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Fire response becomes way of life

Faith-based organizations rebuild fire-destroyed homes while ministering to new evacuees

BY LINDA BLOOM | August 28, 2015

Last summer, a wildfire scorched the back of Pateros Community United Methodist Church in Washington State and burned down its parsonage.

This August, as fires once again devastate the drought-plagued western U.S., the church in Pateros is open 24 hours a day to those in need of shelter, food and a place to escape the smoke.

Volunteers from throughout the denomination’s Pacific Northwest Conference, which encompasses Washington and 10 counties in the northern panhandle of Idaho, have been assisting “from Day 1,” said Jim Truitt, who has served as the conference’s United Methodist Volunteers in Mission disaster response coordinator for the past nine years.

It’s all part of a well-coordinated joint effort. “I have never seen, in all the disasters I’ve been involved in, the faith-based organizations work so closely together,” Truitt added. “Early on, we sat down and talked about what the needs were and who had what resources.”

The United Methodist Committee on Relief recently distributed wildfire-related emergency grants to both the Pacific Northwest and California-Nevada conferences.

“The situation is changing daily,” said Greg Forrester, who coordinates the agency’s U.S. disaster response. “Both grants are being used to meet immediate needs of evacuees and assisting churches to set up respite centers for both evacuees and responders.”

Sparked by lightning without rain and aided by high winds and tinder-dry brush and trees, single fires in Chelan, Douglas and Okanogan counties have merged into “complex” infernos.

The Okanogan Complex fire, Truitt said, has “just exploded across the state,” burning across 300,000 acres as it grew to nearly the size of the city of Seattle. “As of this morning, the new fires have set a new record. They are now the largest fires in our state’s history.”

Even before that point, the Washington wildfires claimed the lives of three firefighters with the U.S. Forest Service and injured four others when shifting flames overtook a fire crew Aug. 19 after their vehicle had crashed.

Residents evacuating from those fires to the north and the Chelan Complex fire to the south have fled to Pateros and Brewster, where the Red Cross has opened a shelter.

It’s a new experience for the Rev. Earl Lane, who moved from the other side of the state seven weeks ago to become the pastor of Pateros Community church, which has about 55 people attending worship on an average Sunday. He expressed admiration for the dedication of the congregation there, many of whom are “still processing” their own experiences with last year’s fire. “I’m really proud of my denomination,” he added. “They’ve just really stepped up.”

Most of the people currently seeking shelter at the church are from the north and came with animals that aren’t allowed at the Red Cross shelter. As of mid-day on Aug. 25, three families were in residence, but the numbers fluctuate. “In 20 minutes, I could have 50 people at the door,” Lane said.

Truitt dispatched six clergy and lay persons to Pateros last week to offer support and “simply provide a presence” until the fire chaplains could arrive. He delivered some needed supplies — underwear, toothpaste and gas cards — to the church shelter over the weekend.

Part of the anxiety, Truitt said, is that it often takes a long time to learn what has been lost or saved. “The fires are so severe and the smoke is so thick the assessors simply can’t tell them the status of their homes,” he explained.

“Everybody’s walking on eggshells, everybody’s a bit fearful,” Lane said. “The smoke is an everyday reminder that there’s a fire going on somewhere.”

Just a year ago, the Carlton Complex fire was the largest wildfire in state history and volunteers continue to work on long-term recovery plans.

On Aug. 23, the first two of 11 houses to be rebuilt this year were dedicated even as smoke filled the air, said Truitt, who participated in the ceremony.

“The Amish poured the foundation and framed the house and the Mennonites finished the inside with some help from the Methodists,” he wrote on the conference’s UMVIM Facebook page.

“Funding came from donations and grants from at least four sources, including an UMCOR grant. This rebuild is truly an example of faith-based groups partnering to reach a goal. The smiles on the faces of the homeowners are all it takes to make all the hard work worth it.”

The Rev. Stanley Norman —who serves as co-chair for disaster response with the Rev. Gerri Harvill — believes the Pacific Northwest Conference is better prepared because of last year’s experience.

“When we set up these long-term recovery groups…we try to encourage the communities, once the recovery is complete or nearly so, to not disband those organizations,” he explained. “It’s always harder to put it together from scratch than it is to just reactivate it.”

Money from the conference’s disaster response account was used to help fund disaster case management, with Cathy Earl of UMCOR providing training to 27 individuals last October, several of whom were hired by the long-term recovery group. “That was really an important step and we’ll probably be calling on those same case managers,” Norman said.

More than 50 percent of state residents affected by wildfires are unable to secure fire insurance and receive no federal or state funds, Norman noted, so they depend on nonprofit and faith groups for assistance.

“That is stretching our capabilities,” he acknowledged. “We’re learning to build houses for less.”

Bloom is a United Methodist News Service multimedia reporter based in New York.

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