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CA fire needs linger

When other disaster sites scrape for volunteers, there is good news in California.

BY HEATHER MOYER | JULIAN, Calif. | June 30, 2004


"A lot of people fall through the cracks during recovery - the disabled, the elderly, people who are underinsured."

—Verba Hershberger


In a time when so many other disaster sites are scraping for much-needed volunteers, there is some good news in Julian, Calif.: "Oh, we've got no lack of volunteers," laughed Verba Hershberger, project director for Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS) in Julian.

And that's a major bonus to Hershberger and the work MDS is doing in Julian, where wildfires destroyed more than 700 homes last summer. Verba Hershberger and her husband Freeman have been in the area since January helping coordinate recovery efforts.

Volunteers are working mostly on debris cleanup, focusing on chipping tree limbs. This process is both cleanup and prevention, said Hershberger, and it's keeping them very busy. "We're looking for a second wood chipper because we're so busy," she said, adding that they've received many calls for help from several other communities around Julian.

The Julian area is about 60 miles northeast of San Diego. When the wildfires devastated southern California last summer, many areas were able to clean up and return to normal life fairly quickly. Hershberger said Julian was not as fortunate.

"We're serving the area that lost the most homes - it's an extensive amount of damage," she explained. "This area kind of fell through the cracks. Many people (outside the Julian area) thought everything was back to normal, but residents here couldn't clean up as quickly. The Julian area was left on its own, for the most part."

That's because Julian sits in a huge national forest area, full of large pine trees. MDS is serving the area within a 30-mile radius of Julian. So the tree and brush debris cleanup continues, leaving the Hershbergers grateful for their average of 15 to 20 volunteers coming through each week.

So far, MDS volunteers have completed 117 jobs, putting in more than 1,700 hours of work. "But there's still a lot of work to be done," said Hershberger.

Come September, the recovery process also moves into the home rebuild phase. Hershberger said she's happy that MDS is able to draw so many volunteers from all over the U.S. and Canada to lend a hand in Southern California, something that testifies to the MDS mission of serving those who get left behind in the disaster recovery process.

"A lot of people fall through the cracks during recovery - the disabled, the elderly, people who are underinsured," she said.

This is the second project director assignment for Verba and Freeman Hershberger. The two lived in Arizona for 24 years, and were called into action by serving at another wildfire recovery site in Arizona.

"We sold everything we had and we now live in a fifth-wheel trailer," said Verba Hersehberger. "We got sent here in January, and we'll be here until it's done - unless something else happens and we're called somewhere else.

"We never know where we're going to end up, it's always something interesting and fantastic."

Hershberger added that she's inspired by the volunteers she works with every day. She gave the example of two local Julian women who lost their home to arson a few years ago. The two are now very active volunteers in the wildfire recovery because they told Hershberger 'We want to help because we know how it feels to lose everything.'

"They stepped right in and work at the resource center everyday, they've been great," she said.

As for the rest of the disaster recovery in the Julian area, Hershberger said the only thing lacking is more consistent support from the rest of the faith-based community.

"We could use a little more faith-based help because there's so much work left to do," she explained, adding that much funding is needed for the home reconstruction process.

MDS will do all it can to help rebuild homes, she said, but fundraising assistance is needed.


Related Topics:

Neighborhoods face fire rebuilding

Impact of CA fires may be long-term

Survivors struggle, help others


More links on Wildfires

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