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Fire destroys homes

BY GEORGE PIPER | BELLA VISTA, Calif. | October 19, 1999

BELLA VISTA, Calif. (Oct. 19, 1999) -- Shasta County's second wildfire in three weeks claimed dozens of homes and is likely to expand local faith-based recovery efforts.

Initial reports indicate 70 to 100 homes destroyed and losses estimated at $6 million for the 25,925-acre fire that swept across Shasta County early Saturday near the communities of Bella Vista and Palo Cedro. Fueled by 40-mph winds and acres of dry vegetation, the wildfires cut a 17-mile long swath at least 1.5 miles wide in some areas, said Dee Cloyd, a field information specialist for the California Department of Forestry. No cause has been determined.

More than 2,900 firefighters battled the blaze, which was 82 percent contained on Monday morning. A volunteer firefighter died when struck by a firetruck, but no serious injuries were reported. The Community Baptist Church in Bella Vista also burned down.

Local damage assessment teams went house-to-house on Monday to begin compiling the fire's final toll, said Cloyd, and evacuated residents began returning home as early as Sunday afternoon.

For Shasta County residents, the wildfire season is coming to a costly close. On Sept. 26, a 2,500-acre blaze destroyed 64 homes in the Happy Valley area, some 30 miles southwest of Saturday's fire. Since that disaster, local pastors formed an interfaith board to handle local recovery.

Mike Evans, coordinator for FaithWORKS, a county coalition of faith-based organizations that assists people make the transition from welfare to work, is meeting with Bella Vista area ministers to gauge interest for a similar effort there. FaithWORKS is providing 501(c)(3) nonprofit status for the Happy Valley organization, and would do the same for a second interfaith committee.

"We've had a flood of inquiries from the faith community," said Evans, describing the concern that mirrors the Happy Valley disaster. Housing will be the primary need, he added, and he is awaiting final destruction figures from the county.

While Bella Vista and Palo Cedro are more affluent than Happy Valley, Evans says the fire damage initially appears to have affected low-income areas. Based on where the fire occurred, he estimates about half of the destroyed residences will be mobile homes. In any case, the destruction likely will be twice as extensive as Happy Valley, which was declared the 11th worst fire disaster in California history.

Evans' inclination is to form an interfaith group separate from the Happy Valley board to give the Bella Vista organization more local control. A strong cadre of pastors and local officials exists there, he said, and he is confident the faith community will agree to an interfaith effort.

"We're going to try to replicate what we're doing in Happy Valley," he said. "The need for a localized approach is the strongest."

In Happy Valley, the interfaith board is meeting Tuesday and will be busy recruiting a director/case manager. Evans hopes to generate volunteer clerical assistance and donated space. Local churches are considering a general offering for the Happy Valley fire disaster before the Thanksgiving holiday.

Two devastating wildfires in the same season appears unprecedented in Shasta County as officials could not recall worse residential damage during the fire season.

California Gov. Gray Davis also declared a disaster in Bella Vista and is seeking assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Happy Valley also received a disaster declaration, but there is no word whether FEMA might provide federal assistance.

Shasta County isn't the only hot spot in California. A 42,000-acre fire near Lake Berryessa in Napa County claimed one home over the weekend, while in Yuba County, a 5,500-acre blaze caused evacuations in Dobbins and Challenge.

Two other major fires are burning in California, but firefighters have them mostly under control and no property is lost. A 110,000-acre blaze is under way at in Trinity National Forest northwest of Weaverville, while wildfires already consumed 84,000 acres in Los Padres National Forest east of San Luis Obispo.

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