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US Episcopalians step in as 17 die in Californian wildfires

Posted on: October 11, 2017 2:50 PM
This still from a video shot by officers on a California Highway Patrol helicopter shows the ferocity of the fires sweeping the northern part of the state.
Photo Credit: California Highway Patrol

Churches and church halls are helping to accommodate some of the 20,000 people who have been evacuated from their homes in northern California as wild fires tear through the west-coast state. So far, 17 people have been confirmed dead and around 200 people are missing as a result of the fires. More than 100 people are being treated in hospital for the effects of burns and smoke inhalation.

According to CNN, some 2,000 homes and businesses have been destroyed; and 53,000 customers are without power throughout the state. More than 122,000 acres have been burned; and earlier this week the fire was spreading at a rate of 20,000 acres in 12 hours. On Tuesday, the air pollution index reached 486 – more than double the “very unhealthy” level of 201.

Bishop Barry Beisner of the diocese of Northern California told the Episcopal News Service (ENS) that “these tragic fires have greatly impacted some of our congregations. Some of our people have experienced great loss.”

The Revd Jim Richardson, priest-in-charge at the Church of the Incarnation in Santa Rosa is providing shelter to “three people, two dogs and one cat” as well as a handful of people in the church building, which is acting as an unofficial evacuation centre.

Some of his parishioners have lost their homes to the fires; but none are thought to have lost their lives. “They are safe but their homes are not,” he told ENS.

Most parishioners and neighbours who had other places to go have left. “Most people want to get the heck further away from here,” he said, while others “really want to stay close by, hoping they can get back to their houses.”

One of the people being accommodated in the Rectory is the Revd Karen King, interim minister of St Patrick’s Episcopal Church in Kenwood. She was wakened in the middle of the night at her Oakmont Village home, to the east of Santa Rosa. “We could see the flames jumping on the top of the ridges of Annadel [State Park] that separate us from Kenwood,” she told ENS. “We could see the fires all around us. And we left, thinking we could go home in the morning, and we’ve never been home.”

King later told ENS that they had heard that no homes had been burned in Oakmont, but they still do not know what has happened to the church in Kenwood. “Yesterday morning – it seems so long ago – I was told that a tree had fallen on the office at St Patrick,” she said.

The cause of the fires, which began on Sunday, are not known. But they have been swept along by winds of up to 79 mph. The wind speed dropped on Tuesday but are expected to rise again to around 40 mph today. There area is dry and no rain is forecast.

The US President Donald Trump has declared the situation a “major disaster” and released federal funds to the fire-fighting efforts.

Amongst the dead are an elderly married couple from Napa County: 100-year-old Charles Rippey and his 98-year-old wife Sara. They died when fire ripped through their home.

  • Parts of this article have been taken from a report by Mary Frances Schjonberg for the Episcopal News Service.