Honey Run Road and its historic covered bridge connected the two municipalities of Chico and Paradise. The bridge was a place where residents from both areas learned to swim, spent lazy summer afternoons with their families, attended pancake breakfasts or got married.
Last year’s Camp Fire took the lives of more than 80 people, decimated the town of Paradise, and claimed the beloved Honey Run Covered Bridge. But it didn’t take long for residents to start rebuilding the bridge — using salvaged materials from the original structure.
At the end of November, Chico resident Karin Willhoit sold heart ornaments crafted from the metal of the original covered bridge. The ornaments were sold at two stores — Made in Chico and Bird in Hand.
“Our whole byline was that ‘love builds bridges’” Willhoit said. “It’s really true. People love that bridge and we’re going to make sure that it gets rebuilt.”
The idea for the ornaments started when Willhoit saw a picture of the debris from the bridge and reached out to Robert Catalano, the president of the Honey Run Bridge Association, to ask if she could have the metal. He agreed. At the time, Christmas was around the corner and heart-shaped ornaments seemed to be the perfect way to use the metal and get the most out of the material resources they had recovered.
The demand for the ornaments exceeded Willhoit’s expectations, so she organized a group of people, including Butikofer, to help make more. Willhoit’s husband is also making birdhouses that use metal from the bridge for the perches. They plan to find other creative ways to raise funds as well. The proceeds from the ornaments and birdhouses are going toward the rebuilding effort.
Among those touched by Willhoit’s efforts was Holly Butikofer, who has lived in Chico for about 13 years. During the peak of the fire, she saw a picture of the bridge with fire behind it on social media.
“I was afraid to see it for the first time without the bridge being here,” Butikofer said during a visit to the bridge site. The Honey Run Covered Bridge has special meaning for Butikofer because she learned to love covered bridges from her mother.
Growing up in Pennsylvania, her mom decorated the house with photographs and memorabilia of covered bridges, including the Kidd’s Mill Covered Bridge. When she moved to California, the love of covered bridges continued.
“I lost my mom in 2002, and so when we moved to Chico, it was our first time moving to a place she hadn’t seen,” Butikofer said. “I wanted to have a piece of her where I now was living, and when I found the covered bridge here, I fell in love. It was like, oh she is here. I do have her here, and she would love this.”
During outings to the bridge, she would watch her kids run across the bridge, throw rocks in the river and splash in the water.
“It was always a comforting thing to come out here,” Butikofer said. “I felt like I got to come be with my mom.”
Willhoit’s ornaments alone raised about $45,000, and with additional donations, pledges and grants, Catalano said they have over $150,000 to help rebuild. He is also waiting to see if the Federal Emergency Management Agency will provide funds for the bridge. If those funds come through, the money raised will help rebuild the park that surrounded the bridge.
They hope to rebuild the bridge exactly the way it was. California State University, Chico’s Computer Animation and Game Development Program led by instructor Frank Pereira and his colleague Daniel Cahill along with four of their students built a 3D scan of the bridge before the fire as a class project using LIDAR technology. After the bridge burned, they connected with the Honey Run Bridge Association to offer their scan to help with rebuilding.
“It’s not a replica. … When I hear the word replica, I think of a model plane that’s compared to the real plane, so it’s not going to be that kind of thing,” Catalano said. “It’s going to be the same size, going to be by the same dimensions. We have the plans, the original plans.”
Although Catalano said it could take from four to six years, he and Willhoit are thankful for the community’s support and enthusiasm. Their first goal is to open the park by April and have the 54th annual pancake breakfast as another fundraiser for rebuilding the bridge.
“When I started really thinking about why this bridge was important, it was the original connector route between Paradise and Chico and Butte Creek Canyon, and so, the symbolism is just ripe there,” Willhoit said. “So to put that back in place would be an enormously symbolic healing but also a tangible place where people can go and just start making happy memories again.”