Latter-day Saints Serve Fire Evacuees in Northern California
(Photo) Several Santa Rosa, California, neighborhoods were burned to the ground leaving little to salvage, the results of the recent wildfires, October 13, 2017. ©2017 BY INTELLECTUAL RESERVE, INC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
Latter-day Saints in California are helping displaced residents who have been forced to flee their homes due to recent wildfires. At a Mormon meetinghouse in Santa Rosa, displaced residents can find a warm meal and shelter.
Allan and Veronica Darrimon lost their Santa Rosa home early Monday morning as winds fanned flames spreading through their neighborhood.
“We started hearing pounding on our door…and our neighbor across the street yelling for us to get out,” said Veronica.
They got away with the clothes on their back, their two cars and 72-hour emergency kits. They spent several nights sleeping at the meetinghouse being used to shelter evacuees.
“I’ve been keeping busy,” said Allan, who hasn’t had much time to worry about his loss because he’s a local Mormon bishop with a congregation of more than 500 people. “Even if we don’t know it today, you just jump in and start doing something, and all those small things start adding up and it helps you cope.”
The Darrimons haven’t been able to get back into their neighborhood yet to survey their property, but images taken by others verify that there’s nothing left of their house but ashes.
The fires have destroyed more than 5,000 structures and knocked out power to homes and businesses in the Bay Area of northern California. More than 30 people have died. Thousands of people remain evacuated.
“It was like I was their family from day one,” said Santa Rosa resident Lynda Oneto, who has been staying at the Mormon meetinghouse in Santa Rosa. “I’m not a member of the Church and so I am completely blown away by the cooperation and just the humanity that was shown to me. … You have this incredible system of coordination and figuring out how you can help everybody.”
The evacuees can get a shower at a nearby gym. Mormon missionaries come to the meetinghouse during the day to help clean. Other volunteers greet guests and provide the evacuees with food and meals donated by local members.
“They have some really good cooks,” said Joan Johnson, a Latter-day Saint from Rincon Valley, who has been staying at the meetinghouse since Monday. “There’s a lot of people that have lost their homes, but they’re volunteering, which is interesting.”
“Initially we had several of the buildings used as evacuation centers,” said Celeste Kitchen, wife of Santa Rosa Stake President Gary Kitchen, who said the Salvation Army has dropped off some needed supplies at the meetinghouse for the evacuees. A local resident dropped off fresh tomatoes from his garden.
“People have donated, brought in bedding, someone donated a bunch of new pillows, and people have brought cots,” said Kitchen. “I just feel happy to be able to give and help, and most of my job has just been comfort and making sure people are comfortable and helping in the kitchen.”
“We grabbed our cell phones, our tablets, and headed out,” said Graham Emmel, who was forced to flee from his home with his wife after hearing explosions.
“I couldn’t see a glow at that time because it was unnaturally dark, it was pitch dark, and … the smoke smell was really overpowering. We had never received an alert,” described Emmel. “As we were going out of the neighborhood, we hit traffic. I mean, it’s kind of like every apocalyptic movie you’ve ever seen of the people leaving town.”
The Emmels ended up at the Mormon meetinghouse in Santa Rosa to receive moral support from their bishop and other members after discovering other local shelters were “jammed,” although they ended up staying somewhere else.
The Emmels’ house was destroyed. “I mean there’s nothing left. A couple blackened husks of the washer and dryer is all you can see,” he said.
Duaine Wood and his wife were some of the first members to gather at their meetinghouse after they were displaced from their home.
“People just started mobilizing and we decided, okay, this is going to be a shelter. We need to have some rooms for people. So we started going around and clearing out the classrooms,” explained Wood.
“I realized we probably weren’t as prepared as we could’ve been. But I also realized that preparedness is really kind of a state of mind,” he added.
Wood continued, “Fortunately for us, we didn’t lose our house. We were in an evacuation zone. We can’t go home. We have no electricity; we have no gas. … When we are serving other people, we don’t think about ourselves so much, and our own situation.”
“We have our health and we have our families. And it was important to help everyone in the congregation understand that we were blessed with our lives and we’re in a warm place to recover from this serious challenge. … We are just thankful to God that we are here,” concluded Veronica Darrimon.
Area Church leaders will visit members affected by the fires in northern California this weekend.