(PNS) Presbyterian Disaster Assistance uses terms like “unprecedented” and “all-encompassing” when referring to the destructive fires still burning both in Northern and Southern California – especially the Camp Fire that destroyed much of Paradise, Calif., a fire that had claimed at least 79 lives as of Tuesday and destroyed more than 10,000 homes.
Fires in Southern California ignited just a day after a gunman killed 12 people at a country music bar in Thousand Oaks.
“It is unusual for a wildfire to have such an all-encompassing effect on human habitation,” said the Rev. Dr. Laurie Kraus, PDA director. “The concern is that if rains come afterwards, we are looking at mudslides.”
Four California presbyteries — Sacramento, Santa Barbara, San Fernando and Pacific — have requested National Response Team members be sent in following the Thanksgiving holiday. PDA is increasing by $10,000 the amount of an initial grant that’s usually up to $7,500 for each of the affected presbyteries.
“We promise we are going to work hard to put a team together with the appropriate experience and skills” to help people deal with both the fire and shooting disasters, Jim Kirk, PDA’s associate for disaster response in the U.S., said on Monday. “Their purpose is to meet with congregations and presbytery leadership to develop a response plan” for both the fires and the shooting aftermath.
The Rev. David Rohde, pastor of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Westlake Village, said that youth in Thousand Oaks spent last weekend raising money to aid people who lost their home to fire. News outlets reported that when the youth tallied the receipts, their “Epic Lemonade Stand” had raised about $52,000.
On a conference call with PDA staff Monday, Rohde said he and other faith leaders are “figuring out how to walk with the community in various stages of grief. Some aren’t ready for a response yet. You hear from people that the fire has robbed us of our ability to grieve the shooting.”
While the focus has been on the people closest to the fires, the impact is widespread. Smoke from the fires has made the air quality extremely hazardous in communities hundreds of miles away from the Camp Fire.
“Housing is now the issue that’s starting to become a critical focus,” said the Rev. Jim Kitchens, transitional executive presbyter for the Presbytery of Sacramento, which includes Paradise and nearby Chico. “The informal campsite that had been set up in the Walmart parking lot in Chico (was) closed on Sunday, and the Red Cross is working to relocate those families to more established evacuation centers at area fairgrounds.”
Kraus noted that Paradise and Chico are “unusually affordable” California cities.
“A lot of retirees and a lot of working people live in those communities,” she said. “To have the fire target an area where there is affordable housing is an additional tragedy.”
Families are living in tents and have difficulty accessing basic services. Local responders have noted many of those impacted are over the age of 60.
At the invitation of the American Red Cross, PDA has deployed four National Volunteers to work with the Red Cross to provide disaster spiritual care to survivors of the Woolsey Fire in Southern California. Of PDA’s four disaster spiritual care providers dispatched earlier this month, two have returned home. The remaining two have transitioned to Chico at the request of the Red Cross. The team will be providing spiritual care for the survivors of the Camp Fire.
“We take very seriously the privilege of being invited into people’s lives when they are at their lowest point and very vulnerable,” Kraus said.
Of the teams that will be sent in next week, one member’s specialty will be pastoral care, while another’s is organizing. They are among the 100 or so volunteers deployed by PDA through generous support of Presbyterians through such vehicles as One Great Hour of Sharing.
“The disaster is ongoing, and there’s still a lot of anxiety,” said Kirk, who along with Kitchens was in Chico Nov. 11 to worship at Bidwell Presbyterian Church. “There is still a lot of uncertainty about what will happen.”
by Mike Ferguson, Presbyterian News Service
One way to keep up with PDA’s response is to like its Facebook page, www.facebook.com/PDACARES. As Advent draws near, churches that want a tangible way to be involved are invited to create Gift of the Heart Kits, which place essential items in the hands of people who need them. Following the California wildfires, school kits and hygiene kits will be most useful.
More information, including ways to give, can be found at http://pda.pcusa.org/situation/california-fires.