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Baptists honor firefighters with early Thanksgiving

SAN BERNARDINO, Calif. (BP)–Local firefighters, who put in up to two weeks with no down time fighting Southern California’s worst wildfires, were treated to an early Thanksgiving feast and honored by Northpark Community Church.

“It really warmed our hearts,” said fire captain Doug Miles who is stationed in Lake Arrowhead in the San Bernardino Mountains. “Often people don’t invite us to dinner. A lot of times we are the ones holding fundraisers but we’re not usually the focus and reason for being there.”

Gui Planagan, a 16-year firefighting veteran, also was moved by the sincerity of the church members.

“They made us feel appreciated,” said Planagan, an engineer for station 72 in Fontana, Calif. “It was more emotional than I thought it was going to be. It really touched me more than I thought.”

Northpark, located in the Del Rosa area where 250-300 homes were burned at the end of October during the wildfires in the San Bernardino Mountains, wanted to express their thanks by inviting firefighters from two nearby stations to the dinner Nov. 13 at the church. They served a traditional Thanksgiving dinner, prayed for them and the family of Steve Rucker, who lost his life fighting the fire near San Diego, and voiced their thanks.

More than 70 members of the Baptist-affiliated church helped prepare the dinner and attended with a small group of firefighters showing up.

“We’re taking plates to those who couldn’t be here,” said Lorraine Stoneking, who was in charge of cooking three turkeys for the event. “I live in the mountains and my home was at risk. I had to evacuate. They [the firefighters] did the best they could and it brings us joy to do something small like this for them.”

Pastor Sal Martinez, who had to evacuate his home and came back to find hundreds of nearby homes burned, received a cashier’s check in the mail from an anonymous donor who read about the church in a Baptist Press story. He used the $500 check to help pay for the dinner.

Martinez had printed out a prayer for each firefighter to take home and provided time for church members to stand up and say a word of thanks.

“We will frame the prayer and put it on the fire station wall,” said Miles, 37. “[W]e chatted together like we were at an old family gathering. We needed to be there.”

Children were allowed to explore the fire engine parked in the church lot and ask questions of the firefighters. “The children were great,” Miles said. “We loved it.”

Martinez and other church members helped to fill sand bags earlier that day to prevent erosion of burned homes during recent rains, and they’re intent to remain involved in the cleanup process.

Just a block away from Martinez’s house, hundreds of homes were destroyed.

“I’m not sure why our house was saved; it was the grace of God,” said Martinez, who gave away donated Starbucks coffee and donuts to residents without electricity each morning for two weeks.

After the fires, Martinez and members of Set Free church of Yucaipa barbecued and provided dinner to community members still in their homes.

“It’s not about us, we’re not trying to promote our church,” said Martinez, who also prayed with victims and passed out bottles of water. “It’s about Jesus saying, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant.'”

Martinez recognizes the cleanup effort may go on for months. “We’ve rented a large bin and skip-loader [a tractor to clean up debris] to help fire victims,” he said. “We’re trying to be proactive about possible damage the winter rains can do. Everyone is excited to help.”

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  • By Kelli Cottrell