CLEARLAKE OAKS, Calif. (BP) — California Southern Baptists have found themselves dispensing hope amid the death, destruction and weariness caused by more than a dozen wildfires burning across the state.
The largest recorded fire in California history — the Mendocino Complex fire in the northern part of the state — has burned more than 340,000 acres, destroyed 147 homes and left a firefighter dead Aug. 13.
Among those to suffer loss in the massive blaze is Gregory Holmes, director of missions for the Mendo-Lake Baptist Association in Lucerne, Calif., who lost all the structures on his 23-acre Lake County retirement property. Holmes, 72, had spent years preparing the property for his retirement, which he hoped to begin in four to five years. But he couldn’t find a company willing to issue fire insurance because of the high risk.
In Lake County, 50 percent of the land has burned since 2012, according to a Los Angeles Times analysis.
“The pastors in the area are all worn out from dealing with the same stuff I’m dealing with,” Holmes told Baptist Press. Locals need “an encourager and comforter.”
Yet the pastors persist in ministry, said Holmes, who also pastors First Baptist Church in Clearlake Oaks, Calif. Listening to people’s stories, showing compassion and connecting fire victims with resources are the chief avenues for ministry, he noted.
“The specific message is always Jesus,” Holmes said. “But it comes in a package that looks like a hug, or it comes in a package that looks like a listening ear” or “some resources to get you by for a day or two.”
The Mendocino Complex fire was 68 percent contained as of Aug. 13.
Some 170 miles north of Lake County, Pastor Harold Luke of First Baptist Church in Shasta Lake City, Calif., is shepherding the congregation through the death of a 90-year-old member who contracted pneumonia from smoke inhalation amid the Carr fire. The 203,000-acre blaze has destroyed 1,077 homes and is 61 percent contained.
“There was good support from the church for the family” at the 90-year-old’s Aug. 13 funeral, Luke told BP. “We were able to just surround them and love them.”
Nearly two weeks ago, First Baptist Shasta Lake City opened its food pantry to 65-70 fire-stricken locals and fed them a meal as well, Luke said. Church members prayed and shared the Gospel during the event, and two people who received assistance have returned for worship.
“We haven’t seen the sunshine in three weeks, and everybody’s wearing masks,” Luke said. “There’s still a lot of ash falling around, so we’re still in survival mode.”
Mike Bivins, disaster relief director for the California Southern Baptist Convention (CSBC), said DR chaplains ministered Aug. 6-13 to families affected by the Carr fire as they returned to destroyed homes in Redding, Calif.
“People were shocked” at the destruction, Bivins told BP. “We would give them water and just listen to their stories.” The ministry “is as much emotional as it is spiritual.”
During this summer’s fire season, CSBC DR units also have assisted with post-fire cleanup in the San Diego area and operated a shower unit in Palm Desert, Calif., Bivins said.
As containment of the fires increases, all state emergency shelters have closed, he said. Still, many Californians remain in need of help and healing.
Since last fall, more than 40 people have been killed by California wildfires and thousands of homes have been lost, The Times reported.