As California Wildfires Ravage Napa, Residents See ‘God’s Hand at Work Through His People’

Glass Fire impacts the local Catholic community and their neighbors.

Fire rages right off of Silverado Trail.
Fire rages right off of Silverado Trail. (photo: Courtesy photo / Anna Hickey)

California continues to struggle with its worst fire season on record as the Glass Fire, which began in September, continues its destructive path through two Northern California counties, Napa and Sonoma, causing many to flee, burning hundreds of residences and businesses and, due both to the fire and heavy smoke, destroying a large portion of the grape crop that is essential to the economic health of the region.  

This is the second major fire to hit Napa in 2020; the first was the Hennessey Fire in mid-August.  

While no church property within the Diocese of Santa Rosa has been burned, reported Vicar General Father Moses Brown, many individual parishioners have lost their homes and businesses, as both Catholic individuals and groups have sprung into action to provide relief to victims.

The Santa Rosa Diocese encompasses six counties in the northwest portion of the state, along the California coastline, with Napa in the south going up to the Oregon border.  

Diocesan Bishop Robert Vasa was initially worried that several church properties might be lost, said Father Brown, and was grateful when none were.  

This is the second time in recent years when fire has threatened Santa Rosa, he said, as major fires hit the region in 2017, “but this year was far worse.”

Although the fire has moved through the diocese, air quality was poor for the three weeks following. This made for an added challenge, as state pandemic lockdowns have mandated that Mass be celebrated outdoors in the two most populous counties of the diocese. Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Santa Rosa has begun to assess how it may help victims, Father Brown said, adding that it has just finished relief efforts for the 2017 fire. 

Clergy evacuated four diocesan parishes, including Holy Spirit Church in Santa Rosa. Its pastor, Father Ron Serban, was watching television one evening when the order to evacuate came. He removed the Blessed Sacrament and grabbed key parish files and raced off to stay with friends across town. He saw 60-foot flames on a hillside not far from the church, and the fire would ultimately reach to within six blocks of the parish.

Seventeen houses around the parish were destroyed. People were physically ready to evacuate, he said, but emotionally, due to pandemic lockdowns, they were not. He explained, “We are not able to gather to pray together and support one another, as we did last time. It is wearing people out, although their faith keeps them strong.”

Father Angelito Peries, pastor of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church in Calistoga, knew it was time to evacuate when smoke filled his rectory and he heard people outside leaving the area the night of Sept. 28. He worried that clogged roads would prevent his escape and he would be trapped in the fire.

Wildfire in Calistoga
The view of the fire as Father Angelito Peries, pastor of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church in Calistoga had to leave his parish Sunday, Sept. 27, 2020.(Photo: Courtesy photo)

Friends drove in and rescued him, however, and when he returned on Oct. 8, he was pleased to see the parish was untouched by fire but devastated to see that much of the surrounding community had burned down: “The Bible tells us Jesus wept, and I can identify with him. Driving by so many burned buildings, I wept as well.”

Many who attend his parish are poor field laborers; many of them called him to report that their modest homes had burned to the ground. While people are calm because the fire has passed, he said, “much sadness remains — and a lot of pain.”

Father Manuel Chavez, pastor of historic St. Helena Church in St. Helena, evacuated his parish for five days. As he drove down the highway out of town, he saw people stopped along the road looking at a burning hillside watching their homes burn. When he returned five days later, he found the parish unscathed, but many of his parishioners had lost their homes. One man had lost his home in 2017, rebuilt it and lived in it for only two weeks before the Glass Fire burned it down again. “We have people who have lost everything,” the priest said.

One local Catholic who lost everything was Henry Belmonte, an alumnus of Santa Rosa’s Cardinal Newman High School and a parent of two current students. His family was ordered to evacuate Sept. 27 and returned to find his house, guest house and garage “completely gone.” His Catholic faith is helping him through the ordeal, but he is “most concerned for our children, trying to have them understand what has happened. But we will overcome. We believe we have the ability, strength and faith to get through this.”

Anna Hickey is CEO and vineyard manager of Rodgers Vineyards, a Napa farm that grows grapes for local wineries, employing three full-time workers as well as dozens of contract workers during harvest season. While her property did not burn, heavy smoke destroyed 60% of her grape crop. “We have been struggling since March due to costs related to COVID, which has been compounded by these fires,” she said. “Our local economy, which includes restaurants and hotels as well as farms and vineyards, has been hurt.”

Fire looking from East Napa hills across Valley to the West hills
Fire looking from the East Napa hills across Napa Valley to the West hills.(Photo: Courtesy photo)

California politicians have blamed the region’s fire woes on climate change, she said, but she believes a more significant cause are the regulations that have prevented landowners from clearing their property of dead brush and trees, which fuel fires: “These may be well-meaning laws, but they build up fuel for these major fires.”

The Napa region has been left “reeling” economically, she said, leaving many poor laborers in the area without a means of livelihood. She has relied heavily on her faith and recalled sitting by a statue of St. Joseph on her property, praying her Rosary and begging God for help. She asked for prayers for the people of Napa and welcomed donations for the Agape program of Napa’s Kolbe Academy & Trinity Prep, which offers food and other basic supplies to needy Napa families.

Devastated as the region has been, she has been encouraged by the neighbor-to-neighbor generosity she observed in parishes and elsewhere. “It’s a beautiful thing to see God’s hand at work through his people.”



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