After three weeks, the major fires that have been raging across Northern California are finally close to being extinguished. The damage from the sudden firestorm was incredible: over forty people perished and nearly 9,000 homes and buildings were destroyed. We are grateful that our parish community was spared
from the path of the flames. Our church is in the town of Ukiah which was completely untouched. Even our parishioners who live near where the large blazes were burned have been able to return to their homes. We are so very thankful for God’s Providence and preserving our church community from this natural disaster.
Though our church building and homes were not burned as were the homes of so many other people, the fires have still been very much present to us. Some of our parishioners know some of those persons who died in the fires—they were our neighbors, students, clients, and friends. One of our parishioners worked with fire crews and law enforcement for forty hours straight when the fires started. Five families from our parish were evacuated from their homes in fear that the fires would consume them. They spent the time in evacuation—for some a couple days, others as much as a week—in a state of anxious uncertainty. With the chaos of the fire and smoke, it was largely impossible to know if one’s house was still standing or had been burned to the ground. Various firefighting agencies provide maps of the wildfires, but they do not always agree, nor are they always accurate. One map can show your house or neighborhood as in the burned area, while another map will show it outside that area. And if someone had heard news that their house was still standing, it was qualified by the phrase “for now.” With enormous wildfires such as these, everything is uncertain and unpredictable, and it is precisely that uncertainty and not knowing that is so very stressful. The last three weeks have been stressful for everyone in the area, even those of us whose homes were not in danger.
Those of us in “unaffected” areas were constantly reminded of the conflagrations. The Ukiah Valley has been filled with a choking haze and the sun shows itself as an orange disk in a grey sky. From that sky comes the incessant droning of CalFire’s many aircraft—helicopters, spotters, and bomber planes. Air tankers constantly fly back and forth between the raging flames and our small regional airport carrying their precious cargo of thousands of gallons of chemical retardant to help contain the fires. The local fairgrounds was turned into a basecamp for the army of fire fighters and other personnel. This basecamp is so close to our parish that an aerial picture showing of a field of firefighters’ tents includes our church building in the background.
Though the nature of this disaster is terrible and destructive, it exhibited a beautiful side of our community. In the wider community cafes and business advertised free coffee to evacuees, as well as internet access to stay abreast of fire news. Online there were many people offering assistance of all kinds. Others posted pictures of pets and livestock which they had found and taken care of in the hopes of returning them to their owners. Local schools closed and converted into evacuation and donation centers, offering hot meals and other daily necessities that were lost when people left their homes.
Within our own parish the community pulled together in the time of need. Parishioners opened up their homes to those who were forced to leave their own homes. The monks from Mount Tabor Monastery were evacuated and some of them stayed at our parish. In the midst of the chaos our parish gathered together to pray and ask for God’s help and peace. All the monks joined us for the Divine Liturgy, and there were three priests concelebrating—a rare occurrence for our isolated mission parish!
At the time of writing this, all the evacuations have been lifted and the fires are contained. A brief but much-needed rain has mostly cleared the air of smoke. Those who have homes have returned to them. Those whose homes have burned down are now faced with the monumental task of rebuilding and reconstructing their lives. As our wider community faces these challenges and losses, our parish continues to gather and pray for all of them. We pray for those who have lost their homes and other possessions, and we especially pray for the souls of those who have died. We continually thank God that our parish and our parishioners are safe and were spared from the destruction of the fires, and that they are close to being extinguished.