Presbyterian churches reach out to communities affected by California wildfires

Thousands of acres burned, homes and businesses destroyed as flames spread

by Rick Jones | Presbyterian News Service

Smoke from the Thomas Fire obscures the midday sun in Upper Ojai, California. (Photo by Tim Nafzinger)

LOUISVILLE — It’s been a week since wildfires broke out in southern California and the fires are still raging out of control. There are currently six separate wildfires burning. The Thomas fire, which started in Ventura County, is the worst of the six and is now the fifth-largest wildfire in California history, according to fire officials. Approximately 50,000 additional acres burned on Sunday in the area. Low humidity, accompanied by the Santa Ana winds are making matters worse.

“There are a wide range of problems. There’s still the issue of making sure everyone is safe, especially those in the evacuation zones,” said Katie Wiebe, executive director of the Institute for Congregational Trauma and Growth, in the Presbytery of Santa Barbara. “It has impacted six churches and we have members and staff that are in evacuation zones or affected by smoke and ash.”

Wiebe says some church members have lost homes and there is a high need for counselors to help with insurance issues and assessing needs.

“The urgency has expanded. The area is familiar with fires but nothing to this extent, so it has been overwhelming for people” she said. “First Presbyterian Church of Santa Barbara has been keeping its pre-school open because some of the children’s parents are first responders or are actively involved in supporting relief efforts such as counseling centers or the Red Cross.”

More than 5,500 firefighters from California and surrounding states have been battling the blazes.  Emergency officials report as many as 230,000 acres have burned and more than 800 structures have been destroyed or damaged by the fast-spreading flames.  At last count, authorities say at least 200,000 residents have been forced to evacuate.

Jeff Holland pastors the Ojai Presbyterian Church located in the middle of the Thomas fire area.

“We were in a mandatory evacuation zone until Saturday evening and then were allowed to return. We held services on Sunday,” he said. “For the most part, the congregation has fared well. We have a large youth group and many of their families are not involved in church. Some of them lost their homes so we have started a fund to help.”

Holland says the air quality has been “horrific” and the people have been stressed.

“We had about half of our normal attendance on Sunday. A lot of families are still evacuated or haven’t come back yet because of air quality, but the feel of the services was good,” he said. “People really wanted to come together and see how they could respond as a faith community. The former county fire chief is a member of our congregation and he briefed us on what was going on and everyone was appreciative.”

Presbyterian Disaster Assistance has been in constant contact with the three impacted presbyteries; San Fernando, Pacific and Santa Barbara, providing initial grants for emergency needs.

“We’ve talked about deployment in our initial conference calls and it is still on the table, but not at this time,” said Jim Kirk, PDA’s associate for national disaster response. “Things are still unfolding and our being there would just add one more car to the road and one more hotel room taken out of inventory.”

Kirk says PDA is prepared to deploy a National Response Team if needed to consult with the presbyteries including assessment, emotional and spiritual care support.

Wiebe says church leaders are tired, but still working to reach and meet the needs of their congregations.

“Pastors are holding up as well as can be expected. There’s a lot of comradery and genuine spirit of helpfulness,” she said. “Some pastors are in an evacuation zone and so they’re trying to keep in touch with everyone in the midst of assessing needs.”

Holland says prayers are still needed for everyone involved.

“The fire went from just 50 acres to 10,000 acres in one night,” he said. “My wife works at a hospital and the flames reached the parking lot. She described it as an Armageddon-type scene because the 60 mile-an-hour winds were pushing the flames into town.”


Those interested in making contributions to assist those impacted by the wildfires can click here.

If you prefer to mail a check (please write DR000165 on the memo line), you may send it to:
Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)
P.O. Box 643700
Pittsburg, PA 15264-3700

You may also call Monday Through Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. (EDT), at 1-800-872-3283 and donate by phone.

Presbyterian Disaster Assistance is able to respond quickly to emergencies because of gifts to One Great Hour of Sharing.

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