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Disaster relief teams ready for Lake Tahoe fire cleanup

SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. (BP)-–As massive forest fires continue to char the south shore of Lake Tahoe, the head of the California Southern Baptist Convention’s disaster relief is waiting on the fires to die down before he can move his teams in.

The fires -– believed to be human-set on June 24 -– have blackened 3,100 acres or 4.7 square miles, but were 55 percent contained as of June 28. Most of the estimated $150 million in devastation came on the fire’s first day. As many as 700 firefighters have battled the inferno, requiring 186 engines, 47 crews and 12 helicopters. Some 3,500 residents have been evacuated from Lake Tahoe’s south shore.

“Once the fires are out, we’ll set up shop at First Baptist Church of South Lake Tahoe,” said Don Hargis, Baptist Men’s Ministries specialist for the California convention. “Using the church for a staging area, we’ll bring in our shower/laundry unit, two cleanup units and a front-end skid loader.”

Hargis, who is based seven hours away in Fresno, Calif., said he hopes to mobilize three or four teams of 10 people each and kick off relief work by Saturday, July 7.

More than 230 homes have been destroyed in the week-long fires, and Hargis expects his volunteers to be asked to clean up about 150 of those. He said the operation will probably take at least two months.

As Southern Baptists deploy to address the physical disaster, volunteers also will be finding opportunities to address spiritual needs as well.

“When you go in and help people at no cost to them, I feel you earn the right to share Christ with them,” he said.

“The homeowners start asking you questions like, ‘Why do you do this? Why don’t you charge anything? Who do I make my check out to?’ We tell them that ‘we’re here to serve Jesus by serving you.’ When we say that, they always want to know more.”

Hargis said the estimated value of a fire cleanup -– if the owner had to pay -– would be around $15,000 or more. A 15-year disaster relief veteran, Hargis said the first thing his workers will do is sift through the ashes, looking for gold, jewelry or coins that may have survived the blaze.

“It’s just one of our free services, and the people are always very thankful to recover some of their valuables,” Hargis said.

Next, the teams will work with California state “haz-mat” personnel to determine if asbestos or other hazardous materials need to be removed from the home site. Then Hargis’ teams will remove old pipes and separate metal, ash and brick or stone. When finished, the site will be reduced to a cleaned-off slab or foundation ready to be built on again.

“We’ll also bring down any fireplaces because they usually survive the fire and can be dangerous if they fall. Our chainsaw guys also will be cutting down any trees that have been burned,” Hargis said.

While the disaster relief team waits to go in, Debbie Wohler, a resort missionary at Lake Tahoe for the past 28 years, already lives and works on the scene. Wohler is jointly funded through the California Southern Baptist Convention and the North American Mission Board.

“It’s really been reaffirming to me as a NAMB missionary to have so many folks from all over the country to call or e-mail us this week, just to check on us, say they were worried about us and praying for us,” said Wohler, who lives on Lake Tahoe’s north shore.

Although -– as the crow flies -– she’s 35 miles away from the fires burning on the lake’s south shore, “at night, we could see an orange glow across the lake. On the north side, it’s been hazy and smoky. Yesterday, it started to rain ash, so we were concerned about a fire starting over here,” Wohler said.

Wohler said two Southern Baptist churches -– First Baptist Church of South Lake Tahoe and Tahoe Community Church -– are close by but not endangered by the fires. First Baptist is being used as an evacuation center.

Tahoe Community Church has been sheltering some Campus Crusade for Christ campers, who -– while attending a large conference on the south shore -– were trapped close to the fire and had to be evacuated from their meeting place.

Wohler said her church, First Baptist Church of Tahoe City, has been busy collecting and distributing water, blankets, clothing and coats for those affected by the fire. Summer nights can be chilly around Lake Tahoe, where temperatures often drop into the 40s.

Long after the fires are out, Wohler said the local Lake Tahoe economy could be affected since the fires struck during the heart of the tourist season.

“About 12 million people visit Lake Tahoe every year,” she said. “There are a lot of little towns around the lake -– it’s 72 miles around — and they’ll be devastated by the loss in tourism.” Wohler said some 34,000 people live on the south shore of Lake Tahoe.

In her job as a NAMB resort missionary, Wohler holds Sunday worship services at six ski locations around the lake and conducts children’s programs -– attended by as many as 160 kids at a time — mostly for the fulltime, local residents.

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  • Mickey Noah