Amid Calif. smoke, volunteers seek to help

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VALLEY CENTER, Calif. — The air still smells of smoke in Valley Center and wherever wildfires have swept across Southern California, prompting 640,000 evacuation notices in San Diego County alone in a week's span. The smoke remains a reminder of what a long week it was and of the challenges and rebuilding that remain ahead.

Since Sunday, Oct. 21, more than 2,000 homes have been destroyed in the southern part of the state; nearly 1,600 of those were lost in San Diego County, where seven fires are still burning, according to news reports. Across the region, many of nearly 1 million evacuees are back in their homes, but hundreds are still living in evacuation centers like Valley Center High School, where thank-you banners for firefighters and law enforcement decorate fences and streetlights.

Gunnar Hanson is pastor of Valley Baptist Church, a church with a long history and a renewed desire to meet needs in Valley Center. Last May, the church called Hanson, a church planter, to "re-launch" Valley Baptist with a focus on reaching out to the whole community, which includes everything from a highly exclusive country club to several Native American reservations to family farms that have dotted the area for decades. Now, five months later, Hanson is building relationships around a situation he never would have chosen, but he is unwavering in his belief that God is still in control.

"I'm not going to speculate on why this happened. But what do I know? I know that God is good, that He is faithful, that He wants people to know Him. Those are the things we cling to."

On Sunday, Oct. 28, Hanson chose to forego a normal message to his congregation at the end of what was an abnormal week. Instead, Hanson, who also serves as a chaplain to the Valley Center Sheriff's Department, spoke about how God is working in a community that was totally evacuated soon after the fires began.

At Valley Center High School, for example, where many residents went after leaving their homes, Hanson has visited with people he never would have met otherwise. He said the fires acted as an equalizer in diverse Valley Center.

"It doesn't matter your resources or your lack of resources, when fire comes through, you're just you," Hanson said.

It's a feeling with which Hanson is well familiar. When he received a reverse 911 call to his Valley Center home early Tuesday, Oct. 23, he rushed his wife Anna and their daughter Grace to a friend's home in nearby Oceanside. Then, he returned to Valley Center, acting as a liaison between the sheriff's department and frightened residents who were gathering at the high school.

Over the next few days, he delivered food to police officers and firefighters, helped direct bottlenecked traffic, even fed a neighbor's chickens after the family was evacuated to the high school. It was a whatever-it-takes kind of week, and Hanson believes his church and others in Valley Center are facing unprecedented opportunities to serve their community.

The story is the same all over Southern California, where the number of volunteers who want to help rivals the number in need. Several Red Cross shelters are still operational, and numerous churches have opened their doors to anyone in need of a place to stay.

At PetCo Park in San Diego, more than 100 Southern Baptist Disaster Relief volunteers from all over the state continued to prepare hot meals to be taken to evacuation centers. The number of meals reached 30,000 over the weekend, with up to 12,000 going out daily. In the coming weeks, volunteers from outside California will come to relieve those who've worked throughout the past week in two mobile kitchens deployed to San Diego County and one in San Bernadino.

The cooperation of Southern Baptists through disaster relief is reflected to the communities impacted by the fires, said Don Hargis, who directs disaster relief for the California Southern Baptist Convention. The disaster relief team members are "have good leadership, good history, a good attitude. They care about each other."

Volunteer Millie Geyer experienced that attitude of care from the moment she arrived in San Diego from her home in Sacramento. After completing her disaster relief training a week before the fires began, Geyer and her husband received an e-mail asking if they were available to help in San Diego. She flew in on Wednesday and has been staying with a local volunteer since then. Geyer said her daughter's experience during 2004's Hurricane Ivan motivated her to investigate disaster relief service.

"We heard how she survived it, and we saw the devastation of the hurricane when we visited six months later. When she told us about the 'yellow caps' in her church, we decided to look into it for ourselves."

"I think churches have realized that we have an opportunity to extend the hand of God into the community through gestures of love, and that through this, we can earn the right to share the most important thing God has to give: a relationship with Him through Jesus Christ," Simpson said.