When Melissa Gianotti saw her friends in Paradise lose everything in the Camp Fire last November, it started her thinking.
"If I lost everything in a fire, books would be what I would want back -- books I read to the kids," she realized.
Gianotti has a master's degree in library sciences and works as the librarian at Temple Isaiah in Lafayette and as a substitute librarian in Pleasanton.
"Books are kind of my life," she said.
Melissa and Dustin Gianotti moved to Pleasanton nine years ago and have two sons, Shane, 5, and Weston, 2. They met when they were attending Chico State, not far from Paradise, and still have friends in that area.
"When the fire happened, our good friends lost their home," Gianotti recalled. "They have two young daughters. We started by trying to find stuff for them."
She was able to collect a lot by talking to friends, and it occurred to her: "We don't have a whole lot of money, but we can still affect change."
As she met more fire survivors in Butte County, she set out to replace their books. She reached out via Facebook, where "Books for Butte" now has 1,300 members.
A core group of five women runs the endeavor with Gianotti acting as administrator, and 32,000 books have been given out, including at two giveaway events in Chico.
But mostly the books are mailed directly to fire survivors who have made requests, which run the gamut from children's classics and chapter books to cookbooks to history, poetry, fantasy and thrillers.
"They fill out forms to request books," Gianotti explained. "I have a master list, a record of every book people want. Through that, we have replaced about 5,000 books from across the country."
The senders pay the mailing costs using special book rates, and some have even been mailed from Europe. For the list of requested books, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
As word spread, many folks delivered books directly to Gianotti, so she decided to do a book giveaway in January.
"I convinced my friend who is a principal in Chico to let us use the gym," Gianotti said with a laugh. "We used another friend's garage for storage."
"People stepped forward and became a community of helpers," she added. "At that first giveaway, about 15,000 books went to around 500 survivors."
The Camp Fire, which began Nov. 8, has been the most destructive -- and the deadliest -- wildfire in California. It covered 240 square miles, obliterated almost 19,000 structures, and was responsible for 86 deaths. Gianotti returns to Butte County every few weeks and takes people from the Bay Area with her to view the damage.
"They are floored by what they see," she said. "It still looks very much like a war zone."
Sarah Yang, a Girl Scout in Pleasanton, contacted Gianotti looking for a way to earn her silver badge. Yang and her family became involved, and she made two free little libraries to go in the burn zone.
"They came as a family and volunteered at our last book giveaway," Gianotti said. "It was a powerful experience for her being from Pleasanton and experiencing what people were going through and helping them first hand."
About 2,000 people are living in Paradise now, many in campers, RVs and even tents -- the town had a population over 26,000 before the wildfire.
"The high school, which survived, and the elementary school are totally equipped with books at this point," Gianotti said. "It's the people -- they not just want something to read but want a connection to the past, a memory associated with what they had."
Recipients have told her their children read much more now, partly because they don't have a lot of other things to do. Adults read for escape, some even by lantern light.
A second giveaway Memorial Day weekend distributed 12,000 books.
"Our last giveaway was crazy and hectic," Gianotti said. "But it's not about the numbers; it's about what I see beyond the books."
Among the helpers she spotted a young woman in her late teens whose father had died in the fire. She survived by getting into a creek and remaining there for hours and is now living with a friend.
"This girl volunteered all day in the young adult section, she was laughing and helping people find books," Gianotti said. "I had people tell me it was the first time they'd laughed and smiled since the fire. We've created a community.
"That part has been life-changing," she continued. "And having my son be part of that has been life-changing. I believe raising your kids to be kind and giving is just as important as academics.
"When he literally hands a book to another child -- that is powerful for me."
Paradise is working to replace the entire water system, she said, because all the town's water is toxic, including the creek. That project is estimated at 18 months and full revival of the town is expected to take at least 10 years.
"There are no words for what it looks like or for what people are going through," Gianotti said. "The PTSD is extreme. Every person I talk to says, 'I thought I was going to die, I was running for my life.' Half the people I talk to lost pets."
"My next big project is to try to get a ton of books for self-help, PTSD and anxiety," she said. "When I find one of those books, I get about 15 people who want one."
Those are the only books she is currently personally accepting. But the giving continues through the mail as thousands of books find new owners to cherish them and help them move forward.