By Paula Schlueter Ross
With black smoke so thick it darkened the sky at 9 a.m., the fast-moving “Camp Fire” in Northern California had engulfed some 90,000 acres by Nov. 10, causing at least nine confirmed fatalities and the destruction of 6,713 structures in the approximately 27,000-resident town of Paradise, according to news reports.
Among buildings in the path of the wildfire’s wind-whipped flames was Our Savior Lutheran Church in Paradise, which is likely destroyed, along with its parsonage, according to LCMS California-Nevada-Hawaii (CNH) District President Rev. Michael R. Lange.
“What we know is that a member of the congregation had reported to [Our Savior] Pastor [Rev. Brandon] Merrick that, as they drove out of town, they drove by the church and it was engulfed in flames,” Lange told Reporter. Another source reported that the parsonage, too, was consumed.
Most of the congregation’s members have been accounted for by Merrick, and Lange said he had not yet heard of any deaths or injuries to Our Savior members. Many were evacuated to Chico, some 15 miles southwest of Paradise.
Merrick and his wife, Wendy, also fled to Chico, where the members of another LCMS congregation, Redeemer Evangelical Lutheran Church, have opened their homes to evacuees.
At this writing, eight Paradise residents were being housed, fed and ministered to by the congregation and its pastor, the Rev. Donald Jordan, and many others also have taken refuge in Chico. Jordan said he expects Redeemer to have residents from both cities at worship on Sunday.
In addition to Chico, shelters are being opened in Oroville, Gridley and several neighboring counties. The Rev. Phillip Zabell, disaster response coordinator for the CNH District, spent the night of Nov. 8 at Church of the Nazarene in Oroville, where about 480 people had evacuated.
Zabell said that, as he drove to Oroville, “the sky to the north was aglow with the flames. Throughout the night … the glow seemed to diminish … but then about an hour before daybreak the glow was much more intense once again. Given the terrain and the weather I would guess it will be a week or more before the fire threat will diminish sufficiently.”
In a phone interview on the morning of Nov. 9, Jordan said the sky was “pitch black” with smoke and ash, and his wife had “packed our car just in case we have to evacuate.” Some Chico residents already have been evacuated, he said, and local schools are closed.
“It’s still a raging fire, and it’s 5 percent contained, which is nothing, so [the fire] is kind of marching on.”
But, he added, “our people have been good. They’ve opened their hearts, and their wallets, and they’re supporting one another.” Jordan said his phone “has been ringing off the hook” with concerned callers from near and far. He said he plans to continue taking it “one day at a time. … We’re OK for right now.”
When Lange spoke with Merrick the evening of Nov. 8, the pastor “was measured and ready to say, ‘OK, what does this mean for me now, what is God calling me to do?’ ”
Merrick, Lange added, had “specifically made choices to go and spend time where people of the congregation were largely gathered” in campers and trailers in a property in Chico. “He was going over there to be among them,” Lange said.
Merrick and Jordan, he added, also were working to find a few still-missing Our Savior members “to make sure they were safe,” and to determine how best to use relief funds at their disposal.
Those funds are from:
- The CNH District, which has earmarked an initial $20,000 in aid for evacuees. “There will be more,” Lange said of the funds. “This is just simply so [the Our Savior and Redeemer congregations] can help people with their immediate needs.”
- LCMS World Relief and Human Care’s Disaster Response, which has made $5,000 available through the CNH District for fifty $100 gift cards for evacuees and others impacted by the fires.
Lange encourages those who want to help to funnel their resources — earmarked for “California Camp Fire” — through LCMS World Relief and Human Care’s Disaster Response and California-Nevada-Hawaii Disaster Relief.
“Other than prayers specifically for safety” for Californians as well as for “wisdom” for those assisting fire victims, “our ongoing prayer in all of these situations is that our congregations and our people would be encouraged and equipped to be the light of Christ to their community,” Lange said.
“And to recognize the opportunities that God gives them in the midst of that, and that they would be strengthened and empowered” to help, he added. “We find, again and again, that this is an amazing time to give witness to the power and compassion and glory of God.”
Lange said he holds dear a phrase the Rev. Brian Cummins, pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church in Redding, Calif., used when considering why no members of his congregation suffered losses in the wildfires.
Perhaps God spared them, he said, “so that we might do His compassionate work unhindered for our community.”
Posted Nov. 10, 2018