James Burroughs left his home in Sonora at 3:30 a.m. on Nov. 13 after getting a call the previous day from Operation BBQ Relief, a nationwide organization that provides meals for victims and emergency responders of major disasters.
Burroughs, 36, was towing a trailer with a full-sized kitchen that’s typically part of his mobile catering business called Rockin’ Bar-B Authentic Texas BBQ Co., which he started about three years ago with his wife, Krystal, after moving from their hometown of Lubbock, Texas.
At about 7:30 a.m., Burroughs and his friend Tony Perez, of Jamestown, arrived at a business park on the corner of Springfield Drive and Bedford Drive in Chico. They spent the ensuing three days with a number of other volunteers cooking and delivering more than 6,000 meals to survivors of the Camp Fire in Butte County.
“I just wanted to get out there and make sure they were taken care of,” Burroughs said. “All I could think was I’d hope somebody would do that if it were me.”
Burroughs is part of a loose network of Tuolumne County residents and businesses who came together last week to help feed the thousands of people who lost everything in the most destructive blaze in California’s recorded history.
Hundreds of people were still missing Tuesday as the death toll had grown to more than 80 since the Camp Fire began on the morning of Nov. 8 and quickly burned through the Paradise area of Butte County.
More than 12,600 homes and 480 commercial buildings were destroyed.
Burroughs said insurance companies had set up stations in the same business park where he was preparing meals and would send evacuees his way, some of whom had fled their homes days earlier with only the clothes they were wearing.
“It’s easier to think on a full stomach,” he said. “It’s one step you need in the process to get out of that situation.”
One story burned in Burroughs’s memory was of a couple who told him they drove through flames and saw the neighborhood where they had spent the past 40 years burning down all around them.
Burroughs said they told him they were able to save some wedding photos, but lost everything else.
“Those people were rooted there forever and then in the blink of an eye it’s all just ash,” he said.
Another sight that particularly stood out to Burroughs was that of evacuated children, some as young as 3, which reminded him of his 4-year-old daughter and 18-month-old son.
“All I could see was my kids,” Burroughs said. “I’m not really an emotional person, but I had to walk away because I nearly broke down in tears.”
Burroughs joined Operation BBQ Relief through events he competes in that are sanctioned by the Kansas City Barbeque Society.
This marked the first time Burroughs has been deployed by the organization to assist with disaster relief efforts, though he was nearly sent to Florida in the wake of Hurricane Michael early last month.
The organization helped gather food and money to purchase more food to serve the Camp Fire evacuees, which included smoked pork tenderloin, pulled pork, ribeye steaks, ham, turkey, beans, corn, mashed potatoes, and rice.
A generator that powered Burroughs’s mobile kitchen was stolen just days before he left on his mission, but he was able to borrow one from friends Kendra and Robbie Munoz, of Sonora.
Burroughs also brought with him $600 to purchase food that was collected with the help of Tuolumne County residents Chris Lusardi and Micki Rucker at Rucker’s Funky Junk consignment store in downtown Sonora.
“We took donations of food from pretty much anywhere we could get them,” he said. “We were buying places completely out so we had enough protein for people.”
After coming home Thursday night, Burroughs said he felt ill the next day and went to see a doctor who told him he was suffering from smoke inhalation, exhaustion, and a common cold. He said they cooked food nearly nonstop for 16 hours a day while in Chico, and at night slept on cots in his trailer.
Burroughs said he plans on returning to the area of the fire in the next month as some of the immediate relief efforts die down to continue helping with the massive need that will remain for the foreseeable future with so many people displaced.
Brandon Burd, 33, of Sonora, traveled to Chico early Saturday morning towing the large smoker pit he built himself out of a 250-gallon propane tank.
Burd recently launched a similar mobile catering business called Smokin’ B’s Bar-B-Q, along with his girlfriend, Brittney Anne, her sister, Breanna Taylor, and Taylor’s husband, Brad, an engineer who works for the City of Lathrop and previously worked for Tesla.
The group brought hundreds of pounds of meat that was donated by a variety of businesses from in and outside Tuolumne County, including 300 pounds of turkey from Diestel Turkey Ranch in Sonora, 250 pounds of pork from Four Seasons Catering in San Diego, and 50 pounds of ground beef and roughly 50 pounds of ham steaks from Rawhide Meats in Jamestown.
Other donations that they gathered and used to help feed evacuees and emergency responders included a pallet of beans, BBQ sauce, napkins, cups, plates and utensils from ABC Supply Co. in East Sonora.
Mother Lode Carpet and Upholstery Cleaning towed a trailer of supplies and packed an SUV full of supplies, while A & K Trees of Sonora donated a load of oak firewood for the smoker and a number of Burd’s customers and his mother, Luann, pitched in donations as well.
Burd said the donations were pulled together by Lori Welsh, who lives in Sonora and was already in Chico because some of her family lives in the area of the fire. Cheree Alma, of Chico, also helped them cook for both days they were in town.
“She (Welsh) made a few phone calls and donations started pouring in, so I thought, ‘Let’s gear up and go out there,’” Burd said.
Justin Patterson, of Mi-Wuk Village, helped the team tow supplies and cook the food for evacuees who were camping in the parking lot of a Wal-Mart store in Chico.
Burd said there were still hundreds of people, if not more, sleeping in tents and RVs in the store’s parking lot when they arrived Saturday morning. He estimated they served more than 300 people for lunch and dinner that day.
“We all pitched tents and camped out there with them overnight,” Burd said. “It was like 30 degrees and cold, cold… For them to be doing that for a week is crazy.”
The team went to a church around the corner Sunday morning where they heard there were hundreds of other evacuees being sheltered, but were told by American Red Cross that their services were not needed.
Burd said they next went to Oroville and cooked another roughly 400 meals for emergency responders at the headquarters of Cowboy 911, an organization that rescues animals displaced by wildfires.
Many of the people they fed at Cowboy 911 were volunteers from all over the state who work as animal control officers. Some told them they hadn’t had a real meal in 10 days.
“There were animal rescue people on Sunday saying they were crawling through pipes and sewers to rescue animals,” Burd said.
Burd’s post on Facebook with photos from the two days they were helping with the relief efforts has since gone viral locally, garnering nearly 1,500 shares, 1,000 likes, and 130 comments since Sunday.
While some have hailed the team as hometown heroes, Burd said they don’t consider themselves as such.
“We’re just people who went up there and tried to help,” he said. “We couldn’t have done any of that without the donations from the people of Tuolumne County.”
Contact Alex MacLean at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 588-4530.