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In the face of fire: California Episcopalians, evacuations, homeless and undocumented

In the face of fire: California Episcopalians, evacuations, homeless and undocumented

From Episcopal News Service:

Episcopalians joined their neighbors Dec. 4 in fleeing the swift advance of the Thomas Fire that has burned from the mountains near Ojai, California, into the city of Ventura on the Pacific Ocean.

“It was like watching the sun rise over the mountains last night,” said the Rev. Greg Kimura, rector of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Ojai. “The whole horizon above the mountains was glowing but it wasn’t the sun; it was the fire.”

Kimura, whose phone lit up with an emergency signal about the fire the night of Dec. 4, spoke by phone with Episcopal News Service on Dec. 5, just after he arrived at a hotel north of Santa Barbara with his family.

The fire began close to Ojai near California State Highway 150 the previous evening and spread into nearby Santa Paula before racing south into Ventura.

A vestry member called the Rev. Cynthia Jew, priest and pastor of the blended congregations of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church and Emmanuel Lutheran Church in Santa Paula, to tell her about the fire. Jew lives in Thousand Oaks. She told ENS that some members of the congregation evacuated to Ventura overnight, only to be forced to leave there because of the advancing fire.

Others who have evacuated include the Rev. Nicole Janelle, executive director of The Abundant Table, and her family, and the Rev. Anthony Guillen, the Episcopal Church’s missioner for Latino/Hispanic ministries, and his wife, Guadalupe Moriel-Guillen:

“An angel who came out of nowhere” banged on the door of the Ventura home where the Rev. Anthony Guillen, the Episcopal Church’s missioner for Latino/Hispanic ministries, lives with his wife, Guadalupe Moriel-Guillen, and their dog and cat. He pointed toward the pinkish-orange glow over the ridge above his home. In the short hour they took to pack some clothes and gather important papers and some computer hardware, that glow turned red and seemed to be advancing toward their driveway, Guillen told ENS.

As they drove both of their cars away, Guillen said friends called him from Oxnard, offering him and his wife a place to stay. Guillen spent the drive calling other friends to make sure they were evacuating as well.

Around 9 a.m. Dec. 5, Guillen had no word on the fate of his home of the last seven years. A friend sent an aerial news clip of their neighborhood. “Our house is not on fire in that shot, but that was a few hours ago,” he said.

The region is accustomed to fires at its edges, but downtown Ventura is on a different scale of impact.

The Los Angeles Times reported that the Thomas blaze followed Foothill Road from Santa Paula to Ventura, taking out homes and winding along canyons in the process.

At 11:30 a.m. Dec. 5, the fire had burned 150 structures over 45,500 acres as it was driven by strong Santa Ana winds. About 1,000 firefighters are battling the fire, and there are high wind warnings for the ridgelines in the area, with winds predicted to stay at 35-45 mph with gusts up to 70 mph through Dec. 7.

Episcopalians are responding and preparing to respond to the fire’s destruction:

The Rev. Susan Bek, rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in downtown Ventura, reported on Facebook that the church was still safe and open for those needing shelter.

Kimura, Jew and the Reverend Melissa McCarthy, Diocese of Los Angeles canon to the ordinary, are particularly concerned about homeless populations:

St. Andrew’s is involved in sanctuary work, and it is part of a rapid-response team to help people who run afoul with immigration agents. “I have to believe that a number of people who are being displaced are people who are feeling vulnerable for a number of reasons,” Kimura said. “I am very concerned about the humanitarian response afterwards when we get a better sense of how many people have been displaced and lost homes.”

“Our main concern right now is the homeless,” Jew said. The fire burned over Steckel Park in Santa Paula, the site of a homeless encampment.

Jew said Episcopalians might be called on to provide tents and sleeping bags to homeless people who might have lost their belongings in the fire. Some homeless in Santa Paula, which has a high percentage of Hispanic residents, left their belongings at the church but walked away. “I am not quite sure where they went,” she said. “I think they are hiding out.”

Meanwhile, if the need is there, she will open the church “to provide emergency shelter for people who are unable or unwilling to go to the shelter because they fear deportation. Right now, that’s not what’s happening, but I am definitely willing to take that action.”

McCarthy confirmed that homeless people and undocumented people are the two “priority populations” in the diocesan response to the fires.

“We’re trying to identify and help and protect both homeless populations, which in Ventura is not a small number and where it’s burning is where they live, and also our undocumented people” who right now are afraid to go to shelters, she said.

Photo from Twitter, Christopher Medina


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Having worked in emergency services for over forty years my prayers are with the first responders.

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