Southland churches spring into fire response mode

MALIBU, Calif. — The ashy residue had barely settled atop the charred remnants of Malibu Presbyterian Church before a team of volunteers headed south to Mexico to help build homes Baja's needy.

The 50-year-old church with the traditional white steeple was completely destroyed Oct. 21 in the first of a series of infernos that dusted Southern California with panic, fear and destruction. The fire also claimed the church's preschool.

"We believe that in the midst of darkness, God brings forth hope and salvation through Jesus Christ," Pastor Greg Hughes said in a statement posted on the church's Web site. "The Lord will make something beautiful out of the ruins and ashes of our church building. I believe we will mature and grow stronger as a result of this challenge."

As is true in most natural disasters, the Christian community is not one to waste valuable time on self-pity when there is work to be done. Daphne Berlin, the Red Cross public information officer for Riverside County, understands the servant mentality that seems embedded in the Christian mindset. In the thick of the flames and smoke, Berlin was heading back to a command post during the early days of the firestorm to assess the latest developments of the hopscotching blazes. 

Although unsure what that day's fire activity would bring, of one thing Berlin was certain, she could count on the assistance of area churches.

"I don't think there is a church within Riverside that has not stepped forward," she said, her raspy-smoke worn voice cracking with emotion.

According to state fire officials nearly two dozen fires burned from Santa Barbara to the Mexican border. At one point, nearly 900,000 people were evacuated and close to 500,000 acres, or 778 square miles, were burned. At least 2,300 structures were destroyed, about 1,700 in San Diego County alone.

Although the greatest damage came in San Diego, the damage in  Southern California was widespread: Santa Clarita, Running Springs, Lake Arrowhead, Martin Ranch, Figueroa Mountain, Devore, Grass Valley, Live Oak Canyon and Lake Forest. Within days, the Red Cross was operating three shelters: Temecula Valley High School, Temecula Community Recreation Center and Chaparral High School.

Berlin could not offer specific assistance provided by the churches, saying that there was so much going on it was difficult just to keep up. Many churches just showed up at the shelters with donations, especially clothing.

She said many have committed to ongoing support as the focus shifted to recovery.

"They are going to need everything from silverware to a hairbrush," she said.


SBC disaster teams
Also operating a mobile kitchen was the California Southern Baptist Convention.

Don Hargis, coordinator of the convention's disaster relief division, said a "fixed kitchen" was set up at First Baptist Church in Newhall to prepare as many as 700 meals daily, Hargis reported. In addition, a seven-person incident team was dispatched to California Baptist University in Riverside, where a command post was established.

The campus was selected as the incident command center because it is located in the geographic center of the ravaging fires, Hargis said. Eventually the Newhall center was shuttered as another mobile field kitchen was transferred to the San Bernardino Fairgrounds, one of the region's largest evacuee locations.

Stretch Krege, a relief leader with the Southern Baptist group, told BP News Service the San Bernardino feeding site was the first place where he saw Southern Baptists, the Red Cross and the Salvation Army working at one site.

"The Red Cross and Southern Baptists are cooking the meals, and the Salvation Army is serving the meals under the tent for the evacuees," Krege said. "It's exciting."

Clean-up teams are starting to organize, Krege added, and disaster relief workers are gathering information from homeowners concerning their needs and applications that must be completed before workers can arrive on site.

"I just love doing this because the main thing is we serve God and we're serving the people here and watching the ministry grow. When a disaster happens, people come together to help each other," Krege said.


Long-term help
Roosevelt Carroll, director of the San Bernardino Salvation Army, said his organization tapped the services of 600 volunteers as they served several thousand meals to firefighters and evacuees. They are contributing with long-term relief in the Running Springs area by providing vouchers for food, clothing and housing.

"They came in and knew what they had to do," Carroll said. "It was needed."

During the first two weeks of the fire, the Salvation Army distributed more than $100,000 in food and Wal-Mart gift cards.

Craig Hull, director of facilities management at Immanuel Baptist church in Highland, said his congregation has been posed to help out but the needs have been minimized by county officials who have contracted out for debris removal services. Up to 50 volunteers were on standby for cleanup in the devastated mountain region.

"There's not a lot of activity," Hull said. "It (the response) was very short and sort of piecemeal. At this point in time, its very quiet."

In the meantime, Hull said the church has sent $500 to a center in San Diego's Ramona neighborhood to help feed workers there.


Reaching south
Saddleback Church, near the epicenter of the Santiago fire, was converted into a makeshift evacuation center. Although the 120-acre church campus was untouched by the flames, more than 28,000 acres burned in the Saddleback Valley area. Warren said in a letter to his congregation that the church's fire-evacuation center had become a clearinghouse for supplies and even a holding place for family pets and horses.

Workers at Saddleback's center also fed hundreds of firefighters for several days during the fire, helped place evacuated families into homes of members, deployed trained volunteer chaplains to other evacuation sites, and sent clean-up crews to some of the hardest hit areas in San Diego.

Also helping in that region was the Orange County Rescue Mission, which launched the OperationOC project to collect food, clothing, gas cards and food vouchers for 3,000 evacuated residents.

Seattle-based World Vision said it has tapped into its Southern California network to determine needs before shipping a variety of supplies—bottled water, facemask filters and clothing—to its Los Angeles storehouse.

Convoy of Hope, a nonprofit organization that assists local churches in reaching out to the community, sent two representatives to Los Angeles to determine what it can do to help. Additional help was also sent to San Diego.

"It's overwhelming to see the kindness of people, to see people at their worst (emotionally) and people coming together," Berlin, the Red Cross spokeswoman, said.


Hannah Elliott of Associated Baptist Press contributed to this report