.
Support has flooded in from the outdoor industry for Klean’s employees. CLIF Bar, Sherpa, Duluth Trading, LOWA, and KEEN have all reached out. In an email to Creswell sent this week, offering to ship shoes for employees and their family members, Peter Sachs, general manager of LOWA Boots wrote, “We would be glad to send you our [East Coast] precipitation if we could.”
How you can help Klean Kanteen employees who have lost their homes
Klean Kanteen is running a GoFundMe campaign to raise $120,000 for Camp Fire Relief to help the 12 employees who lost their homes. KEEN offered a $10,000 matching grant, which quickly accelerated their total raised to $38,000. Backbone Media donated to the campaign as well. Others, like Big Agnes and Honey Stinger, have reached out to offer what they can and help circulate word on social media.
The goal is to give $10,000 to every employee who needs to rebuild a home, Kalberer says. Some may stay in Chico, and others may land in surrounding communities. Paradise’s town leadership says the town will be rebuilt. That process will take months if not years even to get started.
His last word on this is issue is gratitude, Cresswell says, “for folks who have reached out to us directly, and the great community in general. It’s been pretty awesome. We’re going to continue to support our staff, and support the community, and keep our doors open and continue to run our business the best we can.”