The Carr Fire. Three words that will long be remembered in parts of California as one of the worst tragedies in the state’s history.

Its statistics are overwhelming: three firefighters and five civilians dead; 229,651 acres of land burned; 1,079 residences and 22 commercial structures destroyed; and 190 residences, 26 commercial structures and 61 outbuildings damaged.

What started as a spark from a flat tire in the Whiskeytown-Shasta-Trinity National Recreation Area turned into a roaring inferno that is now responsible for $1.7 billion in damages. But the impact of this massive wildfire, which started in late July and was not fully contained until just before Labor Day, will be felt for years.

The fire’s fury is being felt in a very physical way, but also emotionally and spiritually. For Robert Swartz, recently installed pastor of St. James Lutheran Church in Redding, Calif., wildfires are a new experience. He found his congregation thrust into the center of the disaster in a variety of ways.

“It seemed like a relatively small fire before July 26, when we received word that people were being evacuated from their homes,” Swartz said. “Although this was my first experience of a California wildfire, I learned that this was everyone’s first fire in a sense. Fires have never encroached on the city before—the magnitude of what we were about to deal with and would continue to deal with started to dawn on me.

“I was not prepared for the smoky orange haze that covered the city. It gave everything a feeling of unreality.”

Despite their own homes and livelihoods being threatened, the congregation came together to help others during the community’s time of need.

Many of Swartz’s parishioners are among the 38,000 people evacuated or displaced by the fire. Emotions are still raw. “I can say that I have felt stress and fatigue and anxiety and uncertainty,” he said. “I’ve recognized the limits of our ability to help at St. James, and the necessity of working with partners to increase our resources and better meet the needs of those who have been affected.”

“God has placed us here at this time”

Despite their own homes and livelihoods being threatened, the congregation came together to help others during the community’s time of need. After making sure members were safe, parishioners stepped in to help those in the fire’s path. Instead of going through with a scheduled vacation Bible school, St. James instead opened its doors to the community as a day shelter. Victims came to the church for food, water and donated clothing. The church served as a home for the community.

St. James also served closely with the Red Cross. Bob Grosch, a retired pastor in the congregation, is an active volunteer in the agency as a disaster mental health specialist. “I [served] in the Red Cross shelter, which had quickly been thrown together when our previous shelter was itself evacuated to safer ground,” he said. “Our shelter grew from 40 people to 500 in a matter of hours. We were striving with all our might to provide shelter, food and safety.”

When the other shelter, located at Shasta College in Redding, asked for help from willing and able volunteers, St. James answered the call. “A number of members came,” Swartz said. “They unloaded trucks, set up cots, registered evacuees and more. For the next four or five days our members were unofficial couriers for the Red Cross, bringing office supplies to headquarters to support them as they helped evacuees in need.”

While the fire is now officially contained, fire crews are still working around the clock to make sure any hot spots are quickly extinguished and that nothing happens to rekindle the flames. The effort is now one of recovery, and St. James is once again meeting new challenges, working with a local organization on an “Adopt a Carr Family” program. Swartz and Grosch believe this effort will play an important role in the long-term recovery of Shasta and Trinity counties.

“As our community moves forward, we at St. James have been fortunate,” Swartz said. “The losses suffered by our congregation have been relatively few compared to those around us. This has increased our determination to offer our gifts, time and resources to support our neighbors in need.

“God has placed us here in this place at this time. It is an honor to be Christ’s hands and voice.”

To help

Lutheran Disaster Response is working with Lutheran Social Services of Northern California and the Sierra Pacific Synod to respond to wildfires in the area. You can help—gifts designated for “U.S. wildfires” will be used for those affected by wildfires until the response is complete.

Jay Saunders
Jay Saunders has more than 20 years' experience writing for television, newspapers and magazines. He is a member of Fox Point Lutheran Church in Fox Point, Wis.

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