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California UU congregations regroup as fires ebb

Few lost homes but smoke damage is extensive.
By Donald E. Skinner
11.2.07

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The recovery and the healing, and the hard work of cleaning up, began this week in Southern California in the aftermath of raging wildfires that temporarily forced a half million people out of their homes. The first of the fires began Sunday, October 21, and some were not contained until the middle of this week and will not be controlled until next week. The fires destroyed more than 2,000 homes and killed seven people.

Much of the damage was in San Diego County. Hundreds of Unitarian Universalist families were forced to run from the flames, sometimes with little notice. The Chalice UU Congregation in Escondido, north of San Diego, had the most members who were affected. About 90 percent of its 200 members were evacuated last week either by authorities or voluntarily. One family lost its home and several horses. Another member’s home was partially burned. The fire came within one or two miles of the church building itself.

This past Sunday the congregation gathered in its building for the first worship services since the fire. The Rev. Ken Brown, district executive for the Pacific Southwest District, spoke at two services on “ministering to each other.” The congregation’s building, which holds 140, was full for both services, said Debbie Hall, president of the congregation. “There are a lot of miracles here as well as a lot of emotional trauma,” she said in an interview later in the week. “We have very few people who were not impacted in some way, either directly by the fire or by caring for others.” The services were followed by a potluck for which members of other congregations helped provide food.

Most people were back in their homes by this past Tuesday, Hall said, but some remained out as firefighters continued to work on the containment of the last fires in the county. The fires were expected to be contained by Thursday and controlled by early next week. The weather forecast held the possibility of increasing winds this weekend and firefighters were working against that possibility.


Members of the UU Trauma Response Ministry, formed after 9/11, began arriving in San Diego last week to assist ministers and congregations. “We’re talking with whomever needs us,” said the Rev. Susan Suchocki Brown, minister of First Church UU in Leominster, Mass. “We’re also helping to coordinate people’s needs with what other people have to offer.” Since the fires began, four members of the trauma team have been to San Diego.

Brown said that while UU families did not lose many homes, damage from smoke and ash to home interiors is widespread. And since many fire insurance policies carry a high deductible of $1,000 to $1,500, families will have to pay that much before insurance will help. “I anticipate we will probably be helping out a few families with that,” he said.

The district has started a fire relief fund. Contributions of money can be made on the website of the Unitarian Universalist Association, UUA.org. (See related resources.)

Brown has asked congregations in the district to create a list of items that members can make available to families in need, but to send nothing until a determination can be made of what the affected families can actually use. In the meantime, money is helpful, he said.

The Rev. Nannene Gowdy, a retired minister from Pepperell, Mass., who came as part of the UU Trauma Ministry team, noted that the cleanup will be complicated. “In many cases people will have to replace items like rugs and baby clothing because they just can’t be cleaned well enough. Many houses will have to be professionally cleaned. You can’t just dust surfaces because that puts all the fine ash particles into the air. And vacuum cleaners need special filters.”

Gowdy added, “The support everyone is showing here is absolutely amazing. Even when we call people who are still out of their homes, they want to know how they can help others who are worse off.” The trauma team frees parish ministers to do pastoral care and respond to people’s emotional needs, she said.


The Rev. Kathleen Green moved to San Diego County in August to begin her first settled ministry with the Summit UU Fellowship in Santee. “I have to say that my seminary experience did not prepare me for wildfires,” she said. “My congregation and I have joked that this wasn’t part of the search packet.”

Green said more than a dozen families from her congregation were evacuated from the fire zone. Many others were packed and ready, but didn’t need to leave. Other members quickly opened their homes to evacuees.

Summit’s Social Action Committee purchased towels, blankets, and personal hygiene and baby items and delivered them to Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego where thousands of evacuees gathered after the fires began. This past Sunday members gathered at the fellowship to share their experiences and to begin to plan how to help others in the area. “I have been called to a most incredible congregation where we all feel very blessed right now,” Green said.

The UU Fellowship of San Dieguito in Solana Beach normally holds services in an outdoor amphitheater, but on Sunday ash covered the grounds and the service was moved inside. “Our service focused upon the yoked themes of heartache and disruption along with hope and healing,” said interim minister the Rev. Tom Owen-Towle. “We stayed together on Sunday as an intergenerational community so that our children and youth could share their stories of fright and support as well.” He said many families in the congregation were evacuated but none had apparent damage. “Our biggest anxiety was that the fire reached 1 1/2 miles from our site, which would have gone up in rapid flames.”

Fire was visible from the parking lot of Tapestry: A UU Congregation in Orange County’s Mission Viejo last week. Some members were evacuated, but none lost homes, said the Rev. John Gibb Millspaugh. He said the fire has sparked conversations among congregants about which possessions are valuable. “One woman who had to leave on a moment’s notice took some Cambodian language workbooks, a photo of herself with a folksinger, a Ray Bradbury book, a Zapatista doll from Mexico, and knick-knacks from her travels. Other people have told me they feel inspired now to simplify their lives after realizing what things are important to them and what things are not.”

Millspaugh and the Rev. Sarah Gibb Millspaugh, Adult Programs director for the UUA, wrote a prayer about the fires. It is posted with coverage of the fires on UUA.org.


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