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Churches in California work together on evacuations from fast-moving fires

Posted on: October 31, 2019 10:42 AM
California Wildfires 2019
Photo Credit: Wikipedia

[Episcopal News Service] Churches and clergy in California have been helping coordinate evacuations and shelter for hundreds driven from their homes by wildfires sweeping through the state.

As fires began to spread rapidly the clergy and congregations in Healdsburg, Sebastopol and parts of Santa Rosa were forced to leave their homes.

When the initial evacuation order came at 10 am on 26 October, the Rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, the Revd Sally Hubbell started calling her parishioners in Healdsburg, just a few miles south of the Kincade fire in Northern California’s Sonoma County. She wanted to confirm they had places to stay even as she was making plans to close the church and rectory and flee with her own family.

Further south, the Revd Christy Laborda Harris at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Sebastopol left for Santa Rosa, hoping she could still offer her congregation a single Sunday service the next morning.

Those plans changed in an instant overnight.

At 4 am state authorities dramatically expanded the evacuation zone to include Sebastopol and even much of Santa Rosa, where Hubbell was staying with a parishioner. Her congregation had planned to attend Sunday worship with Santa Rosa’s Church of the Incarnation, but that congregation decided to cancel its services as well.

“The wind was howling, and the smell of smoke was everywhere and sirens going off in all corners,” Hubbell told Episcopal News Service. Her family, like many others, fled for the second time in 24 hours.

The evacuations displaced nearly all of St. Paul’s 150 members, most of St. Stephen’s 120 members and about half of Incarnation’s 700 members. The congregations’ clergy leaders remain hopeful that they will be able to resume services at their home churches on 3 November for the feast of All Saints, while the Kincade fire, after burning more than 75,000 acres, was reported to be only 15 per cent contained by 29 October.

Their more pressing priority has been to account for all of their parishioners, through phone calls, texts, email messages and social media posts. They received prayers and offers of support from around the Diocese of Northern California and from the dioceses to the south while also offering mutual support to the Diocese of Los Angeles as it responds to its own menacing fire.

Wildfires have become increasingly common across California after years of drought, and as the state’s annual wildfire season expands outside of its normal months, the fires grow hotter and larger. The Getty fire on the north side of Los Angeles has consumed more than 650 acres so far, and authorities are worried it will intensify and grow with the powerful wind gusts expected this week in Southern California.

Northern California will use $6,000 from a diocesan disaster fund to buy gift cards to help families get by while they wait to return to their homes, and Episcopal Relief & Development awarded the diocese $10,000 to bolster those efforts.

Diocesan leaders have kept in constant contact with local priests since the Kincade fire ignited on 23 October to help coordinate a regional response, including through clergy conference calls and prayer.
Bishop Megan Traquair told ENS that on one of the conference calls, the group paused to pray, a moment that seemed to have a unifying and healing effect. “I felt that I could hear the Holy Spirit knitting us together in the process of that joint prayer,” she said.

The diocese’s practical response has included a joint effort with the neighbouring Diocese of California to find Episcopalians living outside the evacuation zone who are willing to house those who had to flee. Kati Braak, Northern California’s director of operations, said the diocese’s approach is to empower local leaders by providing the resources they need to respond in their communities.

“Our role here is really to provide the pastoral response to our clergy,” Kati Braak said.

And while most of those affected by the evacuations have chosen to stay with relatives or friends, diocesan leaders said it was encouraging to see so many Episcopalians willing to help.

“It’s been incredible, the number of people who have stepped up to offer their homes and space in their homes for their siblings in the north … who need assistance,” the Revd Abbott Bailey, the Diocese of California’s canon to the ordinary, told ENS.

The Diocese of California, which encompasses the San Francisco Bay Area, has not been seriously threatened by fire, but many residents there have been affected by the rolling power outages that the utility company has implemented to minimize risk of new fires. A broken wire on a transmission tower is suspected of causing the Kincade fire.

Another clergyman who was forced to evacuate from Santa Rosa, was the Revd Stephen Shaver who moved to stay with parishioners living farther south. He invited his congregation to join him for a virtual Morning Prayer that was streamed on the church’s Facebook page and led another short Facebook service on the feast day of St. Simon and St. Jude.

“That for me was very important. This is what we do. We are the body of Christ, and even to gather in a virtual way when we can’t gather in person, it helps,” Stephen Shaver said.

The clergyman also recruited a team of parishioners to check on everyone in his congregation’s directory. He created a Google spreadsheet, and each volunteer made call from wherever they were, logging the results on the spreadsheet.

“I’m really proud of the way our folks mobilized and came together,” he said.