The first night, Frederick Dominguez Jr. broke up some branches and built an awning to shield himself and his three children from the storm.
For the next two days they sang church songs and slept inside a rocky culvert as a cold, hard wind bore through the tunnel and his daughter's toes turned black.
The lighter fell in the water. They ate ice and prayed.
"The only food we had was in our thoughts," he said. "We talked about food and how much we hate snow. You're just praying: Get my kids out of here alive."
Dominguez sat grinning in a hospital wheelchair Wednesday, telling a harrowing tale of survival that began Sunday when he and his three children set out to cut down a Christmas tree, then wound up lost, without heavy clothes or gear and fearing death for three nights in Lassen National Forest.
A California Highway Patrol helicopter making its last run before an approaching storm spotted them Wednesday afternoon just north of Inskip. It was in an area blanketed by more than 2 feet of snow that had fallen since the family got turned around and could not find their yellow Chevy pickup before nightfall Sunday.
All four family members survived mostly unscathed.
The CHP rescue crew spotted clothes they had left above the culvert and a "Help" plea written in branches atop the snow.
Alexis Dominguez, 15, was in tears, said CHP pilot David White.
"We see a lot of horrible things," White said, "but it erases it all when we see these wonderful things."
Dozens of local rescuers, as well as those from the Bay Area and Nevada, had joined in a search that began late Monday when Dominguez's ex-wife, Lisa Sams, reported the group missing after Joshua Dominguez, 12, did not arrive at school.
The rescued family members -- Dominguez Jr.; Alexis; Christopher, 18; and Joshua -- were taken to Feather River Hospital, where they drank hot chocolate and doctors checked them for the effects of hypothermia and frostbite before releasing them Wednesday night.
Dr. Kurt Bower said Alexis suffered minor frostbite.
"I was surprised," he said of their condition. "My first inclination was, if they don't know what they're doing, they're already dead."
They didn't, but they weren't.
Dominguez, who moved north this year from Southern California to be closer to his children, said he knew no survival skills and rarely ventured into the woods. He said he relied on faith and parental instinct to shield the children from his fear.
"When you see your kids freaking out, beside themselves ... parents do what they have to do. You'll die for them," he said. "Maybe you want to just cry or give up, but you can't let them see you like that."
The family drank water from the culvert, and Christopher tore up his T-shirt to wrap their frozen feet.
They had left the Paradise Pentecostal Church of God about 2 p.m. Sunday and drove up to the forest with a saw, light clothing and soft sneakers. After searching for an ideal tree and cutting it down, Dominguez said, they headed the wrong way and reached an unfamiliar road.
They turned back, but before long Alexis was exhausted, he said. Night fell. Then it started to snow.
They huddled close under the branch awning, the youngest on the inside, Dominguez and Christopher at the flanks. At one point, Joshua felt a snake on him -- possibly a hallucination, his father said.
Dominguez described the nights as "miserable."
"We were just soaked, just soaking wet and I was just praying we could find a cave," said Dominguez, an assistant youth minister at the church. "My son was scared ... I said, son, I would tell you what I got you for Christmas if I thought we weren't going to make it."
The scariest point in their misadventure, Dominguez said, came when he saw his daughter's blackened toes, when their faith and physical endurance were pushed to the limit.
"We were tested in every single area," he said. "You're really tested."
Sams, the children's mother, quickly greeted them after their rescue.
"I'm just amazed how well they did," she said. "It was like butterflies in my stomach, like if you were going to go on a very first date."
At the church that Sams, Dominguez and the children all attend, often sitting in the same pew, well-wishers had posted a sign: "Freddy, We're Praying."
Their answered prayer came Wednesday, wearing a grin.
Paradise Post staff writer Jennifer Barker and the Associated Press contributed to this story.