Wildfires in the states of Washington, Oregon, and California began spreading rapidly in the beginning of September, eventually consuming over four million acres of land. Several of the fires were located in proximity to cities, including where we have Apostolic Faith churches. Thankfully, all of our church families are safe. None of our buildings were lost in the fires, though a couple families did lose homes. At this time, no fires are directly threatening our churches.
In the State of Oregon alone, more than 40,000 residents were forced to evacuate their homes, and about 500,000 were warned to be ready to evacuate. Several families from our churches lived in these areas and did evacuate. In Portland, one elderly church member lost her house, though she had already been residing elsewhere for some time. Several others were only temporarily displaced from their homes, most staying with relatives or friends, and a few moving onto the campground until it was safe to return home. The town of Roseburg is almost two hundred miles south of Portland. There, just one family evacuated, and a barn on their property was consumed by fire, but their home survived. The pastor in Roseburg expressed the challenge for many church members who already have been mostly confined to their homes because of COVID-19. He said the restrictions, coupled with the threat of fires, poor air quality, and seeing only smoke in the skies for days, can all be overwhelming. However, he added that their congregation checks in on each other regularly and they have been encouraging one another.
In Medford, some had to evacuate more than once because of multiple fires. Two fires burned within ten miles of the Medford church building, devastating the nearby towns of Phoenix and Talent. An estimated two thousand homes were destroyed there. While none belonged to members of our congregations, one home was severely damaged by smoke, many were left without power for days, and one person’s place of employment was burned down. The grief in the community is felt by all as nearly everyone has friends, family, or coworkers who lost everything they owned. The saints and the church building in the nearby town of Grants Pass are all safe. However, the smoke from the fires quickly caused Oregon to have one of the worst levels of air quality in the world, resulting in the cancelation of our church services for the weekend of September 13.
In California the fires did not reach the cities where we have churches, but in some cases homes were lost in neighboring communities, and one family who attends our Woodlake location had to evacuate their home. Due to COVID-19 restrictions in the State of California, our churches there had been holding outdoor services, and the smoke from the fires prohibited outdoor meetings in Los Angeles, Richmond, and Woodlake. The severe smoke and ash in some areas caused health problems and will require cleanup later.
In the State of Washington, our church families were never at high risk from the fires, though the smoke did cover the cities of Chehalis, Yakima, Seattle, and Neah Bay, causing some service cancellations. The situation was similar just across the Canadian border, where we have a church in Langley, British Colombia. Though never in imminent threat of fires, the smoke caused extremely poor air quality for many days.
The West Coast wildfires have taken the lives of thirty-five so far, as well as several thousand homes. Our churches in all the affected areas have been able to help victims of the fires in a variety of ways, including opening their homes to evacuees, sending financial help, serving meals, donating food, clothing, quilts, and other essential items, as well as supporting firefighters. It is our prayer that God’s love will shine brightly to those who have experienced loss from the wildfires, and that He will give beauty for ashes in these communities.
Just as the wildfires came under control, Hurricane Sally was making landfall at the Alabama-Florida border, with heavy winds and rainfall up to thirty inches in some areas. Our churches in Jackson and Mobile, Alabama, and Century and Pensacola, Florida, are all located in that region, and we were relieved to hear initial reports that all of the church families affected are safe. The Mobile pastor, Reverend Ralph Stephens, said they did lose power but there is no flooding in the area so far, and pastor Cory Bell of Jackson said his congregation is doing okay. Reverend Henry Swanston, the pastor in Century, said there was heavy wind and rain but the church buildings on the campground survived. It was difficult to contact pastor William DuPont in Pensacola due to their loss of power, but we did get word that so far there is a lot of debris in the area but no major damage. Hurricane Sally has been downgraded to a tropical storm, though there remains a risk of flooding in some parts.