USA — Catholic communities in four Southern California counties rushed to the assistance of dozens of parish families who were left without their homes by a week of wind-driven brush fires that began Nov. 13.
Three wildfires scorched 42,000 acres and destroyed nearly 1,000 residences in Southern California. At least two of the three fires were contained by Nov. 19, and that same day local officials said the third fire, in Los Angeles County, was close to being contained.
News reports said that one of the fires might have been started accidentally by some college students. Twenty people, including firefighters, were injured. One fatality was reported; a 98-year-old man died during the evacuation process near downtown Santa Barbara.
The largest concentration of destruction took place north of Los Angeles in Sylmar’s Oak Ridge Mobile Home Park, where 484 homes out of 600 in the park were lost to the fire. Those included 39 homes of parishioners of St. Didacus Church and the home of Barbara Barreda, principal of St. Elizabeth School in Van Nuys.
Another parishioner’s home was severely damaged, and many parishioners were evacuated to nearby shelters.
More than 200 St. Didacus parishioners — including adults and teen youth ministry and confirmation members — volunteered to assist the affected families.
On Nov. 18, Valerie O’Reilly, the parish’s director of liturgical ministry, took Communion to parishioners evacuated to Sylmar High School, and accompanied those left homeless by the fire as they sifted through the ashes of their demolished mobile homes at Oak Ridge.
The parish planned to open an assistance center Nov. 21 to provide food, clothing and essentials for a two-week period. According to St. Didacus business manager Frank Cantu, the parish was collecting financial donations through its Christian Service Fund to be distributed to fire victims.
“Our volunteers have responded tremendously,” said Msgr. Peter Amy, St. Didacus pastor, noting that parishioners were praying for the victims and contributing financial donations. Several area parishes called St. Didacus to inquire about ways to help fire victims.
“This sort of disaster brings the community together,” Msgr. Amy told The Tidings, newspaper of the Los Angeles Archdiocese.
Bishop Alemany High School in Mission Hills was collecting donations for two school families who lost their homes, and Catholic Charities of Los Angeles announced plans to assist in relief efforts.
In a Nov. 15 letter to parishes, Cardinal Roger M. Mahony of Los Angeles urged parishes to include special prayers and petitions in Masses that weekend for those affected by the fires.
“We really need to live out our bonds of unity in Jesus Christ at this disastrous time in our communities, and surround those most deeply affected with our prayers and solidarity,” the cardinal said.
The first of the fires struck the upscale area of Montecito, just east of downtown Santa Barbara, destroying 219 homes.
The closest parish to the fire was Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church, where one parishioner lost her home and was receiving assistance from the parish. The area’s lone Catholic high school, Bishop Garcia Diego in west Santa Barbara, saw no families lose their homes, although some were damaged, said Josephite Father Tom Elewaut, principal.
“We also learned that several alumni or their parents lost homes,” he said Nov. 17. “Overall, though, we are grateful that it wasn’t worse, because the situation was very bad last Thursday night.”
Among structures lost in the Montecito fire was the 61-year-old Mount Calvary Monastery, situated on a ridge 1,250 feet above Santa Barbara. Before the monastery was destroyed the seven Episcopal monks who lived there evacuated to the nearby home of several Episcopal women religious.
According to a member of the Sisterhood of the Holy Nativity, the monks are grateful they are together and intend to stay in the sisters’ retreat center until their monastery is rebuilt. While priceless paintings and works of art were lost in the devastating fire, the monks said the Lord provided for them, that they only lost “things,” and will carry on their ministry.
Approximately three miles down the ridge, the 222-year-old Santa Barbara Mission prepared for any emergency. According to Franciscan Father Richard McManus, some youths from a retreat center stayed at the mission for several hours and then decided to leave for Los Angeles.
“Several people came to the mission,” he said, “just to be there and watch; the flames were really scary and we expected the worst. On Friday (Nov. 14) the wind died down and it was a relief.”
For those who lost multimillion-dollar estates (including 113 in Yorba Linda), the conflagration and its aftermath present special challenges — “a new kind of homelessness,” said Theresa Montminy, executive director and CEO of Catholic Charities of Orange County.
“These people who lost their homes in Yorba Linda are the people who also lost a lot of money in depreciated stock in a very short period of time. So it’s kind of like the economy has hit them on both sides,” she said.
Montminy pointed out that, although these homeowners had insurance, the value of many of their houses depreciated 30 percent to 50 percent just in the last year — and their insurance covers only the current value of their homes.