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Churches shelter and help Californians fleeing wildfires

20 October 2017




Deadly: the worst fires in California’s history have faced firefighters since 8 October

Deadly: the worst fires in California’s history have faced firefighters since 8 October

EPISCOPALIANS in California are among those who have offered shelter and support to thousands left homeless by wildfires that have killed 41 people and devastated 213,000 acres (News, 13 October).

Some parishes have opened their church doors to offer shelter to people whose homes had been destroyed. The Church of the Incarnation, in Santa Rosa, took in people until it, too, had to be evacuated, as the fires approached it last week.

The Priest-in-Charge, the Revd Jim Richardson, told the Episcopal News Service that others in his congregation were volunteering at Red Cross shelters, and that students from a seminary in Berkeley linked to the Episcopal Church had donated bedding. A neighbouring priest, the Revd Daniel Green, was manning a phone bank, helping those who had been evacuated to access essential services.

The wildfires, which are now the deadliest in California’s history, had so far destroyed about 5700 structures across the state, the local fire agency reported on Monday. Forty thousand Californians have been evacuated.

The Bishop of Northern California, the Rt Revd Barry Beisner, said: “These tragic fires have greatly impacted some of our congregations. Some of our people have experienced great loss.”

The diocesan website has regularly been updated with prayers, news, and calls to volunteer and donate.

The director of the Episcopal Church’s US Disaster Program, Katie Mears, said last week that she was in regular contact with all of the dioceses in California as they assessed the damage, and co-ordinated the sheltering and feeding of those caught up in the blazes.

“The fires have not been contained, and last-minute evacuations continue. [But] I am very impressed by the wisdom among leaders in the diocese of Northern California,” she said. “Margaret Dunning, the diocesan disaster co-ordinator, and others have been working tirelessly for over six years to increase congregational preparedness, and to network with neighbouring dioceses and NGO partners. The diocese has responded successfully to several smaller events over the past few years. This large-scale emergency builds on that wisdom and experience.”

Though a number of Episcopalian churches and other buildings have been caught up in the evacuation orders, it is not yet known whether any have suffered damage in the fires.

In the latest update from the diocese of Northern California, sent on Monday, clergy from the affected areas reported that, although the worst of the fires seemed to have passed, there was still much to do. Schools and some highways were still closed, but churches were no longer needed as emergency evacuation centres.

Despite the electricity’s still being off, Canon James Thomas, from Trinity Church, Sonoma, said that his parish had been able to hold two services with good attendances. “We placed candles all over the sanctuary, and all shared stories of our experiences in this difficult week. The church has been taken off the evacuated list, and things are returning to normal.”

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