UMC Pastors Report on Direct and Hidden Impacts of Wildfires

July 10, 2008

By Sue King, CA-NV Disaster Response Coordinator

Pastors around the Conference shared their churches’ response to wildfires, last week, in an email newsletter. The health ministry at First UMC, Watsonville (California) has been checking with home-bound members and elderly who are vulnerable to smoke. Pastors and members in Sparks, Nevada are assisting the homeless with the health impacts of smoke-filled skies in the Sierra Nevada Range. At least two clergy reported direct involvement in rescue and firefighting efforts.
On Wednesday this week, Butte County Pastor Bob Beihler of Paradise UMC spoke with me about community life in the shadow of wildfires. He told about the community’s atmosphere of stress and anxiety because of the recent “blow up” of the Camp fire that raced down to the east side of the Feather River:
“Right now there are probably 100 fire trucks and 1,000 firefighters three-quarters of a mile from me between the church and the west bank of the river, where all the effort is put into preventing the fire from taking hold on the west side, heading into town. The lay leader and I have packed the most important church records and documents into the back and rear seats of my car, along with an emergency pack of supplies, in the event that the precautionary evacuation status turns into immediate evacuation. 
“The smoke from several burning fires [now] is a psychological reminder of ‘precautionary’ or ‘immediate’ evacuation advisories, as well as an oppressive reminder of the constant danger. The smoke is filled with particulate matter, obviously dangerous to even healthy lungs (remember, Paradise is a retirement community with many elderly). Many residents and the hospital in Paradise have evacuated. The stresses of those remaining behind are exacerbated with every phone call from evacuated neighbors or well-intentioned inquiries.
“I would say the thing: besides your prayers, what we need most is a well-documented response plan. We had sermon talk backs on Sundays, people gathered and reported (which I gave to the town manager) on specific evacuation problems, communication problems, etc. What is clear is that: 1) We did a pretty darn good job under stress; 2) Confusion required individual responses which were complicated by communication debacles; and – you could probably figure out the rest.  But a PLAN for DISASTER response would be something I believe every UM church should have. What to do when.....”
Local Church Disaster Planning is one of several UMCOR Disaster Response Trainings that are being offered this fall. Dates are September 18-20 at Los Altos UMC, and September 22-24 at First UMC, Reno, NV. Contact me at 916-374-1582 or for information about this event.