Church Members Among Those Fleeing Wildfires

November 20, 2008

By Linda Bloom

(UMNS) Elderly United Methodists who escaped a Southern California mobile home park before much of it burned to the ground have their church office manager to thank for alerting them to the danger.

Dennis Wilson, 24, who is employed at First United Methodist Church in San Fernando, called church members—often waking them up—late on Nov. 14. He warned them about what became known as the "Sayre Fire," named after a street in nearby Sylmar, and then waited at the church to see who needed shelter for the night.

Five church members who lived in Oakridge Mobile Home Park lost their homes as wildfires blazed across Southern California over a period of several days. Many of the 510 homes destroyed by the Sayre Fire were at Oakridge.

Fanned by near-hurricane force winds at times, Sayre and two other major fires—along with smaller blazes erupting in the dry brush—forced massive evacuations of residents, burned tens of thousands of acres and destroyed hundreds of homes. Gov. Arnold Schwarzennegger has declared a state of emergency for four counties.

The first fire started Nov. 13. According to information from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, the "Tea Fire" in Montecito, about 90 miles northwest of Los Angeles in Santa Barbara County, was expected to be fully contained by the end of the day on Nov. 17. Nearly 2,000 acres were burned and 210 houses destroyed.

The Orange County Fire Authority reported on Nov. 17 that only 40 percent of what is now being referred to as the "Triangle Complex Fire" had been contained. That fire erupted Nov. 15 in Corona, about 50 miles inland from Los Angeles, and had burned nearly 29,000 acres. At least 125 homes had been damaged or destroyed by that fire.

Pastoral response

United Methodist Bishop Mary Ann Swenson (shown left) of Los Angeles said that the church’s response to fire victims was being assessed. "We still don’t know yet all of the people affected because there were so many fires in different places," she told United Methodist News Service on Nov. 17. "But our first response has been a pastoral one."

Lay leaders for the denomination’s California-Pacific Conference were dispatched Nov. 16 to worship services in "congregations where families had lost their homes," including First church of San Fernando, where the Rev. Joseph Choi is pastor, she said.

Members of the 142-member San Fernando congregation opened up their homes to other members forced to evacuate, according to Wilson. No one had expected the fire, which started in the mountains, to reach the mobile home park, but the embers were carried by strong winds. "It just moved so fast that they were not even able to pack," he explained. "They left with the clothes on their back."

The morning after the fire, Wilson and Choi started making telephone calls to the congregation to get a head count. The homes of a few members in another location had been threatened but did not burn.

Wilson was encouraged by the high spirits of the fire victims. "They were just happy to be in church the next day," he said.

The congregation is looking for temporary housing for those who are homeless and expects to buy gift cards to allow them to purchase necessities, he said.

'Painful' reality

This is not the first time that Swenson, based in the Los Angeles area for eight years, has helped the church respond to families whose homes have burned. "It is a very painful autumn reality of life in Southern California," she said.

A year ago, the Rev. Dudley Johnson, a retired pastor, lost his own home in the Rancho Bernardo section of San Diego. "I expect to be talking to him on the phone this week about his helping us for the pastoral response," Swenson said.

Officials at the United Methodist Committee on Relief have made initial contact with conference officials about relief work, according to the Rev. Tom Hazelwood, UMCOR’s top staff executive for U.S. disaster response.

"They are still looking at what’s going on," he said. "Their focus probably will end up being the folks that live in the mobile homes and the day laborers that work in the other areas."

Swenson noted that the number of homes affected has been higher than in some past fires and said she expects to request an initial grant from UMCOR to assist with the response.

In October 2007, another section of Southern California was afflicted by major wildfires. UMCOR’s response focused on the secondary victims of those fires in the San Diego area—many of whom were migrant workers on the region’s vegetable farms.

Relief work was carried out with the California-Pacific Conference, led by the San Diego district, and Metro United Urban Methodist Ministries in San Diego.

To contribute to relief efforts in California, checks can be placed in local United Methodist church offering plates or mailed directly to UMCOR at P.O. Box 9068, New York, NY 10087. Write "UMCOR Advance No. 901670 Domestic Disaster Response California Wildfires" on the memo line of the check. For credit card donations, call (800) 554-8583 or visit

Bloom is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in New York.