Intense Santa Ana winds fueled nearly 20 separate wildfires in Southern California from the Mexican border to the Santa Clarita Valley last week, significantly altering the landscape, destroying thousands of structures, and displacing hundreds of thousands of residents. In the midst of the firestorm The Foursquare Church responds, in many cases literally on the front lines, from the pastors offering spiritual support, to congregants serving as relief volunteers, fire fighters, medical personnel and social services professionals. Below are updates from some of the areas most seriously affected by the fires.
San Bernardino/Riverside Counties
Among the hardest hit regions of Southern California are the mountain resort communities of Big Bear Lake and Lake Arrowhead, which is home to Camp Cedar Crest, a Foursquare camp and conference center. Fires in the Green Valley Lake area near Camp Cedar Crest were responsible for the loss of dozens of private homes; however, the camp itself was spared any significant damage, though flames came within 30 feet of some structures, according to camp personnel who had been closely monitoring the situation.
San Diego County
Situated close to Qualcomm Stadium, one of San Diego’s central sites for evacuees during the worst of the fires this week, Faith Community Foursquare Church had the opportunity to reach out to fire victims. Pastor Mark Slomka reported little actual fire damage to the personal property of people in the congregation, but added, “There’s no one in the area who does not know someone who’s been directly affected or evacuated or lost a home.” Pastor Slomka said that he plans to devote all Sunday’s offering to relief funds through several local emergency agencies.
“It’s been four years since the San Diego area has faced a fire of this magnitude,” Slomka said, noting that while the 2003 fire only affected about 12 people in the congregation, almost 100 have been directly affected in recent days.
In North San Diego County, an area hard hit by the Witch fire, Pastor Joel Phillips of Escondido Christian Center said several families in that Foursquare congregation lost all their possessions in the fire. “We had one case in which the family literally ran for their lives,” Pastor Phillips said.
The Escondido church has become a headquarters of sorts, coordinating efforts with other area churches. Relief coordinator Lin Miller said the main needs are food, drinking water, money and volunteers, and added that a new Web site, www.sdfdf.org, has been created. The site, which includes postings of volunteer opportunities as well as updates on relief efforts, is intended to “unite churches who are taking on the challenge of disaster relief for the 2007 San Diego County fires.”
Jacqueline Linares, who along with her husband, Pablo, pastors Main Street Foursquare Church in Ramona, said one family that had been living in a trailer lost everything in the fires, as did four women who were residents of a local women’s recovery home. “The entire town was evacuated,” she said, adding that some residents, though not homeless, have been unable to go to work because many businesses were closed due to the fires. “Financial setbacks are a biggie,” she said.
Though the Main Street congregation is not large, members put forth significant effort to meet local needs. “Yesterday [Sunday], we provided a hot dinner for the community, and we’re doing it again tonight,” Pastor Linares continued. In fact, both the Ramona church and Pauma Valley Foursquare Church plan to provide evening meals for the public throughout this week, and both have opened their facilities to meet other needs of the community as well.
Dennis Estill, supervisor of the Pacific Coast District (which includes the San Diego area), said that, though evacuations were numerous and approximately 10 Foursquare families in the area lost their homes to the fires, no church buildings were directly affected. “The immediate thing is cleanup–helping people get back into their homes,” he said.
Los Angeles County
In the Santa Clarita area, The Sanctuary, a Foursquare church in Canyon Country, had two families whose houses were total losses, and one family whose house suffered enough damage that it is currently not habitable. “Overall, we’re doing great,” said Debbie Walker, wife of Pastor Marty Walker. She said that people in the congregation have rallied to help, adding, “I got an e-mail from one family asking for everyone to buy gift cards [from a local discount department store] to help the families who’ve lost their possessions.”
In Malibu, the home of the host family for a simple church group pastored by Alan and LaDonna Elliott (who also pastor the Calabasas Foursquare Church) was nearly destroyed by flames that came within 100 feet of the structure. “There was fire coming from two sides, both behind, and, because it is a hillside home, from underneath,” Pastor Alan Elliott said, adding that, while most of the Malibu church group members had to evacuate their homes, “Malibu people are probably more accustomed to fires than most other communities.”
“Everyone is fine–they’re just recovering from stress,” he continued. “It is very, very stressful to think you may have lost your home.” He added that one of the main challenges is helping people understand that some of the emotions they will feel as a result of the trauma may not surface immediately, but may emerge in the days or weeks following the event.
Though the fires did not directly affect the city of Los Angeles, Foursquare fire chaplain Danny Leon said that large numbers of L.A. firefighters were deployed to battle blazes in other locations. One team of four men from his station was gone three days straight, he said, while another four-man team rotated personnel out of the station for a three-day stretch.
Brian Federmann, son of Foursquare pastor Bernie Federmann in Lompoc, Calif., is an engineer on a strike team fighting the Santiago fire in Orange County. Pastor Federmann said that his son’s crew worked 36 hours straight last week. “They were able to protect 65 homes in the area where they were, and saved three homes in particular that were in danger of being engulfed by flames,” he said, adding that Brian, who has fought other large fires in the past, including the Stevenson Ranch fire, said he has “never seen this much fire, with such erratic winds.”
Blessing Amid Tragedy
In the midst of tragedy, there are bright spots. “We have already seen some incredible stories starting to emerge,” Pastor Joel Phillips said. “One couple [the husband helps with worship ministries, and they have a four-year-old son] lost their home, and were at a local discount store, buying basic items. Someone overheard them talking and said, ‘We’re going to pay for all your things.’ Right then and there, the couple was handed a $1000 gift card, and were even able to buy a few toys for their four-year-old, who had lost all his toys in the fire.
“On Monday night, our house became an evacuation center, and at one point, we had 30 people there,” Pastor Phillips continued. “Everybody pitched in and helped cook. Babies and children were running around. It ended up being a neat time.”
Some who lost homes expressed gratitude for the swift response of government officials. “Because the federal government has declared the area a disaster, it looks like one family who lost their home completely will be able to have their house rebuilt,” Debbie Walker said. “The very day after the fire, they received an initial check from the insurance company for $3,000.” And Barry Click, administrative pastor at Escondido Christian Center, said a group of FEMA representatives came to the church Sunday to meet with fire victims.
But the outpouring of assistance from fellow Christians was even more gratifying. “The body of Christ has been awesome,” Pastor Marty Walker said. “We had a lot of people in our congregation who were displaced by the fires, but they just went to the homes of other people in the church.
“It was a moment of confirmation,” he continued. “The church was being exactly what the church is supposed to be. We’re watching the Bible come to life, and it’s been very cool to watch.”
Updates on the California fires and how you can help will be posted at www.foursquare.org
Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.” -Jesus, in Matthew 5:16 (NASB)