|Church members among those fleeing wildfires|
Wildfires race across hills and threaten homes on Nov. 13 near Santa Barbara, Calif.
A UMNS photo by Justin Fox, Wikipedia.
A UMNS Report
By Linda Bloom*
Nov. 17, 2008
Elderly United Methodists who escaped a Southern California mobile
home park before much of it burned to the ground have their church
office manager to thank for alerting them to the danger.
Dennis Wilson, 24, who is employed at First United Methodist Church in
San Fernando, called church members—often waking them up—late on Nov.
14. He warned them about what became known as the "Sayre Fire," named
after a street in nearby Sylmar, and then waited at the church to see
who needed shelter for the night.
Bishop Mary Ann Swenson
Five church members who lived in Oakridge Mobile Home Park lost their
homes as wildfires blazed across Southern California over a period of
several days. Many of the 510 homes destroyed by the Sayre Fire were at
Fanned by near-hurricane force winds at times, Sayre and two other
major fires—along with smaller blazes erupting in the dry brush—forced
massive evacuations of residents, burned tens of thousands of acres and
destroyed hundreds of homes. Gov. Arnold Schwarzennegger has declared a
state of emergency for four counties.
The first fire started Nov. 13. According to information from the
California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, the "Tea Fire" in
Montecito, about 90 miles northwest of Los Angeles in Santa Barbara
County, was expected to be fully contained by the end of the day on Nov.
17. Nearly 2,000 acres were burned and 210 houses destroyed.
The Orange County Fire Authority reported on Nov. 17 that only 40
percent of what is now being referred to as the "Triangle Complex Fire"
had been contained. That fire erupted Nov. 15 in Corona, about 50 miles
inland from Los Angeles, and had burned nearly 29,000 acres. At least
125 homes had been damaged or destroyed by that fire.
United Methodist Bishop Mary Ann Swenson of Los Angeles said that the
church’s response to fire victims was being assessed. "We still don’t
know yet all of the people affected because there were so many fires in
different places," she told United Methodist News Service on Nov. 17.
"But our first response has been a pastoral one."
Lay leaders for the denomination’s California-Pacific Conference were
dispatched Nov. 16 to worship services in "congregations where families
had lost their homes," including First church of San Fernando, where
the Rev. Joseph Choi is pastor, she said.
Members of the 142-member San Fernando congregation opened up their
homes to other members forced to evacuate, according to Wilson. No one
had expected the fire, which started in the mountains, to reach the
mobile home park, but the embers were carried by strong winds. "It just
moved so fast that they were not even able to pack," he explained. "They
left with the clothes on their back."
The morning after the fire, Wilson and Choi started making telephone
calls to the congregation to get a head count. The homes of a few
members in another location had been threatened but did not burn.
Wilson was encouraged by the high spirits of the fire victims. "They were just happy to be in church the next day," he said.
The congregation is looking for temporary housing for those who are
homeless and expects to buy gift cards to allow them to purchase
necessities, he said.
This is not the first time that Swenson, based in the Los Angeles
area for eight years, has helped the church respond to families whose
homes have burned. "It is a very painful autumn reality of life in
Southern California," she said.
A year ago, the Rev. Dudley Johnson, a retired pastor, lost his own
home in the Rancho Bernardo section of San Diego. "I expect to be
talking to him on the phone this week about his helping us for the
pastoral response," Swenson said.
“It is a very painful autumn reality of life in Southern California.”Officials
at the United Methodist Committee on Relief have made initial contact
with conference officials about relief work, according to the Rev. Tom
Hazelwood, UMCOR’s top staff executive for U.S. disaster response.
– Bishop Mary Ann Swenson
"They are still looking at what’s going on," he said. "Their focus
probably will end up being the folks that live in the mobile homes and
the day laborers that work in the other areas."
Swenson noted that the number of homes affected has been higher than
in some past fires and said she expects to request an initial grant from
UMCOR to assist with the response.
In October 2007, another section of Southern California was afflicted
by major wildfires. UMCOR’s response focused on the secondary victims
of those fires in the San Diego area—many of whom were migrant workers
on the region’s vegetable farms.
Relief work was carried out with the California-Pacific Conference,
led by the San Diego district, and Metro United Urban Methodist
Ministries in San Diego.
To contribute to relief efforts in California, checks can be placed
in local United Methodist church offering plates or mailed directly to
UMCOR at P.O. Box 9068, New York, NY 10087. Write "UMCOR Advance No.
901670 Domestic Disaster Response California Wildfires" on the memo line
of the check. For credit card donations, call (800) 554-8583 or visit www.umcor.org.
*Bloom is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in New York.
News media contact: Linda Bloom, New York, (646) 369-3759 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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