A California-Nevada Conference volunteer teams sifts through the ashes of a survivor’s former home at the survivor's request. (Photo: Courtesy of the California-Nevada Conference CDRC)

ATLANTA – Steve Elliott, the Conference Disaster Response Coordinator (CDRC) for the California-Nevada Conference, has heard many people describe what living through a fire was like and the deep anguish that stabs at the soul when all that is left of a home are smoldering piles of ash.

“It seems so overwhelming when you lose your home,” he wrote in one of his conference updates, “traumatizing in so many ways.” His conference disaster response team participated in six long-term fire recoveries last year, with most of the recovery programs continuing into this year.

“Our conference helped with 50 survivor long-term recoveries totaling $307,000, funded by UMCOR, an American Red Cross grant and our Conference Disaster Response fund. This funding primarily assisted survivors with establishing new living situations.”

One of the ways the conference participates in fire recovery is to join other churches, NGOs and government agencies at local assistance centers. They work with different long-term recovery groups depending on the path of the fires. The groups will often set up in spaces like local schools or churches to reach the affected populations.

The Cal-Nev team offers a ministry of presence, listening to people describe what happened to them and giving out gift cards, hygiene kits, cleaning supplies and other kinds of assistance to survivors.

In response to the Oak Fire, which burned nearly 20,000 acres in Mariposa County before it was brought under control, the conference spent three days at the local assistance center at the high school in Mariposa. They assisted 200 households at the center with volunteers from seven different churches of the conference.

“Sherry*” came to the table to talk with volunteer Susan Hunn. She asked about tools she would need to sift through the ash that was her home. Cal-Nev Early Response Teams (ERTs) are trained in this task and could send a team, but that wasn’t what Sherry asked for. She wanted to do it herself.

Volunteers Susan Nunn and Steve Elliott, CDRC for Cal-Nev Conference, at an UMCOR California-Nevada table offering supplies, kits, referrals and other resources to fire survivors. (Photo: California-Nevada Conference)

“When we offered what she needed – a sifting box, shovel, rake, protective clothing, gloves, masks and hand tools, she beamed with confidence,” Hunn noted. “Amid her losses was an antique teapot collection. She wanted to see if she could find just one teapot in the rubble. She believed she would. We helped her out with tools of hope.”

Resources come together when people come together

Farther north, the Pacific Northwest Conference has also gained experience in fire response and recovery. Dana Bryson is one of the co-CDRCs in that conference, which includes Washington state, the Northern Panhandle of Idaho and the greater Vancouver area of British Columbia in Canada.

“Partnerships are a key part of how we respond to disaster and coordinate addressing survivor unmet needs,” Bryson said. “We actively work with other NGOs through a leadership role in the Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (VOAD) and by working closely with FEMA, and the state and county emergency management agencies.”

Volunteers work inside one of the houses being rebuilt after the devastating 2020 Okanogan fires. (Photo: Pacific-Northwest Conference)

The Pacific Northwest Conference is part of the Okanogan Long-term Recovery Group. The Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest is in 3.8 million acres of forested mountainous lands. It has been the site of multiple forest fires most years, making recovery long-term and ongoing. The conference has received about $360,000 from UMCOR from several grants, the most recent in 2021, which is still funding recovery for a 2020 Okanogan fire, while another large area has burned in 2023.

With the UMCOR funds and commitment, the conference advocated to expand the case management project to include home rebuilding. Mennonite Disaster Services then offered multinational volunteers from both U.S. and Canadian Mennonite communities who are skilled in construction. Red Cross stepped up with $500,000 to support rebuilding. This almost doubled the number of homes the Pacific Northwest project could build.

Case management, construction materials, volunteers and resources all came together for this project, which has now drawn to a close.

One of the homes rebuilt in the Okanagan area that was recently turned back over to the homeowner during a dedication ceremony. (Photo: Pacific Northwest Conference)

Bryson confirms: “UMCOR’s commitment really got the project rolling and leveraged the ability to get other funders involved and fully fund the project. Because UMCOR was willing to go on record with a letter of intent, we were able to show that we were serious, and the project was viable. It was a snowball effect from there. It also got volunteers involved, because they knew this was serious.”

Hawaii partnerships forming after Maui fire

Partnerships to help the Lahaina community in Maui recover from the fire that destroyed most of the coastal town on Aug. 8 are still forming. The United Methodist churches on the Hawaiian Islands are part of the California-Pacific Conference, headquartered in Pasadena. The conference has already received a relief grant from UMCOR to provide for immediate needs.

UMCOR has reached out to the Hawaiian VOAD to coordinate support for what comes next in the immediate response and recovery.

The Lahaina UMC church building was lost in the fire. Though no one from the Lahaina congregation died, members all know friends who did. Their pastor, John Crewe, estimates that about 75% of the church’s families have lost their homes.

One of those members, Rosalyn “Roz” Baker, is a former Hawaii state senator who played electric piano for the church services. “Even in all the stress, there are bright spots,” said Baker, who has found temporary lodging on the island. “It’s nice to see our congregation in particular has come together and is going to be doing whatever is necessary to rebuild.”

Across the United Methodist connection, funds are being collected, partnerships are forming, local and state responders are working, and a recovery plan is carefully being formed. The Lahaina community will not face the ashes alone. Partners will be with them, working alongside.

* Name has been changed.

Christie R. House is a consultant writer and editor with Global Ministries and UMCOR. Thanks go to Sam Hodges of UM News for his interviews and reporting on Lahaina UMC in Maui.

U.S. Disaster Response

United Methodist Committee on Relief U.S. Disaster Response and Recovery (UMCOR USDR) serves as the primary channel for United Methodist assistance for disasters that strike within the United States.

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