The recent Canyon 2 Fire in Orange County was 90 percent contained by Oct. 16, but for the Rev. Abel Lopez, its sudden, devastating eruption was a shocking reminder to put a disaster plan in place.
“I’ve never been through anything like this before,” said Lopez, rector of the Episcopal Church of the Messiah in Santa Ana, who was among 10 church families told to evacuate.
In all, the fire scorched about 9,000 acres of land, destroyed 25 structures and damaged another 55. Four people were injured; there were no reported fatalities. The fire began about 10 a.m. on Oct. 9 and was nearly contained a week later, according to the Cal Fire state website.
The suddenness, proximity and severity of the fire initially felt disorienting for some Episcopalians while Lopez and others scrambled to make a speedy response. As he packed in readiness for evacuation Lopez called church families to check on them, along with the Rev. Norma Guerra, associate rector.
“We divided up the church directory and just started calling, to see if families had a plan, if they needed help moving things, if they needed another home to stay at,” Lopez told the Episcopal News. “We focused on people who lived in the evacuation area, including me, and to see if they have a Plan B, to have a place to go in case we really had to evacuate,” he said.
Bishop Suffragan Diane Jardine Bruce also called all the churches in the area, to check if members were affected by the wildfire or evacuation orders or if they needed special assistance.
“What was evident was that many of our Episcopal families had family members or close friends in the area that they could evacuate to,” Bruce said. “What was most important is that our clergy were getting in touch with people and people were reaching out to the clergy to let them know they were safe.”
Parishioners at a handful of Orange County churches were notified of potential evacuations, including St. Paul’s, Tustin, St. Andrew’s, Fullerton and Trinity, Orange. None of them reported damage to their homes.
Commissioner Richard Vogl, retired Orange County Superior Court judge, who attends Messiah, went to his son’s home in Orange.
On Oct. 10, the second day of the fire, he tried to go to his gym “but it was closed ‘due to smoke’ and so I took a chance and drove up here to the house,” he said in an email.
“There is one of those huge fire engines in our driveway … imagine! There were two firemen sleeping on our patio,” he added. “They were there all night looking for ‘hot spots,’ but besides a 30-foot by 30-foot burn below the slope, we are entirely safe. It was great to shower in my own bathroom and know everything is resolved.”
St. Paul’s, Tustin parishioner Cheryl Dow said she returned to her home across from Orange Park Acres in Orange on Oct. 11, “but I don’t know if I’m supposed to be here. I hear sirens right now, and I’m hearing helicopters, which is not good.”
She had packed up her two Corgis and a cat and left as soon as she heard that her home, located across from Orange Park Acres in Orange, was located in a somewhat confusing evacuation zone map.
But she didn’t hesitate. “I was not going to wait with the animals until somebody knocked on the door,” she said.
“I got up and noticed the wind was blowing and being that I live in a canyon area, it always puts my nerves on edge,” she recalled. What she thought were clouds turned out to be smoke, and “the more concerned I became about where the fire was moving to.
“I live across the street from a horse stable with a lot of trees and brush. Embers can light those things on fire really fast and I started gathering important things and packing a suitcase.”
Yet, Dow, 60, admitted she could be more organized, especially since a broken leg has decreased her mobility. “I was trying to grab stuff I knew I would need immediately, my medicines and passport and I was more concerned about the animals than anything. Everything else, that’s what insurance is for.”
For the Corgis and the cat, “it was a great adventure,” but the friend’s house she went to was also in an evacuation zone. “As we watched the helicopters and planes dropping water on TV, we’d look outside and there they were,” Dow recalled.
St. Paul’s staff also quickly organized and created a network, reaching out to parishioners, requesting they text the Rev. Kay Sylvester, St. Paul’s rector, if they were forced to evacuate and needed space, or if they had space to offer evacuees.
Dow said she was overwhelmed by encouraging Facebook messages, offering space or to come and get her.
Two families from St. Andrew’s Church in Fullerton evacuated, according to the Rev. Beth Kelly, rector. At Trinity, Orange, the Very Rev. Jeannie Martz said about eight families evacuated but “nobody suffered damage.”
Most stayed with family or friends, Martz said, adding that the church opened its parish hall and youth center for people in need of a place to stay and its back field for their animals.
“We have an enclosed area for big animals, but no one needed to take advantage of that,” Martz said, “but we let everyone know that both people and animals were welcome.”
Christina Coggins, 34, a member of St. Paul’s, Tustin, said packing up four children under the age of five, and heading for a hotel was an overwhelming ordeal. So was watching the fire line creep closer to her home.
Coggins returned to her home on Oct. 11, and said the land near her house was scorched, but her home was not burned.
Messiah’s Lopez said that in addition to phone calls the church sent an email to parishioners, asking anyone with available space willing to shelter evacuees to text him.
Lopez, preparing to evacuate himself, said: “I wasn’t sure I was going to have computer access, only the phone.” The response was “quite moving,” he said.
“More than 30 parishioners replied. Because of this, this is what we’re learning.”
“I just had a meeting with the staff. This is prompting us to do an earthquake response so the church is ready. So, if it happens, when we are in church but also what will be the plan if that happens and people in their homes, how will we reach out to them.
“I am working on creating a plan for that, and having specifics about what to do and how to communicate for help. Even with other local churches. St. Paul’s, Tustin, members might be in the same neighborhood. How do we all reach out to each other?
“We just can’t wait to until it happens. We have to have it ready to go and be prepared.”
Those whose homes were destroyed by the fires, as well as those in the Southeast U.S. and the Caribbean affected by recent hurricanes, will require relief and assistance for a long time to come. Diocesan leaders encourage Episcopalians to contribute to Episcopal Relief and Development’s disaster relief funds. For more information, visit episcopalrelief.org.
Sidebar: How would your church respond in an emergency?