Churches coping with California fires

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Members of Paradise United Methodist Church were still unsure about the state of their homes or their church as firefighters continued to battle widespread California wildfires.

In addition to the fire that devastated Paradise, a wildfire raging near Los Angeles clobbered the congregation of Malibu United Methodist Church, destroying some members’ homes.

The Paradise church building was rumored to have survived, but the pastor of a nearby church in Willows said there was a lot of uncertainty.

“About 80 percent of Paradise is burnt up, and those that survive will be in the middle of a desolate wasteland,” said the Rev. Dave Rieck, pastor of nearby First United Methodist Church of Willows, on Nov. 12.

Rieck doesn’t know if his home in Paradise was still standing. More than 25,000 people evacuated the area. Paradise is located on a wide ridge about 85 miles north of Sacramento. Church leaders in California knew of no United Methodists who had died in the fires.

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“People desperately need some kind of answer,” Rieck said. “There are an awful lot of homeless people right now.”

The Rev. Robert Chicou, pastor of the Paradise Church, reported a harrowing evacuation.

“I had a tree explode next to my car. The house right next to it went up on fire, and I knew I had to get moving,” he said.

Statewide, at least 31 people died and 150,000 are displaced because of wildfires, according to The Associated Press. Some 228 people remain unaccounted for, but officials said many might be sheltered but unable to communicate because of cell towers being down.

Northern California wildfire victims have scattered to Oakdale, Sacramento and other places north of Paradise, said the Rev. Blake Busick, district superintendent of the California-Nevada Conference.

“There was a lot of difficulty getting out,” he said. “So far as we know people got out OK, but it was quite an ordeal.”

Busick said he heard from churches in the towns of Durham and Chico. Some wildfire victims were getting help from Durham Community United Methodist Church, he said.

“We have several churches in Chico, and some of (those church members) might have been evacuated. The fire did go towards the eastern part of Chico,” Busick said.

Church members of Community United Methodist Church, Quincy, have been providing meals for wildfire victims from Chester Community United Methodist Church, Busick said.

Fred and Lee Ann Dietrich fled their double-wide trailer in the Pheasant Ridge Mobile Estates in Paradise. They were headed to Santa Clara, California, where their sons had booked them a hotel room.

“We’re not coming back until we’re told it’s safe, and that will be just to see what can be salvaged,” Lee Ann Dietrich said. “We are in our 70s and it is scary. We are frightened so we want to get out. We’re going to stop by (Aldersgate United Methodist Church in Chico, California) for a church directory so we know how to get in touch with our friends.

“Then we’re gone.”

Firefighters have also been battling wildfires in southern California since last week. Several members of the Malibu United Methodist Church in Los Angeles lost their homes.

“At the moment, we know that nine church families have lost everything. Their houses are burned to the ground,” said the Rev. Sandy Liddell, pastor.

Liddell said spotty cell service has made checking in on other families a challenge.

The church building remains in an evacuation area, but Liddell has had encouraging reports.

“We’re pretty sure we’re still standing,” she said.

At the United Methodist Church Westlake Village, in the Los Angeles County community of Westlake Village, one family has lost its home to fire and another is awaiting word, said the Rev. Rachel Tabutol, associate pastor.

About half the congregation is in an evacuation zone, and the church itself is just outside it. The building’s interior smells of smoke, Tabutol said.

The Westlake Village church is still coping with the death of Noel Sparks, 21, one of the victims of the Nov. 7 mass shooting at the Borderline Bar & Grill in Thousand Oaks, California. Though she had lately been attending and working at another church, Sparks was part of the United Methodist church as a girl and youth, and her mother, Wendy Anderson, sings in the choir.

“Many members of our church knew her and watched her grow up,” Tabutol said. “It’s a level of grief and processing that’s going on.”

Tabutol said she’s been inspired by Sparks’ family, as well as the families that have confirmed or suspected home loss.

“All three are amazing examples of people of faith,” she said. “They’re leaning on their faith and on God to walk with them through this experience.”

Both the Malibu and Westlake Village congregations worshipped Nov. 11 at the United Methodist Church of Thousand Oaks. The Westlake Village congregation had some time alone in the fellowship hall, then all three congregations worshipped together.

“We had a nice gathering,” said the Rev. John Yoon, pastor of the Thousand Oaks church.

Though some of his church members are in an evacuation zone, he hasn’t heard of any who lost their homes.

His church, an alternative site for a Red Cross evacuation center, is eager to be of help.

“As we hear more from the city and command center, we’ll try to find out what we can do,” Yoon said.

Judy Lewis, the California-Pacific Conference’s disaster response coordinator, said it’s still a time for firefighters and first responders. She said the conference will work with others in the denomination to respond as conditions permit.

Lewis said the Los Angeles area fire caught residents by surprise, becoming a major threat with frightening speed.

“The winds have been tremendously awful,” she said.

Officials at the United Methodist Committee on Relief said they anticipate supporting the California conferences as they identify and respond to the needs of wildfire survivors.

Patterson is a news reporter for United Methodist News Service in Nashville. Hodges reports for UMNS from Dallas. Contact them at (615) 742-5470 or [email protected]. To read more United Methodist news, subscribe to the free Daily or Weekly Digests.

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