MDS pauses response to California fires

A spike in COVID-19 cases prompts MDS to suspend work, coordinator asks for prayers for residents as they work at long-term recovery

Current wildfires in California and elsewhere add to losses as long-term recovery from 2018 fires inches along. Photo: MDS

As wildfires continue to burn in California in early September, Mennonite Disaster Service is reaching out in prayer for thousands of people who were forced to evacuate and thousands more who see the telltale smoke clouds on the horizon and wonder if they’ll have to flee.

While MDS volunteers are rebuilding homes destroyed three years ago, this year’s fires add to the losses. As of Sept. 1, more than 1,500 homes had been destroyed in 2021.

The Dixie Fire, the largest in California, destroyed nearly all of the historic Gold Rush town of Greenville on Aug. 4. It was 52 percent contained by Sept. 1 and had burned 844,081 acres. It was still growing, despite the efforts of more than 5,000 firefighters.

“The Dixie Fire started about the same place as the Camp Fire but moved in the opposite direction,” says Steve Wiest, West Coast operations coordinator for MDS and a member of Hope Kingsburg, a USMB congregation in Kingsburg, California. “Greenville was 75 percent wiped out in one day.”

The Camp Fire destroyed more than 13,000 homes in 2018. It was the most destructive wildfire in California history and the worst in the United States in a century. Nearly three years later, the trauma is still raw for Paradise residents.

MDS volunteer crews working in Paradise in August could sometimes see smoke cloud from wildfires 50 miles away.

“You could smell the smoke, and sometimes see the cars covered with ash,” Wiest says.

As COVID-19 cases continue to grow in the Paradise area, MDS is pausing its work there and sending volunteers home before they were able to complete the six homes they had started.

“We don’t want to risk passing COVID to the people we are trying to help,” Wiest says.

He asks people to pray for residents making long-term recovery efforts.

“It doesn’t take much to go around town and hear the stories of trauma,” he says. “You talk to the checkout clerk at the grocery store or somebody you meet at the taco truck, and there are the stories.”

Fire officials note the high potential for severe wildfire activity throughout the western United States into the fall.

“As the landscape continues to dry out and temperatures stay hotter than normal, you can expect more fires yet this year,” Wiest says. “The drought was a big driver in this, stretching from Mexico far up into Washington.”

Wildfires are to California and other drought-stricken states what hurricanes are to the eastern states, he says. “For people that live through a fire and had to run from the flames or run through the flames, they will suffer for the rest of their lives.”

A big part of what MDS does is give people hope and help them heal, says Wiest. “We spend time listening to them tell their story,” he says. “The rebuilding can’t happen right away.”

In fact, rebuilding usually doesn’t get started until more than a year after a wildfire is contained. In fires this large, there’s no partial damage to homes, he adds. “The work is all complete rebuilds.”


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