Hellbent bikers provide security to Camp Fire evacuees at Chico church

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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.

Hellbent California motorcycle group provides security for the East Avenue Church evacuation center Friday in Chico. (Makayla Hopkins — Enterprise-Record)

“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.

“It wasn’t fire victims we were kicking out,” Strausbaugh quickly added. “The local transient population was trying to take advantage of the situation. They were abusive to the volunteers and abusive to each other.” But Strausbaugh said there was nothing violent about the way they asked people to leave — usually just the suggestion of it from a couple of the rough-looking bikers was enough to convince any troublemakers to take the hint and go.

These evacuees aren’t street savvy, he said, “Two weeks ago their lives weren’t going in a direction that involved living in tents on the street.”

So the first task for the Hellbent club was to remove anyone who was threatening victims, causing trouble or scaring the children. Then, Strausbaugh said, “We switched from eject mode to protect mode.”

But providing 24/7 security was too big a job for just the members of Hellbent 823. So “Straws” put the call out across the north state to other clubs, and soon, bikers from as far away as San Joaquin county began coming to help.

Craig Dunbar, with Hellbent 82 North, rattled off some of the dozen-plus clubs that have been volunteering their time and protection services. Their names are as colorful as their jackets; a few include the Jus Brothers from Oroville and Stockton, Sons of Hell out of Redding and the Street Outlaws from Red Bluff, Notorious from Chico, Henchmen and Hessians from San Joaquin, Curb Crawlers from Yuba City, Hells Angels from Sacramento and Dunbar’s fellow Hellbent brothers from Vallejo and Sacramento.

And he makes care to mention the Resurrection Motorcycle Club from Paradise, who nearly all lost their homes but have still been assisting with security.

“They’ve all lost their homes but they’re still out here doing this,” Dunbar said. “They have my respect.”

To the world at large, their leather club jackets mark them as something to be feared, but to the evacuees, it means safety and a watchful eye. On one, a sharp knife sits holstered on his jeans next to a walkie talkie clip. On others, tattoos and heavy skull rings rest around fingers that grip boxes and lug medical supplies around the shelter. “What we do best is to stand there and look ugly,” Strausbaugh joked. “We look hard and we are hard, and if pushed we can push back in a way that isn’t pleasant. But we also have a soft spot for the little guys.”

Between five to 12 men from the various clubs are on patrol at all times. When they heard complaints about cars being broken into, the men adjusted their patrols to include the parking lot and the dirt lot next door. They found used needles next to an area where children were playing and “gently escorted” those people out, Dunbar said.

“We saw a need and came and filled it,” Dunbar said simply. “Bike clubs are often involved in things like this but they’re not the type of guys to go and blow their own horn.”

Dunbar is an Army veteran of 10 years and he said he’s never seen anything like this in his life. “I’ve never felt alternately so helpful and so helpless by the moment,” he said quietly, watching the evacuees shuffle around the busy gymnasium near the back of the church property.

Later, as he sat down for a quick lunch between shifts, a young evacuee came bouncing up to give him a hug. His face lit up with a smile. She chatted with him for a moment and bounced away again. “When you watch a kid dig through a pile of stuffed toys just so they have something to snuggle with … if that doesn’t bring tears to your eyes, you are not a member of the human race,” Dunbar said.

These men live by a code, said Pastor Zimmer. “They have been terrific, outstanding, remarkable.” They focus on family, then work, then community. He said the club members have been a “calming influence” on the shelter during the last two weeks, and are doing the job quietly and efficiently. “They have been faithful in organizing themselves, training each other and setting up shifts,” Zimmer said. “They hold each other accountable.”

For Strausberg, it’s simply a matter of putting the club’s skills where it’s needed most. They’re well aware of their reputation and the way they look to the world, but as he puts it, “We’re like the wolves protecting the lambs. Sometimes it takes a wolf to protect people from the other wolves out there.”

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Robin Epley
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mercurynews.com




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