A week before her wedding, Megan Janko was in a hotel room in Folsom, Calif., poring over the guest list. She would have rather been at home in her farmhouse, two hours up the California coast, which she shared with her fiancé, Joey Best; her 12-year-old son, Vincent Harris; and Mr. Best’s 11-year-old son, Henry.
But the Camp Fire in their hometown Paradise, Calif., burned that farmhouse to the ground.
Instead of finding a little prewedding tranquillity at the hotel, what Ms. Janko, 31, found at the overbooked Larkspur Landing was a small space to sleep beside Mr. Best, 37, on a foldout sofa. Sharing the room’s double bed were Mr. Best’s parents, Joseph and Katherine Best, whose house was also lost to the fire in Paradise. Vincent was on a narrow cot; Henry moved in with his mother temporarily in a different California city.
The rest of the room was occupied by Joseph and Katherine Best’s two rat terriers, Mr. Best and Ms. Janko’s two bearded dragon lizards and their pair of finches. The lizards took up residence in the bathtub, the finches, in their cage, on the crowded bathroom counter. Ms. Janko and Mr. Best’s own dog, Luke, a German shepherd, had to be dropped at a shelter to avoid eviction from the hotel. He doesn’t get along with the other dogs.
Still, it could have been worse.
Not only did they escape with their lives on Nov. 8, when the Camp Fire blazed its path of destruction through Paradise, “we were fortunate enough to be able to flee to a hotel and not have to do the shelter thing,” Ms. Janko said in a telephone interview, as the terriers barked in the background.
Just after the fire drove Ms. Janko, Mr. Best and their children from their home, they found a hotel in Roseville, a little closer to Paradise. But after a few days, they had to repack their few belongings, one of them a marriage license. “Previous bookings and things,” Ms. Janko explained about the move.
Ms. Janko and Mr. Best met in 2010 in Paradise at Kreative Beginnings, a child-care center Katherine Best opened in 2007. Ms. Janko was applying for a job as a teacher. Mr. Best, a teacher and the school’s bus driver, sat in on the interview alongside his mother, the director.
“There was interest right away,” said Mr. Best, and not only the professional kind. But Ms. Janko, who landed the job, was still in a committed relationship with Vincent’s father.
“I thought of Joey as this really nice guy who was fun to talk to, but nothing else at the time,” she said. As 2011 wound down, though, Ms. Janko’s relationship did, too. The field trips she and Mr. Best took their students, 5 to 12 years old, on several days a week — to the park, to the local bowling alley, to the pool — started feeling like dates. Therapeutic ones.
“We would sit by the pool together, and I would be talking about my issues with my son’s dad, and he would tell me about his breakup with his son’s mom,” she said. Just after school dismissal one day in February 2012, they were cleaning up a classroom when she leaned over and kissed him.
“It was totally out of character for me,” she said. Mr. Best felt the thrill of possibility — he knew something romantic had been brewing — but he held back. He was still recovering from the breakup he had gotten used to discussing with Ms. Janko poolside. “I knew I needed someone who was really going to care about me,” he said.
Before they had a chance to figure out if she was the one, Ms. Janko was laid off by his mother at the child-care center.
“The school almost had to close because a lot of the kids were on state-funded care, and it had been a bad budget year,” she said. She and Vincent moved to Magalia, Calif., to live with her father, Joseph Janko. There, she found teaching work. But the distance didn’t dim her attraction to Mr. Best.
“Joey has the biggest heart, and he’s kind of old-fashioned, which I love,” Ms. Janko said. “I can be 100 percent myself around him.” They nurtured their relationship first through social media, then via phone calls and finally with visits neither wanted to end. Within months, she said, “I decided, I just want to be with this person all the time.”
In 2014, Ms. Janko and Vincent moved into the three-bedroom Paradise farmhouse with Mr. Best and Henry. Two years later, she was rehired by Kreative Beginnings. The boys, who have known each other since their own preschool days, have become like brothers. “It’s a typical blended family, where one minute they’re fighting and the next minute they’re best friends,” Ms. Janko said.
Though they were home most nights watching movies, she and Mr. Best are alternative music fans and regular concertgoers. Mr. Best plays guitar in a four-piece local outfit, Of the Grey, that covers some of their favorite bands, Nine Inch Nails, Tool and Primus.
On the evening of Dec. 9, 2017, Mr. Best was playing with Of the Grey at Lost on Main, a Chico nightclub. Ms. Janko wondered why so many of their Kreative Beginnings co-workers were in the audience.
“It was this great turnout of everyone we worked with, including his parents and his sister,” she said. Sarah Khalil, Mr. Best’s younger sister, was Kreative Beginnings’ office manager. “Joey had tricked me, but I didn’t catch on.”
Ms. Janko, as usual, was holding a guitar pick for Mr. Best. “He has this special pick, and when he needs to use it he motions for me to come up to the stage and give it to him,” she said. When he motioned to her that evening, the band paused. “I ran up there with it, and he started saying all this crazy stuff and then he was down on one knee.” In one hand, he held his guitar. In the other, a diamond solitaire ring. Though she couldn’t make out everything he said through the club’s noise, she does recall the words, “Will you marry me?”
“I love the idea of him proposing that way, but at the moment, to be honest, I was mortified,” Ms. Janko said. That didn’t stop her from whispering a tearful yes.
By early spring, Ms. Janko and Mr. Best had settled on a wedding date, Nov. 24, 2018, and the place, the Honey Run Covered Bridge, a 132-year-old wooden structure that connected Paradise to Chico. The mood of the wedding had been dreamed up by Ms. Janko long before. “I wanted a rustic wedding with votives in Mason jars, baby’s breath, and blush and burgundy colors for November,” she said. “We both love fall.”
In April, Ms. Janko, Mrs. Best and Ms. Khalil went dress shopping in Redding, a city north of Paradise. They collectively fell in love with a strapless, white lace gown with a long train and beading at the waist. The dress wasn’t available in Ms. Janko’s size, so the boutique, Simply Elegant, ordered it. By the time she returned to Redding to pick it up, the California Carr Fire this past summer had set much of Redding ablaze. The dress, though, escaped the flames. When Ms. Janko brought it home to Paradise, she stored it at Ms. Khalil’s house, less than a mile from the farmhouse.
The wedding planning was winding down by fall. “We were just figuring out the final touches, like the tablecloths and centerpieces,” Ms. Janko said.
Then came Nov. 8, a morning so thick with smoke, devastation and panic in Paradise that Ms. Janko has difficulty piecing it together. She remembers parents rushing to Kreative Beginnings at 7:30 a.m. to collect their children once news of the fire hit, then rushing to her own house to look for Mr. Best and their sons. The roads home were gridlocked.
Ms. Janko, with shaky hands gripping the wheel, made it home and, in the space of 15 minutes, helped Mr. Best load her Honda Civic and his Ford Ranger truck with a few valuables. In addition to the marriage license, they included her “Joey box,” a little receptacle in which she kept letters he had written her through the years, and part of his treasured, and valuable, comic book collection — he had sold part of it the year before to buy Ms. Janko’s engagement ring. The couple fled Paradise with the boys, birds and finches in Ms. Janko’s car and Luke, the German shepherd, with Mr. Best in the truck.
The road out of town was an inferno. “The boys were hysterical,” Ms. Janko said. “We kept driving and driving, and I kept looking in the rearview, afraid they were going to see flames coming at us.”
Ms. Janko, Mr. Best and his parents found each other on safer ground within hours in a Costco parking lot in Chico. Ms. Khalil, her husband, Nader Khalil, and their eight-month-old daughter, Iris, arrived a little later. Ms. Khalil had been among the first notified on Nov. 8 that her Paradise house was burning. Before 7:30 a.m., she had already returned home from her desk at Kreative Beginnings to make sure her husband and daughter had evacuated. As word of the fire’s increasing fury spread, she went home again for baby supplies. Before she left school that second time, a shy inquiry was made by her future sister-in-law.
“I was worried I was going to seem insensitive if I asked her to grab the dress,” Ms. Janko said. She was quickly reassured: “It’s on my list,” Ms. Khalil told her.
On Nov. 24, Ms. Janko zipped into that dress and married Mr. Best at the Creekside Rose Garden, the site the couple initially chose for their reception. The historic Honey Run Covered Bridge didn’t survive the fire. Neither did Kreative Beginnings or any of the Best family houses.
Intact and much in evidence, though, was the good will of more than 150 guests, at least 50 of whom were fellow Paradise evacuees who lost their homes.
Also in attendance was a new friend, Nicole Vejar, who works for the Oakdale Golf and Country Club. After seeing a local news piece about the couple, she volunteered her services as a wedding coordinator and caterer, enlisting Inday’s, a nearby Filipino restaurant, to provide a reception dinner of chicken adobo, jasmine rice and cucumber ginger salad.
“There are angels walking around among us,” said Mr. Best, in a navy tweed suit with a burgundy tie. His groomsmen — his father, Henry, Vincent, and Justin Hurd, an old friend — wore gray suits with burgundy ties. All the suits had been ordered from overseas before the fire, their delivery rerouted by Mr. Best after he lost his home.
Just before sunset, Ms. Janko walked down an aisle lined with white roses with her father to the tune of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” Her mother, Rhonda Eisenhut of Princeton, Minn., watched from a seat near the altar, a wood-topped gazebo adorned with ivory pillars. Four bridal attendants, including Ms. Khalil, wore burgundy floor-length dresses and held blush bouquets. Armando Rey, Mr. Best’s uncle and the wedding officiant through the Universal Life Church, started the half-hour ceremony with a prayer for those displaced by the Camp Fire. “Lord, only you can make miracles happen, and we’re asking for one,” he said.
Mr. Best and Ms. Janko are not yet sure where they and their boys will settle. A fund-raising site on Facebook has been created for the family.
But “I know somehow we’ll be O.K., that we’re not going to end up on the streets,” Ms. Janko said. For the moment, she was grateful to see her friends and family members out of harm’s way and enjoying themselves under mostly blue skies.
“For us, this is one day to forget the situation we’re in and celebrate,” Ms. Janko said. “We have to remember there’s still joy in this world.”
Kayla Fitzgerald contributed reporting from Chico, Calif.
ON THIS DAY
When Nov. 24, 2018.
Where The Creekside Rose Garden, Chico, Calif.
Well-Earned Breather Days before the wedding, Ms. Janko wasn’t sure the ceremony would be held outside because of air quality in Chico. But by Nov. 24, rain had helped clear the air. The reception was held at an indoor reception room with a wooden dance floor and panoramic views of the rose garden.
Stay Lady Stay Although Mr. Best and Ms. Janko count bands like Nine Inch Nails among their favorites, their first dance was to Bob Dylan’s “Lay Lady Lay,” spun by Larry Duncan, a D.J. who also lost his Paradise home to the Camp Fire but managed to escape with his van and some of his equipment.
Good Cheer In the reception hall, the best man, Joseph Best, toasted the couple, then asked all the guests to stand and shout “love conquers all” as they raised their glasses.
Honeymoon on Hold Just after the wedding, “we had plans to rent a car and drive up the Oregon Coast, then come back through San Francisco and go see Nine Inch Nails there,” Ms. Janko said. But further celebrations may have to wait. “Not knowing what we’re going to come back to is too hard. We need to figure out what happens next.”
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