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California fires affect UU congregations

Three hundred Unitarian Universalists evacuate; no damage to UU churches reported.
By Donald E. Skinner
10.26.07

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Escondido, CA fire

Fire reaches the top of Palomar Mountain in Escondido, Calif., Wednesday, Oct. 24, 2007. (AP Photo/Kevork Djansezian)

Devastating wildfires in Southern California this week destroyed more than 1,600 homes and forced 500,000 people to temporarily evacuate their homes. The fires, from Los Angeles to San Diego and inland to the Riverside area, burned nearly 700 square miles. Santa Barbara, Ventura, Los Angeles, San Bernardino, Riverside, Orange, and San Diego counties all had fires.

Unitarian Universalist congregations are in many of the affected communities. Some of the members of at least seven UU congregations were evacuated during the fires. It won’t be known until this weekend or later whether any of their homes were lost.

One fire came within blocks of the Chalice UU Congregation in Escondido, north of San Diego. The Rev. Margo McKenna-Brower wrote in an email that she had to flee her condo complex with her husband Tom at 5:30 a.m. on Monday ahead of a 30-foot “wall of fire” about 150 yards away. “We had no warning,” she said. For several days they stayed with UU families in northern San Diego County. They have learned that several condo units in their complex burned, but theirs did not, although it may have smoke damage. The condition of the church building was undetermined as of Thursday.

A fire came within a mile and a half of the UU Fellowship of San Dieguito in Solana Beach, also in northern San Diego County, said interim minister the Rev. Dr. Tom Owen-Towle. In Orange County, between San Diego and Los Angeles, fire was reported close to Tapestry: A UU Congregation, in Mission Viejo. The building was not damaged, but some members were forced out of their homes. And in areas not directly affected by flames, including much of Los Angeles County, smoke was a factor to contend with all week.

The Rev. Ken Brown, district executive for the UUA’s Pacific Southwest District, said 275 to 325 UUs across Southern California were evacuated for periods from a few hours to several days. Many of the evacuees were expected to be allowed back into their homes by Friday night, but some have been told it will be at least Monday before they can return.

Most of the congregations in the San Diego area had members who were evacuated, said Brown. “The leaders of all of the congregations are busy reaching out to their members, making sure all are accounted for,” he said Thursday. He said members of the UU Trauma Response Ministry Team would be coming to Southern California to support ministers and congregations.

In response to this disaster, the Pacific Southwest District created the PSWD Fire Relief Fund. (See related resources for details.) A district committee will disburse all funds collected to UU congregations, UUs in need, community groups in relationship with UU congregations, and other groups supporting those most in need.


The first fires began on Sunday when fierce seasonal Santa Ana winds downed power lines, which ignited dry brush. Arson is suspected in several other fires. By the end of the week there were close to 20 separate fires. Most were close to being contained by Thursday night.

At least eight families from the Summit UU Fellowship in Santee, east of San Diego, were evacuated, said member Rex Graham. On Wednesday, Summit leaders called all of the members to check on them and offer support. The congregation held a potluck Wednesday afternoon so members could be together.

The congregations in the San Diego area created a cluster website several years ago and when the fires broke out that coordination was used to create an online “Fire/Generosity Journal” where people could go for information, record their experiences, and offer help, including places to stay. Many people had taken advantage of it by Thursday, offering housing and clothing, and sharing what they knew about other members.

David Miller, intern minister at the Chalice UU Congregation, lives near the San Diego Zoo and sheltered a family from the congregation for several days. He wrote in the Fire Journal on Wednesday:

“Yesterday we took the journey north to check as best we could on our houseguest’s house and the church. It is as bad as it looks on TV. As we drove on highway 15 north towards their house, the smoke thickened and there were spot fires on the sides of the freeway. Helicopters flew overhead with trailing buckets of water. You could see where areas had been blackened and the smoke became thicker the further north we went.

When we got to the church the road had been blocked and although we could see no damage, we heard later in the day that the fire was close. Times like these demonstrate just exactly how interconnected we are. Without the efforts of thousands of people, the damage would have been far more.”


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