Rapport colors WA response

BY P.J. HELLER | Tonasket, WA | September 8, 2000


It all began this summer when a wildfire

swept across Mt. Hull, a few miles from

this remote northern Washington town

about 20 miles from the Canadian border.

The mountain was home to an

assortment of people best described as

living an alternative and counterculture

lifestyle. Some were seeking to get

back-to-nature, living in makeshift

shelters off the grid without electricity or

running water. Some were recluses,

rarely venturing from the mountain into

town. There were Vietnam veterans and

their families who had difficulty

functioning in normal society. There were

also aging hippies, fugitives from the law,

communal living groups, and some people who simply wanted to live in peaceful surroundings without

government interference of any kind.

"There was always a mutual suspicion between the people in the town and the people on the mountain,"

noted Pastor Ernie Bolz of the Ellisforde Church of the Brethren in Tonasket and a longtime resident of

the area.

That fact, along with several other out-of-the-ordinary circumstances, presented the faith-based

community with the particularly vexing problem of how to best respond to the needs of the people

affected by what was dubbed the Rocky Hull fire.

The numbers alone fail to tell the true story, according to people familiar with the area. Officially, the

fire, started by lightning strikes early in the morning on July 22, destroyed 37 homes and burned 10,000

acres before it finally was brought under control four days later. Another 70 homes were damaged.

Residents say the actual number of homes affected was much higher but that some of the structures

which were destroyed -- such as a teepee where a family of six lived or a shelter built out of wooden

pallets -- weren't classified as homes so they weren't counted. Some properties housed several

secondary buildings where people lived but which also were not included in the tally.

"There were a lot more families affected than 37," Forney insists.

Because of the small number of homes officially listed as destroyed by the fire, the area was not eligible

for assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Another strike against the

community receiving any aid was the fact that it lacked any infrastructure such as water, sewer lines and

other utilities.

It wasn't until a month and a half after the fire that the Small Business Administration agreed to make

low-interest loans available to residents. Even so, some residents leery of the government say they

simply will not apply for the loans while others who may apply simply won't qualify.

"I'm not confident in my income enough to pay back a loan," admits 52-year-old Cleve Henderson, who

lost his home and everything he owned in the blaze. "I do construction work. I'm just self-employed.

Sometimes I make a living, sometimes I don't. But I don't really need another IOU to pay back a bill,

even if it is a low-interest thing."

It was against this backdrop that the faith-based organizations in Tonasket began coming together to

offer assistance.

"The (Mt. Hull) people themselves are too emotionally disturbed to come and receive help themselves,"

contended Forney, pastor of the Assembly of God Church in Tonasket and one of the leaders of the

relief effort with the North Okanogan Ministerial Association (NOMA). "It's one of the reasons we've

had to be creative.

"Basically, it's been left to the churches to give whatever help they can," he says.

The day after the fire began, a Sunday, members of Forney's congregation asked what they could do to

help the Mt. Hull residents.

"I said, 'I don't know. I don't know a lot of people on Mt. Hull,'" says Forney, who had been at the

congregation only since February. "They've traditionally been closed to religion . . . We didn't have any

inroads to help these people.

"So we prayed that God would help open a door and give us guidance," he says, adding that at the time,

the church had but one box of food and two boxes of clothing for the fire victims.

At 7 o'clock Monday morning, the door was opened.

A woman named Angel, who lived on the mountain with her husband and 16-year-old son, showed up

on Forney's doorstep asking if the churches could help. Volunteer firefighters -- known as "irregulars"

on the mountain -- were desperately in need of more protective clothing -- they were battling the blaze

wearing blue jeans and tennis shoes and having holes burned right through the soles of their shoes -- as

well as water, bandanas with which to cover their faces and vegetarian food. Some of the volunteers

were as young as 11 and were working 15-hour shifts to bring the blaze under control.

Suddenly, the church went from its meager three boxes of supplies to what Forney calls the "miracle" --

a basement literally overflowing with food and clothing. A second miracle occurred as two pickup

trucks from the church began making their way up the mountain.

"To this day, I cannot remember why we took two trucks because we only had one that was full,"

Forney says.

It turned out to be a good thing. After dropping off water at an American Red Cross station, Forney

was approached by someone asking if he was heading to the fire and if the firefighters could use some

additional equipment. He replied that they had requested boots and socks and pants.

"He said, 'Can you send someone with me?'" Forney recalls. "So I sent that other truck with him and

soon it and another truck came back with 12 cases of brand new boots, military boots, fatigues, shirts.

So we ended up taking three pickup trucks full that day."

The effort initially was met with disbelief.

"The reaction we got was, 'Who are you people and where did you come from?'" Forney says. "The first

day this was met with shock and skepticism. Over the next few days, we developed rapport with the

people and so we've been able to help. But there's still a lot that needs to be done."

Since that first day, more than 30 pickup truck loads of supplies have been delivered to the area to

support the volunteers, who are all members of the community. Bolz's church has picked up the tab for

the vegetarian food for the firefighters.

And the relief effort has continued to grow.

"It quickly became apparent that NOMA would get involved," Forney says.

That led to the establishment of a relief fund (donations can be made to the NOMA Fire Relief Fund at

any InterWest Bank or can be sent, earmarked for the NOMA fund, to P.O. Box 667, Tonasket, WA

98855).

NOMA, made up of both evangelical and mainline churches, has taken a multifaceted approach to

helping. For the first few weeks it helped the volunteer fire department, providing food, water,

supplies, and other essentials.

"They would call us two or three times a day and request things and we would go to work trying to get

those things," Forney says.

At the same time, the churches were trying to help the people burned out of their homes. Among the

items they were able to offer were food, clothing, hygiene items and everyday essentials like

silverware, plates and dishes and pots and pans.

"It was just about everything you could imagine," Forney says.

NOMA is now looking at long-term recovery, including helping residents find shelter for the winter and

then helping them obtain materials to rebuild or repair their homes. Although NOMA said it was

working with county officials on the issue of building permits, several mountain residents said they

probably would go ahead and build again without obtaining a permit.

"I don't think anybody's going to be stalled out with needing to get a building permit rather than just

going out and doing something at their place," confirms resident Cleve Henderson. "Instead of a septic

system, they'll just go build another outhouse. They're not going to call up the county (for approval).

"I think everything is going to be sort of business as usual," Henderson predicts. "It's just the lifestyle

that everybody's lived up there. It's not going to really change regardless of what the county decides

has been bad for the neighborhood."

NOMA's fourth goal is to establish a way to help the Mt. Hull residents on a long-term basis.

"Many of these people are dysfunctional and they're not going to become functional," Forney says. "So

long-term we want to help people become as functional as they can and also help provide for their

needs and the needs of their children.

"We're hoping to establish a long-term clothing bank, a food bank in a centralized location and to offer

some educational opportunities . . . We want to help the young people to better themselves by showing

them how to get a job, how to write a resume, and how to function a little better in society."

Two warehouses used by an apple orchard company which recently shut down in Tonasket -- putting

even more pressure on the already economically depressed area -- are being used to house donations of

clothing, furniture and other items.

Neil Molenaar, a Church World Service disaster resource consultant, is assisting NOMA with its disaster

recovery plan. Molenaar is working on behalf of the Washington Association of Churches (WAC).

"As appropriate, I am wearing my CRWRC (Christian Reformed World Relief Committee) regional

manager's hat as it relates to the Christian Reformed Churches (CRC) located in the state of

Washington," he reports.

He notes that Washington VOAD members have pledged their support and resources to assist with the

recovery efforts.

Bolz of the Church of the Brethren in Tonasket says that the fire on the mountain, coupled with the

economic conditions in the town, has created a "crisis within a crisis."

"That's a good assessment," agrees Henderson. "This area is so economically depressed that you just

don't go back to the town (from the mountain) and find a job."

Despite that, the fire appears to have lessened some of the suspicions and tensions between

townspeople and Mt. Hull residents.

"People on the hill didn't think that people (in the town) cared whether they lived or died or what they

did. They just wanted to sweep them under the rug," Forney says. "If anything, this has brought to their

attention that there are people who care.

"We're not trying to proselytize them. We're not trying to force a message down their throats," Forney

says. "We're just trying to let them know that we love them and we care. That message has been well

received.

"We want them to know that they're not alone," he adds. "There is a portion of the community that

wants to reach out a loving hand."


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