Carol Hansford has been a part of Hope Christian Church for many years. For a season she watched the church deal with transition and struggle. The founding pastor left, and a series of interim preachers shifted uncertainly; through this time, many people made their exit.
Carol’s husband, Walter, who has now passed away, was president of the board that asked Stan Freitas to move to Paradise, California 10 years ago and take the church in a new direction. Under his leadership they began to grow again.
Meanwhile, Carol dealt with her own transition as she became a widow. Last year Carol married Larry, and they served Hope Christian Church together.
“This church has meant a lot to us,” Carol said. “We’ve been involved in a few years of refurbishing our building and getting it expanded for the growth.”
Yet disaster struck and impeded the church’s path.
Carol and Larry Hansford
What Is Going On?
The members of Hope Christian Church were just putting the finishing touches on their newly renovated building.
“We were going to come Friday to sign our favorite Scriptures on the floor then put carpet on over it. Then we’d be standing on the Word of God, and that meant a lot.”
But the day before that could happen, November 8, 2018, fire struck the town of Paradise.
“I’ve totally lost absolutely everything. I barely escaped with my life,” Carol said of that frightful day.
Carol and Larry had not received the news that the fire was so dangerous or so close. While they had heard the message that there was a small grass fire that had begun, the last they knew, it was 10 miles away and seemed contained.
“All the sudden it grew very dark at 9:00 in the morning,” Carol described. “We saw black smoke come rolling toward us. We said, ‘What is going on?’”
Before they could react, “We were enveloped with fire falling down on us. Within a minute and a half, our whole house was in flames. The fire actually sucked the air out of the house. I had a two-story home. The doors went bang, bang, bang, bang, bang all the way up, just as the air was being sucked out of our house. I couldn’t save my pet or anything, it happened so fast.”
Carol knows she owes her rescue to God. “We just prayed, ‘Lord we need a miracle, and we need it like right now.’ It was divine providence we got out. Larry saved my life actually.”
We Were Trapped
First both Carol and Larry accepted their fate and prepared to be in the arms of Jesus.
“The fire just came down, and we knew we were trapped. We said, ‘Lord we’ll see you in a couple of minutes.’ We started breathing in the black smoke because we thought we would be overcome and then we wouldn’t feel the flames. We held hands and did just that.”
But God’s Spirit moved in Larry as they prayed. Larry told Carol that he sensed the Lord urging him, “‘If you’re going to die today, do it fighting.’ So we wet ourselves down and put a wet towel over our heads and ran through flames,” Carol said. “Fortunately Larry had his keys in his pocket and we got out away from the house.”
The rescue didn’t end there. They still had to make it out of their neighborhood.
“Here’s where the miracle comes in,” Carol described. “We went out our driveway and flame was all around us. Flames were falling on us on all sides, everywhere. We didn’t know we had a route out. We went to the mouth of our street, and there were five cars all piled up, all on fire. We couldn’t see people in them, but we could hear people screaming.”
They tried maneuvering a different path out of the neighborhood, to no avail. So they headed back to entrance where the cars were piled.
“I’m going to tell you what happened, and you can believe it or not. Those cars were moved. They were all pushed to the side. Now we both saw something different at this point, but we both saw a man in a big white truck.”
The man pointed, indicating that Carol and Larry should head to their right. This was the exact opposite of the instinct they had.
“No one goes that way. There’s a curve that’s a fire trap,” she explained. If not for the person pointing, “We would have not gone that way. We would’ve gone left, and we would have been stuck with those people that died on the corner, the five that died there.”
Once out of the neighborhood, they inched their way along at 5 miles per hour.
“We could not see where we were going; it was pitch black with smoke. We actually hit two cars that were in the middle of the road, abandoned.”
They later learned that if they’d gone to the right just a bit more, they could have driven off the side of the steep Paradise canyon ridge. Carol credits God’s hand on their lives, keeping them safe.
God Has a Greater Purpose
Carol and Larry finally made it out of the smoke and were able to observe what they had just escaped.
“It started clearing up, and the air started moving. We turned around and looked back, and there was this big tornado of fire.”
Not everyone was as blessed as this couple.
“We lost friends that we know of, and our whole neighborhood is gone,” Carol mourned.
She considered what once had been her security.
“Don’t put your trust in material things,” Carol noted. “I had a big home, five bedrooms, three baths, a two-story home. It had all the amenities. I thought I was set for the rest of my life. At my age I didn’t want to start over. It wouldn’t have been my choice. But all that stuff is gone, and now it’s time to reinvent ourselves.”
One month after the fire, Carol and Larry were able to visit the remains of Hope Christian Church for the first time. Though shaken and grieving as she looked through the ruins, Carol appeared determined. Despite the chaos and loss of that day, Carol’s trust remains in the one who rescued her.
“You know what, we’re alive. And God has a greater purpose for us. We know it.”
March 2019 update: Carol and Larry made the difficult decision to relocate. They now live in Payson, Arizona, (“a town much like Paradise,” Carol noted) and serve Expedition Church. “We continue to trust God in all things,” said Carol. “God has kept us safe and opened many doors along the way as we continue to faithfully serve Him in any way we can.”
More from Hope Christian Church
We were so moved by the ways we have seen the Lord working through the people of Hope Christian Church that we want you to have the opportunity to hear even more from them. Please follow the link below to find additional stories and videos from Paradise, California.