Editor’s note: Hometown Heroes is a limited series in which five people nominated by community members are featured with one selected for a $500 prize from this newspaper.
PARADISE — As the towering blaze spread quickly toward Apple Tree Village, a senior mobile home park, on the morning of Nov. 8, 2018, some residents were still sleeping, unaware of the encroaching destruction.
Manager Stephen Murray had been working to get residents out as quickly as possible and when he realized some weren’t up yet and not answering their doors, he did the only thing he could: he began kicking in the doors.
“I don’t think I realized what we were being faced with at the time, but if people’s cars were still in their driveways, I began kicking down doors,” Murray said.
That morning, Murray kicked down about nine doors and got the residents out of their homes and on the road away from the fire. Despite helping get 287 seniors on the road to safety, Murray said one of his biggest fears was damaging their home in case it managed to survive the inferno.
“It was a huge undertaking,” Murray said. “I was able to record a lot of it and was glad to share my experience.”
With his residents safe, Murray, his wife and his two children at the time made their way to Reno, Nevada where they checked into a hotel, which ended up being full of fire survivors. The valet of the hotel became a hub for donations. Murray quickly began loading up his pickup with donations provided by the Reno community and brought them directly to the shelter in Chico.
In the following years, Murray and his family moved eight times. At one point, the television show Extreme Makeover expressed interest in the family for an episode that would have featured Murray receiving a new home, but unfortunately, the plan fell through thanks to a lack of contractors still in the area. The family found themselves in Corning, Sacramento, Chico and other locations before finally making it back to Paradise.
He found work with a contracting company, but realized that company is alleged to have scammed multiple people rebuilding by taking their money and never going into the building process.
Like so many other moments in his life, Murray decided to take it upon himself, get his general contractor license and build his own house.
“We were able to do a home birth two years ago, so that was a blessing to be able to do that in Paradise,” Murray said.
All of these collected experiences prompted Murray to go all in and start the Coral Apple Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to relocating fire survivors. So far, more than 130 families have found new homes through the foundation.
“We don’t take donation money, that money goes 100% to survivors,” Murray said.
Murray has spent time helping Camp Fire survivors both in Paradise and other communities hit by the fire as well as many of the fires since. He spends much of his time traveling to different burn locations looking for people who might need help and aiding local agencies with donations.
“When the fires happened in Berry Creek, on the night of the fire we sat there on the side of the highway handing out water,” Murray said. “We raised money to help people buy new tires for their trailers. Whatever it takes to help those in need. My nonprofit board is made up of Camp Fire survivors that have all gone through it and understand what the needs are.”
Recently, Murray has been spending a significant amount of time in Hawaii after the Maui fire. Some of his endeavors have included opening a free restaurant on Saturdays for survivors to get food, raising money to provide awareness T-shirts with “Lahaina Strong” printed on them and speaking with various local agencies on what recovery looks like over time. A large part of his work comes down to communication and of course, putting your money where your mouth is.
Murray and his foundation partnered with another group out of Missouri to open a drive-thru near where the Maui Fire occurred. At its height, Murray said they were handing out food to between 800 and 1,200 cars a day.
Today, Murray is once again taking off to Maui, this time to speak with a local community college about disaster recovery and what a five-year plan can look like based on his experience with the Camp Fire.
The individual who nominated Murray spoke highly of his work and the help he’s provided to so many people.
“Stephen was a tremendous help to the town of Paradise during and after the Camp Fire,” the nomination letter said. “He is now in Maui assisting fire survivors there. After the Camp Fire, he formed a nonprofit called Coral Apple Foundation to assist fire survivors. He is always helping someone in need. He truly is a local hero.”
Murray has lived in Paradise since 1987 and said he hopes to stay there for years to come.