‘I haven’t really sat down and cried yet,” said Tova Love.
Until the town was destroyed, Love, a second-year student at Starr King School for the Ministry, lived in Paradise, California, the epicenter of the Camp Fire, the worst brush fire in California history.
On November 8, with the fire a mere two houses away from hers, Love quickly packed her two dogs, a few personal possessions, and a couple of bottles of Gatorade into her car and headed down the hill toward Chico. Trapped almost immediately in a traffic jam created by others evacuating as well, she soon had to abandon her car.
Eventually, firefighters drove her and others down to Chico, a terrifying eight-hour odyssey through what Love described as a “tunnel of fire.”
Love lost her home, her car, her cat, and all but her dogs and the possessions she could carry in her two hands.
The situation was no better a week later for other Unitarian Universalists who called Paradise home. The Rev. Bryan Plude, minister of the UU Fellowship in Chico, eight miles away, said six families or individuals in the congregation who were in the path of the fire had to evacuate.
“So far, one family has confirmed they lost their home,” Plude said. “I haven’t heard yet, but I would assume the others lost theirs, too.”
The tragedies befalling UUs in Northern California were just a few of the stories being told regarding fires in the area. As of November 19, seventy-seven people have been confirmed dead and 991 are reported missing. The Camp Fire had chewed through 141,000 acres and destroyed nearly 12,000 structures.
Fires in Southern California are also affecting UU congregations.
The Conejo Valley UU Fellowship in Newbury Park, near Thousand Oaks, was at virtually the geographic center of the Hill Fire. More than half of the congregation’s 200 members were forced to evacuate their homes.
“I don’t know of anybody who lost their home,” said Tom Wolf, congregation board president, “but for some it stopped right at their backyard.”
One congregation member who went to the church to assess the damage on Friday, November 9, found it intact but had to call authorities to put out a fire in the parking lot created by embers he found burning in a tree.
Fires in the Thousand Oaks area erupted only two days after the community was jolted by the shootings at the city’s Borderline Bar and Grill that left twelve dead. The daughter of one Conejo Valley congregation member was at the scene, but escaped harm.
The Rev. Nica Eaton-Guinn, minister of the Conejo Valley fellowship, said, “The two events together, it has thrust everyone into a state of unexpected grief and anxiety.”
By the time Sunday came around, Wolf said, “people really had a need to connect.” But the church itself was still in a mandatory evacuation zone. “It wouldn’t have been wise to try to get people there,” Wolf said.
Instead, Eaton-Guinn conducted the service via Zoom, with some technological help from UUA regional staff. Fifty-nine families and more than eighty individuals were able to gather virtually.
“It was very healing,” Eaton-Guinn said. “People were able to share the trauma they had been through the last few days.”
“There were so many faces on the screen,” Wolf said. “Everybody got to relate a personal story.” The fellowship shared a screenshot of the November 11 Zoom service on its Facebook page.
In Chico on November 11, “the Sunday service was well attended, considering how many people had been evacuated,” Plude said. “We addressed the pain, the fear, and the loss caused by the fire.”
The devastation and threats created by the fires are still not over. “We are not in recovery mode at all,” Plude said.
In Thousand Oaks, Wolf said, “It’s like a no man’s land. The fire is nowhere close to being contained.”
Zoom technology was not the only assistance UUs provided to the Chico and Conejo Valley fellowships. Religious professionals and neighboring congregations have offered their help, pastoral care, and resources. Both congregations have already received financial assistance from the UUA Disaster Relief Fund. “And we’ll no doubt need more before it’s over,” Plude said.
Eaton-Guinn said, “I feel most grateful for the assistance of our UU community and the way they made us feel like we are not alone.”
Donations to the UUA Disaster Relief Fund will not only assist UU congregations in fire-scarred areas but also support local partner organizations serving the community at large.
Starr King School for the Ministry, the Unitarian Universalist seminary in Berkeley, is also raising funds to help its student, Tova Love.