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Episcopalians respond as 100,000 flee massive southern California wildfires

Posted on: December 13, 2017 11:50 AM
The Thomas Fire wreaks havoc as it spreads across southern California, forcing nearly 100,000 people to abandon their homes.
Photo Credit: Harry Garvin / Los Angeles Fire Department
Related Categories: disaster, ERD, fire, Los Angeles, relief, USA

A major wildfire sweeping across Southern California is now well into its second week and is continuing to spread. Dubbed the Thomas Fire, it has devastated parts of Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties and has reached the cities of Ventura, Ojai, and Santa Paula since it began on 4 December. The Thomas Fire is already the fifth-largest wildfire in modern California history. Captain Brendan Ripley of the Ventura County Fire Department said that the fire is so large that it is creating its own weather system and is technically a “firestorm”. Nearly 100,000 residents have been forced to flee their homes.

“It was like watching the sun rise over the mountains last night,” the Revd Greg Kimura, Rector of St Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Ojai, told the Episcopal News Service (ENS). “The whole horizon above the mountains was glowing but it wasn’t the sun; it was the fire.”

The Revd Nicole Janelle, an Episcopal priest who currently serves as Executive Director of The Abundant Table, a faith-based farm in Ventura County, and her family are amongst the evacuees. She told ENS: “Given that we have two small children, we thought it would be more prudent to leave on the early end [of the evacuation] than on the later end. I am glad we did because shortly after we left traffic really picked up, and it took some folks several hours to leave the area.”

Efforts to tackle the Thomas Fire – which is visible from space – are being compounded by smaller wildfires in the area, including the large Creek Fire, some 60 miles east of Ventura. States of Emergency have been declared in Ventura and Los Angeles counties and Los Angeles city as firefighters continue to fight the blazes.

Episcopal Relief & Development, the relief agency of the US-based Episcopal Church, is working with the Diocese of Los Angeles to provide emergency support to help the most vulnerable impacted by the wildfires. The assistance includes gift cards and spiritual care for homeless and undocumented people in Ventura, Ojai and Santa Paula.

“One of the challenges in a situation like this is figure out a response when new needs become apparent,” the Very Revd Canon Michael Bamberger, a retired Battalion Chief with the Sierra Madre Volunteer Fire Department, who now serves as Rector of the Church of the Ascension in Sierra Madre, said. Bamberger is the Los Angeles Diocesan Disaster Coordinator and a member of ER&D’s Partners in Response team.

“We used an asset based approach and identified that there are active Laundry Love ministries in Ojai and Ventura,” he said. “It was easy to see how the existing ministry could be amplified to meet the needs of a community to clean their clothes of the smoke residue. In the days ahead, when we become aware of more needs, we will do our best to address them.”

Canon Bamberger and diocesan leadership are in regular communication with clergy and congregational leaders through AlertMedia, an emergency notification platform, to assess and organise responses.

Driven by high, unpredictable winds and mountainous terrain, six fires continue to burn and have destroyed approximately 800 buildings and charred 230,000 acres. More than 5,700 firefighters are battling these swiftly moving fires for the second week. The Southern California wildfires erupted less than two months after thousands of acres and hundreds of buildings and homes were destroyed in wildfires in the northern part of the state.

The Director of ER&D’s US Disaster Team, Katie Mears, commented: “Our church partners have deeply engaged ministries. As the fires continue, we will leverage the expertise of our congregations and diocesan disaster coordinators.”

Since it began, the Thomas Fire has consumed 234,200 acres and is 20 per cent contained. Firefighters have used 2.4 million gallons of water and 1.2 million gallons of fire retardant material to fight the blaze; and have used a combination of controlled burning and the digging of trenches to try to limit its ability to spread.