SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CNS) -- The Catholic bishops of California welcomed the March 13 decision by…
Wildfire lays waste to parts of California
A series of wildfires is again plaguing California, causing much destruction and loss of life, with the worst to date being one that has struck the small Northern California community of Paradise, wiping out much of the town. Structures belonging to Catholic dioceses have been among those that have sustained damage; Catholic parishes and social service agencies have stepped up to help.
The “Camp Fire” struck Paradise early in the morning on Nov. 8, and by noon most of the town was ablaze. Forty thousand people who lived in and around Paradise were forced to evacuate. By Nov. 12, 80 percent of the homes in the area had been destroyed, along with hundreds of businesses. The initial death toll for the area was 29, with more bodies expected to be recovered in the upcoming days.
‘Like a war zone’
St. Thomas More Parish is located in Paradise. The church and school “miraculously” were not destroyed, reported Deacon Raymond Helgeson, who is assigned to the parish, but a hall and rectory on the grounds were. The possessions and home of the new parochial administrator of the parish, Father Godwin Xavier, were “wiped out,” the deacon reported, and he has fled the area.
Deacon Helgeson said, “Paradise looks like a war zone. They’re saying it’s the most destructive fire in California history.”
The deacon and his wife live in the neighboring community of Magalia, about a 15-minute drive from the parish. They were headed to Mass the morning of Nov. 8, unaware of the fires. He said, “All we had was the clothes on our backs, and some medication we keep in our car.”
After five minutes of driving, they saw the mountains ablaze, with the flames headed toward Paradise. California highway patrolmen ordered residents to evacuate. The deacon and his wife escaped the area in 35 minutes, however, the roadway quickly filled with cars and those who left soon after took five hours to drive the same distance. He said, “We were very lucky to get out quickly.”
Deacon Helgeson and his wife are staying with their son in Sacramento, and have since learned through viewing satellite photographs that their home has been destroyed. He’s currently working with St. John the Baptist Church in Chico, California, the parish closest to St. Thomas More, to help fire victims in the recovery process. Of the parish’s 700 families, about 50 have been in contact with him via social media, and all but one have seen their homes destroyed. As of Nov. 12, 150 residents in the area were still missing.
Deacon Helgeson praised the quick action of first responders, as well as of the federal government in quickly getting resources to the area. Assisting in the recovery efforts will be Catholic Charities, specifically Northern Valley Catholic Social Service (NVCSS), one of three Catholic Charities regions in the Diocese of Sacramento serving the northern part of the diocese. NVCSS has 11 offices, including one in Paradise that was destroyed by the fire. John Watkins, director of Catholic Charities and Social Concerns, said that NVCSS will support the initial relief effort, be involved in disaster case management and crisis counseling, and support the efforts of the St. Vincent de Paul Society and Salvation Army.
|How to Help|
To donate to relief efforts of the Paradise fire, visit:
To aid with the Los Angeles area fires, mail your donation to:
– The Fire Fund c/o SBPR, 3240 Calle Pinon, Santa Barbara, CA 93108.
Watkins noted, “We’ve seen some bad fires, but nothing like this. Paradise is a town that has been around for more than 100 years, and it’s been wiped out. It’s devastating.”
The St. Vincent de Paul Society (SVDP) is setting up a Parish Recovery Assistance Center (PRAC) at St. John the Baptist Church, working with the parish, and local and national SVDP volunteers. Fire victims will have the opportunity to receive immediate assistance, including gift and gas cards, as well as longer-term assistance in navigating the many recovery services available to them through private and public agencies, reported Judy Dietlein, president of the Sacramento Diocesan Council of the St. Vincent de Paul Society.
Dietlein said there was a need for both volunteers and monetary donations. She stressed that it is going to be a long-term recovery effort, and “we’re going to help as many people as possible to get through this.”
The shock of loss
Father Michael Ritter, pastor of St. John the Baptist Parish, is helping to recruit additional volunteers at his parish to distribute supplies, offer counseling and direct people to temporary housing. Some of his parishioners have lost their homes in the fires, and other parishioners have stepped up to offer them shelter in their own homes. He said, “People are still in shock. The realization that they’ve lost their homes and businesses hasn’t set in. It’s going to take time for the impact to be felt.”
He’s impressed with many who have stepped up to offer help, however. He added, “The outpouring of concern has been something wonderful amidst this disaster.”
Fall fires have hit other parts of the state, including the Woolsey and Hill Fires in Ventura County in Southern California. Msgr. Paul Albee, pastor of St. Maximilian Kolbe Church in Thousand Oaks, was ordered to evacuate the parish after fire reached within 400 yards of the parish grounds. He left at night along with the pastor emeritus. He said, “We saw horrific flames. I was wondering, ‘Are we going to get out?'”
When he was allowed to return, he discovered the parish undamaged, but two of his parishioners have lost their homes.
Deacon Helgeson and his wife are still adjusting to the shock of having lost all their possessions, but drew some inspiration from hearing the story of the widow’s mite at Sunday’s Mass (Mk 12: 38-44). The widow gave freely what little she had, he explained, “but we didn’t give freely, the fire has taken everything from us. But with God’s grace we still have the opportunity to open our hands, let go and give freely.”
Jim Graves writes from California.