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United Methodists to address secondary fire victims

Raging wildfires in Southern California destroyed numerous homes in the Rancho Bernardo area of San Diego. The United Methodist Committee on Relief is focusing on helping secondary victims of the fires that started Oct. 21 and are now mostly contained. UMNS photos by Andrea Booher, FEMA.  

A UMNS Report
By Linda Bloom*

Nov. 6, 2007

While homeowners affected by October wildfires in California are receiving much attention, others suffering different losses are getting less notice.

Those secondary victims will be the main focus of the United Methodist response to the fires, according to the Rev. Tom Hazelwood, head of domestic disaster response for the United Methodist Committee on Relief. Many of the homeowners, he believes, were covered by insurance.

"Primarily, our response work is going to be in the San Diego area," Hazelwood told United Methodist News Service after his Oct. 29-31 assessment visit to Southern California.

A fire crew works into the night on Oct. 26 clearing and monitoring the backburn that was set to stop the Poomacha fire.

The fires started Oct. 21 and spread through San Diego, San Bernardino, Orange, Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, Riverside and Ventura counties, and nearly all were contained as of Nov. 5. The exceptions were the Poomacha fire in San Diego County and the Santiago fire in Orange County, where full containment was expected within the week.

Thousands of families lost their homes or suffered damage. The California insurance commissioner has estimated damages exceeding $1.5 billion.

UMCOR already has given a $10,000 emergency grant to the denomination’s California-Pacific Annual Conference, and Hazelwood expects another request from conference officials, perhaps for as much as $100,000.

Coordinated response

The Rev. Myron Wingfield, district superintendent in San Diego, has formed an ad hoc fire recovery team "to provide a comprehensive, coordinated, collaborative and long-range plan" for response.

UMCOR will partner with Metro United Urban Methodist Ministries in San Diego, which has worked with the relief agency to assist Hurricane Katrina victims who had relocated there. Led by John Hughes, Metro provides direct social services, supports community development and helps local churches working with people in their neighborhoods.

The attention to secondary victims will be similar to the United Methodist response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, which economically impacted workers in or near New York's Twin Towers and the Pentagon.

Those affected by the fires include migrant workers on the region’s vegetable farms. "Many of those farms were damaged or ruined because of the fires," Hazelwood explained, adding that other farms shut down during the crisis. "It’s going to have an impact on the social service community."

In addition to assisting farm workers, he expects UMCOR will provide case management for some families whose homes were destroyed. "I don’t know what the spiritual and emotional impact will be and what resources we need to provide for that as well," he said.

Residents return to what is left of their Rancho Bernardo home.

According to a column by Amanda Martinez in The Nation, the relief and evacuation efforts missed many undocumented workers in the San Diego area, leading the Mexican Consulate, in partnership with advocacy groups, to provide relief efforts.

The Regional Task Force on the Homeless in San Diego estimates more than 1,600 agricultural workers and day laborers live in makeshift settlements in the area. The number of farms in San Diego County ranks second in the nation, the task force said.

Messages of hope

United Methodists also began sharing messages of hope during the week of Nov. 5-11 on cable television networks serving residents of San Diego, Riverside and San Bernardino counties.

Developed by the California-Pacific Conference and United Methodist Communications, the commercials began airing on CNN, CNN Headline News, Fox News Channel, The Weather Channel and MSNBC.

"In the past few weeks, we’ve lost a lot of things, but we still have hope. We still have kindness. We still have gifts to share with others," the commercial says. "We are here to serve this community as it rebuilds. Together, we can make a difference. Our hearts, our minds and our doors are always open."

To contribute to UMCOR’s 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 newsdesk@umcom.org.

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