Churches gear up for cleanup, added ministry after wildfires

SAN BERNARDINO, Calif. (BP)--With California's worst wildfires now contained, Baptist churches are banding together for the cleanup phase and in other ministry efforts.

"As early as Monday we'll send out cleanup crews who will help people sift through the ashes looking for jewelry and other valuables," said Paul Wilkerson, director of missions for the Inland Empire Association where nearly 1,000 homes were destroyed by the San Bernardino wildfire, called the Old Fire.

The 182-member association continues to send volunteers from the local Southern Baptist churches to staff a portable shower unit and prepare and serve meals through a mobile kitchen unit at the San Bernardino Airport evacuation site.

The late-October wildfires burned about 750,000 acres in five Southern California counties, destroying more than 3,600 homes. The fires temporarily displaced about 80,000 people but many of those have returned to their neighborhoods to assess the damage to their homes after evacuation orders were lifted, according to Associated Press reports today.

The Old Fire was fully contained on Wednesday, Nov. 5. The Cedar Fire in San Diego County and the Simi Valley area blaze were declared fully contained earlier in the week, and firefighters on Thursday reported other major still-smoldering blazes -- the Piru and Paradise fires -- more than 95 percent contained. Two fire-related fall victims have pushed the death toll to 24, the AP reported.

"Most people in the shelter are from the mountain communities who are waiting for their electricity to be turned on," Wilkerson said. "The number of people there [at the San Bernardino Airport shelter] is significantly lower than it was a week ago." He estimated Southern Baptist volunteers are continuing to serve nearly 500 meals a day.

Tuan Nguyan, director of missions for the San Fernando Association where the Santa Clarita fires hit, is sending volunteers to help in San Bernardino.

"Although we've had fires, all our churches are in good shape," Nguyan reported. "The firemen really protected our homes here and there is no need for help."

Many of his churches' members, however, want to help the San Bernardino victims. "We're referring people who want to help to Don Hargis," Nguyan said. "He will send them to areas of need."

Hargis, the California Southern Baptist Convention's men's director and disaster relief head, has been in the lead role for coordinating emergency efforts for Southern California churches affected by the fires.

In San Diego County, Hargis is hoping to bring in Baptist Builders to help rebuild homes in communities completely destroyed by the fires.

"Many of the residents didn't have insurance," Hargis said. "We want to help them rebuild. We're not sure yet when they will come. It will be a long project."

In addition, Hargis continues to coordinate volunteers to serve meals to 6,000-8,000 fire victims per day in San Diego County.

"We have three mobile kitchens set up to serve a hot lunch and dinner," Hargis said. "Right now we have one in Borrego Springs and one at Shadow Mountain [Community church] in El Cajon. The one in Pine Valley is going to be moved because of the lack of need. We will find a location that will have better use of it."

Shadow Mountain, which recently joined the Southern Baptist Convention, continues to operate an emergency one-stop-shop at a park in Crest, where about 200 families lost their homes.

"This is not a fly-by-night-operation," said John Gillette, men's ministry director at Shadow Mountain, who has coordinated the emergency services for the Crest community. "We're here [in Crest] for awhile. We want the people to know we're not going anywhere."

Another association -- located in the desert of Southern California near Hesperia where hundreds were evacuated -- also is planning to help with the rebuilding effort.

"We're going to have some training sessions on how to help [in the] cleanup and use this opportunity to witness as we do it," said Ed Adams, director of missions for the 55-church association. "We sent 50 volunteers last week to campgrounds in Hesperia where evacuees were staying to minister to them. A lot of our pastors are ready and willing to help out where needed."


(BP) photos posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo titles: TURNING THE PAGE, TEAMING UP and STIRRING EFFORT.

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