Survivors of California wildfires reach out to help latest victims

When the deadliest wildfire in state history struck the Northern California town of Magalia, pastor Doug Crowder didn’t get to preach his Veterans Day sermon about risking death to save others. But he got to live it.

With the Camp Fire speeding toward Magalia in the early hours of the morning Nov. 9, Crowder, pastor of Magalia Pines Baptist Church, was loading about 30 people who had been unable to evacuate into vehicles.

Crowder and four other church members had stayed behind to help those who had taken shelter at the church. “We were in the driveway planning to leave,” Crowder said through tears, “and the entire world erupted.”

Suddenly “the woods exploded. The Subway restaurant across the street exploded, and on all sides of us was fire.”
The church members hurried people back inside the building and prayed — watching flames shoot horizontally between buildings and listening to thousands of gallons of propane detonate at a hardware store next door.

When they emerged the next day, everything around the church had been incinerated, but “we were totally unscathed — totally,” Crowder said. “The fall leaves were still on the trees” on the church’s property.

The church is one of the few structures in town spared, and the congregation hopes to turn the tragedy into a continued ministry opportunity. “It will be years before it’s a town again,” Crowder said. “But all through that, our church will be standing and our church will be ministering.”

The Camp Fire began Nov. 8 and quickly leveled Magalia, home to about 12,000 residents 90 miles north of Sacramento, and adjacent Paradise, where about 27,000 people live. A Nov. 20 update from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) put the Camp Fire death toll at 81, with hundreds of residents still missing. Thousands of homes, commercial buildings and other structures have been destroyed in the 152,250-acre blaze.

As firefighters worked to get the blaze under control, survivors also sought to regain some control of their lives. A Nov. 20 Facebook post from California Southern Baptist Disaster Relief said volunteers were already responding in the affected areas with chaplaincy, shower/laundry, feeding and recovery units.

Power of community

And as residents began returning to the area during Thanksgiving week, members of nearby communities went into action.

Amanda Woodley, who lost her 70-year-old grandmother and her 4- and 5-year-old cousins in the Carr Fire near Redding, California, four months ago, took to Facebook and said she wanted to organize a Thanksgiving dinner for the Camp Fire victims.

More than 100 volunteers came together to organize a Thanksgiving Day meal for some 1,000 people at the VFW Hall in Gridley, California, about 30 miles from Paradise. Volunteers also delivered meals to shelters where evacuees are staying and to tents or homes whose residents lost their cars in the fire.

There was live music and gift card giveaways. Turkeys, gas cards, cash and other contributions came in from across the state to help with the holiday dinner — a show of love and unity that represents what Thanksgiving is all about, Woodley said.

“It’s so nice to see, that even though there’s so much hate in the world, people can come together. There’s so much power in unity.” (BP, RNS)