Catholic Communities Rally Aid as West Coast Wildfires Continue to Devastate
Fleeing the flames, clergy and laity join forces to help.
A series of wildfires on the West Coast of the United States have raged in recent weeks, burning millions of acres, killing dozens, forcing many to flee from their homes and putting thousands of firefighters at risk as they battle the blazes.
Some Catholic parishes and facilities have been threatened, as local parishes, dioceses and Catholic Charities organizations mobilize to help.
On Sept. 8, at 12:30am, an automated phone call warning woke the staff of the St. Benedict Lodge Conference and Retreat Center, a 70-acre site along the McKenzie River 50 miles east of Eugene, Oregon, within the Archdiocese of Portland. The facility offers retreats and welcomes residents in the sparsely populated forest area for Sunday Mass. The call ordered residents to evacuate the area immediately, as the nearby Holiday Farm fire was threatening their lives and property.
Two elderly Dominican priests who staffed the facility quickly left, while a third younger man opted to stay and care for the lodge and two golden retrievers the Dominicans owned. Father Kieran Healy and another elderly priest with Alzheimer’s made their way to Bend, Oregon, to take up residence at St. Francis Church, an archdiocesan parish. Although safe from the fire, they still experience its effects. “The sky is full of smoke; the air quality is terrible,” Father Kiernan said. “The sun is just an orange spot.”
Although electricity and cellphone coverage is out, they have maintained contact with the third Dominican via shortwave radio. They learned that although the fire passed within a few miles of the lodge, destroying the homes of parishioners, the winds had been favorable and the lodge, for the time being, was safe. Father Kieran and his elderly confrere, Father David, left in such a hurry that they are hustling about Bend now purchasing the basic necessities they left behind, including medication for Father David.
Among the lodge parishioners whose home is at risk is archdiocesan permanent Deacon Leonard Soper, who recently retired from 30 years of active ministry. He received the same late-night call to evacuate. Deacon Soper recalled, “They gave us just five minutes’ notice to get out.”
Staying with family in Eugene, Deacon Soper has learned that his home has so far been spared by the fire but a neighbor’s house, just 100 yards away from his, has been destroyed. He has lived in the forested area near Vida for 25 years, “and we’ve never before experienced anything like this. I thank God we have family and friends around who can help us.”
He estimates it will be anywhere from four weeks to three months before he’ll be allowed to return home.
Dominican Father Michael Fones, Father Kieran’s vicar provincial, said, “The Holiday Farm fire has been devastating to our friends along the McKenzie River, and we’re grateful to the firefighters who are risking their lives to battle the blaze. We’re just sick about all the beautiful forest land that has been burned, and I don’t expect it to recover in my lifetime.”
Further north, in central Washington state, multiple fires have decimated communities in the areas bordering the Dioceses of Yakima and Spokane. The worst fires were the Pearl Hill and Cold Springs fires; the hardest-hit community was that of Bridgeport. Among the property destroyed was a mobile-home community that housed many poor Hispanic parishioners of St. Anne parish, the only parish in Yakima to offer Mass solely in Spanish. About 10 families were left homeless.
Father Roy Gutiérrez, the pastor, has been hustling through the community offering what consolation he can and facilitating the delivery of basic supplies. Yakima’s bishop, Joseph Tyson, came to Bridgeport to offer Mass for those displaced by the fires, and the diocese has offered financial support through a fire-relief fund established in 2015.
Bishop Tyson said, “This is a poor but a resilient community. I talk to them to offer my condolences, but despite their losses, they respond, ‘Thanks be to God, I’m still alive.’”
The fire literally surrounded Bridgeport on Sept. 8, and some trailer homes went up in flames when hot embers hit their roofs. When the bishop first arrived on Friday, the power and water service were back on and the people had begun to rebuild.
When the 2020 fire season ends, the bishop believes it will be on par with the bad fire season they had five years before, which prompted the diocese to establish its relief fund.
Catholic Charities of Central Washington, which serves the Yakima Diocese, sent a team led by Becki Lambert and Bishop Tyson with requested donations of water, pillows and blankets, water and diapers. Lambert said, “It was our first emergency relief effort. We’ll be bringing additional supplies as needed.”
The Diocese of Sacramento in Northern California has experienced multiple fires, as well, with the August Complex fire in the Mendocino National Forest among the most severe. Although not threatened by the blaze, St. Monica parish in Willows is one of the churches closest to the fire and is serving as a distribution site for supplies for victims of the fire.
The parochial administrator, Father Michael Estaris remarked, “Our air quality has been terrible.” As the pandemic lockdown has mandated that Masses be celebrated only outdoors, “only on good days are we able to celebrate Mass. All the ash and smoke we’ve had makes staying outdoors unhealthy and hazardous.”
Other Sacramento parishes have experienced worse; St. Thomas the Apostle Church in Oroville, located near the North Complex fire, canceled all Masses and other parish activities. While no parishes have yet burned, some are not out of danger. St. Mary of the Mountain parish mission, administered by St. Monica parish, is located near the edge of Mendocino National Forest and is at risk.
The fires up and down the West Coast have caused much suffering, said Bishop Tyson, leading many to ask why God would allow them. “But I go back to St. Augustine: Why does God allow natural disasters and tragedy? Because good seems to flourish in close proximity to evil. Tragedy provides an opportunity to make saints out of sinners.”
HOW YOU CAN HELP
There are a variety of fundraising efforts to assist the victims of the fires. The Diocese of Sacramento has a Fire Assistance Fund 2020 (https://www.scd.org/news/fire-assistance-fund-2020), and the Diocese of Yakima has a Wildfire Relief Fund (https://yakimadiocese.org/2020/09/11/wildfire-relief-fund/).