Hellbent bikers provide security to Camp Fire evacuees at Chico church

CHICO — When members of the 823 Hellbent Motorcycle Club of Chico rode up to East Avenue Church just days after the Camp Fire began, they weren’t expecting what they saw.

What they expected was a few dozen evacuees. What they saw was hundreds living in fear and chaos.

The bikers had come to drop off 50 of about 100 hygiene kits they’d organized and assembled. They found hundreds of people who’d fled to the church as an unofficial shelter. The men left all 100 of their kits with volunteers, and understanding that it would barely make a dent in the need, they found the church’s pastor, Ron Zimmer to ask, what can we do?

What was needed — desperately — was security, Zimmer explained. Those first days were hectic and unorganized and everything was up for grabs if you got there first. The church volunteers were trying to keep everyone in order but they could only do so much and the Chico Police Department could only come out so many times during the day.

“The first day we called the Chico Police Department three times,” Zimmer said, pausing hesitantly. “They haven’t come out on a call since.”

So he told the bikers: What the evacuees truly needed wasn’t tangible. It wasn’t clothes or money or a hug. They needed someone to keep an eye on their families, to protect their traumatized children, cast a watchful eye over what belongings they still had and to defend the elderly. Looting in the shelter was becoming a problem, with bad actors and transients helping themselves to goods and services meant for survivors. In those early hours, confusion reigned and it was a free-for-all.

So Hellbent 823 got to work. “We did a round and pointed out security concerns to each other,” said chapter President Matt “Straws” Strausbaugh. They “escorted” 60 people out of the shelter during the first hour, and probably 200 total since, he said.

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