No end in sight for church wildfire response

The evening session of vacation Bible school was just wrapping up at First United Methodist Church in Redding, California, when the word came — the Carr Fire was advancing and it was time to evacuate.

The Rev. Joe Major, his wife, Julia, and dozens of church members loaded into cars and navigated clogged roads, along with thousands of other residents leaving the area on July 26.

“This fire was explosive,” Major recalled. “The people in the northern neighborhoods of Redding had almost no time to get out.”

Unpredictable and fast-moving, the Carr Fire created firewhirls or “firenados” — intense fires that whipped up towering spirals and created winds up to 143 miles per hour. Since July 23, the fire has killed eight and destroyed more than 1,000 residences — and it’s just one of 18 fires still burning in the worst wildfire season in California history.

The United Methodist California-Nevada Conference responded in Redding by distributing more than $5,000 in gift cards for Walmart, groceries and fuel to evacuees.

That came on the heels of response efforts for a series of other fires, beginning in June with the Pawnee Fire in Lake County and the Klamathon Fire in Siskiyou County — all on top of ongoing recovery efforts for the October 2017 wildfires and in previous years.   

Due to warmer weather, drought and more home construction in forest areas, California is seeing earlier, longer and more destructive wildfire seasons. Sonja Edd-Bennett, director of the conference’s disaster response ministry, worries this could become a “new normal.”

“We haven’t even hit the height of the fire season yet,” she told United Methodist News Service.  “There’s even some concern that we no longer have a fire season, and that these fires could potentially affect us year-round.”

Two fires in the Mendocino Complex fire — geographically the largest wildfire in California history — forced the evacuation of 40,000 of the 65,000 living in Lake County.

All of the seven United Methodist churches in the county have had clergy or church members under evacuation at some point in the last few weeks and at least one family in Shasta Lake United Methodist lost their home. In total, 147 homes were destroyed in an area that was already strained by the loss of 2,000 homes to fires in the last three years.

The home of Charlotte Bailey was destroyed by the wildfires that have ravaged Northern California. Photo courtesy of Charlotte Bailey. 
The home of Charlotte Bailey was destroyed by the wildfires that have ravaged Northern California. Photo courtesy of Charlotte Bailey.

“Only about 10 percent of those homes have been rebuilt, so the county is facing a significant housing crisis as a result,” said the Rev. Shannon Kimbell-Auth, pastor of Middletown United Methodist Church. 

The conference is distributing gift cards for groceries and fuel to evacuees at the local assistance center for the Mendocino Fires in Lucerne — more than $7,000 to date, thanks to funding from the United Methodist Committee on Relief, the conference and donations from local churches.  Churches as far as away as Santa Clara and Fremont have sent gift cards, volunteers or cash to help out.

Even those who aren’t evacuated or in immediate danger are feeling the effects.

“The smoke is affecting people’s health,” said the Rev. Judy Shook, pastor of Ukiah United Methodist Church. “Many people are wearing masks or forced to stay inside with the windows closed. It’s affecting community events.”

At least six firefighters have died so far in the 2018 wildfires, setting a grim record. More than 14,000 firefighters are currently working the fires, about half of them from out of state or overseas. Thousands are based in Ukiah, where planes fly out of the airport to spread fire retardant.

“We see them in our restaurants and people applaud,” Shook said.   

While the fires burned, two United Methodist churches were busy in late July and early August ministering to children still traumatized by last year’s fires.

Ukiah United Methodist and First United Methodist of Santa Rosa each hosted Camp Noah, a free day camp for children in their communities affected by the October 2017 fires, including many whose families had lost their homes.

How you can help

United Methodists wishing to help can make donations directly through UMCOR’s Domestic Disaster Response Advance #901670.

Donations can also be made to the California-Nevada Disaster Response Fund either by check or online.

Developed by Lutheran Social Services, the Camp Noah curriculum uses the story of Noah to teach resiliency and disaster preparedness but does not proselytize or present a religious perspective. Each camp hosted about 40 children; organizers at both churches said the program met a real need.

“There were lots of deep conversations that you might not expect 6-year-olds to have,” said the Rev. Lori Sawdon, pastor of First Church in Santa Rosa.

Many children took advantage of a quiet room set aside for the camp and staffed with counselors ready to listen.  “One mother told me that her son didn’t cry himself to sleep for two nights in a row — something he’s done since last year’s fire, until Camp Noah,” Sawdon added.

Disaster relief staff expect a similarly long road for recovery and rebuilding long after the 2018 fires are contained. Edd-Bennett says the next step is to assess needs; she’s planning to apply for long-term UMCOR recovery grants to assist in the Redding and Shasta Lake communities.

Meanwhile, UMCOR is still working in places like Weed, California, where a fire struck four years ago.

“UMCOR does not abandon the community after the initial response,” said the Rev. Toni Hartman, pastor of Yreka United Methodist Church. “They’ve stayed and worked with them through the whole process.”

In Redding, Major and his wife remained evacuated for about a week, along 80 people in the congregation of 300. The church and the Majors’ home were safe, but eight other church families lost their homes. Bishop Minerva Carcaño preached at Redding on Aug. 5 and met with those families.

Church members are now focused on helping Redding recover and rebuild.  They collected supplies and toys for families affected by the fires and volunteered at evacuation centers at Shasta College and Simpson College as well as at shelters for animals separated from their owners.

The Redding church hosted an interfaith prayer vigil for the community and served as home for the Shasta College Vocal Institute, a voice and drama intensive for high school students, which needed to relocate when the college campus was repurposed for evacuees.

“Church members just jumped in,” Major said.  “This is where I see God working through all this — so many people reaching out and caring for one another.”

Jacobs is a freelance writer living in Plano, Texas.

News media contact: Linda Bloom, (615) 742-5470 or To get more United Methodist news, subscribe to the free Daily or Weekly Digests.

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