ELCA News Service

CHICAGO (ELCA) – Some members of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) affected by wildfires in Northern California said that their faith, family and friends sustained them during a difficult time.

“God and my faith and my family and friends got me through,” said Craig Waters, a member of Galilee Lutheran Church in Kelseyville, Calif., who lost his home in Anderson Springs, a community near Middletown. He said about 180 of the 200 homes in his neighborhood were destroyed. “The neighborhood is wiped out but the spirit is still there. There is definitely a resurrection feeling. All of our stuff is gone, everything is wiped out, but it hasn’t killed the spirit,” said Waters, whose family has been in the community for several generations.

Devastations caused by the Valley Fire

Two fires, which started days apart in September, burned more than 200 square miles and are estimated to have caused almost $2 billion in damage. Six people died and thousands of people evacuated from their homes. The Valley fire, located about 90 miles north of San Francisco, destroyed almost 2,000 structures including nearly 1,300 homes. In addition to Waters, two other families from Galilee Lutheran lost their homes in the fire.

Robert Hamilton, a lay leader from Galilee, said the congregation is helping out in the community by collecting money, donating their time at shelters and at workshops focused on surviving trauma. “It’s about us going out into the community and helping wherever we can,” he said. Hamilton said much of what is needed in the first few weeks is helping people regain stability in their lives. “A lot of kids are going to school in places that are not their home school, but they’re going somewhere. The bus routes are all disrupted. People are scattered everywhere. So just trying to get the kids stable and feeling like everything is OK again. It’s tough,” he said. Hamilton said an effort is underway to help provide students with backpacks, school supplies and athletic equipment – “things the students are used to having but now all that stuff is gone.”

On Oct. 11, the congregation celebrated its 50th anniversary. Plans for a celebration had been in the works for over a year and Hamilton said the gathering was “an opportunity to see that life goes on” and also a reminder of what means most to the community during this time. “The care of the spirit is something we hope we don’t lose once the tragic aspect of (the fire) goes away. People have really come together to help each other out,” he said.

Destructions caused by the Valley Fire in Lake County, CA

The Rev. Mark Holmerud, bishop of the ELCA Sierra Pacific Synod, attended the congregation’s celebration and also toured the fire-damaged area. “Growing up in Southern California, I thought I had seen fire damage before,” wrote Holmerud in a Facebook post describing his visit. “But the Valley fire grew more than 50,000 acres in twenty-four hours, or 25 acres per minute. It was clear from the damage we saw today that there was no way to ‘stand your ground’ to protect your home, no way to drive to safety if you waited too long to evacuate.”

Mountain Ranch Lutheran in Mountain Ranch and Faith Lutheran in Murphys are two ELCA congregations located in the area of the Butte fire, which destroyed about 71,000 acres in Amador and Calaveras counties. Five families from Mountain Ranch lost their homes, including William Jungemann, who evacuated his home on Sept. 10. When he returned to the area one week later, he found that his home had been destroyed by the fire. “In the long run I got out of there with my life and we got all our animals out of there and everything else is a plus. We have something to go on with,” said Jungemann.

The Butte Fire burns everything to the ground near Mountain Ranch, CA

Rob Westerhoff, president of Faith Lutheran, said his congregation is assessing the situation and is ready to help wherever needed. One of the members is a real estate agent and is helping to find temporary housing for families in the community who lost their homes. On Oct. 15, Westerhoff and Holmerud traveled through the areas affected by the Butte fire. “Much as I saw on my tour of the damage caused by the Valley fire in Lake County, the damage from the Butte fire was almost too much to take in. We saw many burned out homes, cars, and other structures. The devastation this fire has caused to thousands of people was all around us,” wrote Holmerud in a Facebook post. “It will take 12 to 18 months – if everything goes as well as possible – for these families to rebuild their homes. Counselors and therapists are on hand at schools and community centers to help with the sense of loss, grief, depression and post-traumatic-stress syndrome counseling.”

Assistance is available from various levels of government for immediate relief but is often insufficient to address the needs of the most vulnerable ones in the long term recovery phase of a disaster

Lutheran Disaster Response is working with Lutheran Social Services of Northern California to provide care and comfort to those whose lives have been impacted by the fires, focusing on long-term need. “This process is about being the church and doing what we do best – being faithful and walking with people in need,” said Nancy Nielsen, deputy director of Lutheran Social Services of Northern California. “We need to be present, to listen and to respond thoughtfully. “We are in the process of transitioning from the response and relief stage to the recovery stage,” said Nielsen. “The recovery will be a very long process. It’s a marathon and not a sprint. It will take years, requiring a lot of patience and perseverance.”

Holmerud ended his Oct. 11 Facebook post asking for prayers. “Prayers for all whose lives have been forever changed by the Valley and Butte fires. Prayers for the firefighters and first responders who risked their lives to save many more homes than the number which were destroyed.” “I’m feeling the prayers,” said Waters. “I don’t know how people get through things like this without faith. I guess they do, but I don’t know how.”

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