SAN BERNARDINO, Calif. (BP)–Southern Baptist public safety chaplains aren’t fighting wildfires in Southern California, but they are at the front lines of grief faced by the hundreds of families who have lost their homes, possessions, pets and even loved ones.
The fires, now blamed for at least 16 deaths, had destroyed nearly 2,000 homes as of early Oct. 29. Thousands, unsure whether they will be able to return to their homes, remain in evacuation centers.
Dale Garland, a volunteer police chaplain and pastor of First Baptist Church of Fontana, said he and a fellow church staff member have been busy working with two evacuation centers providing counseling services. The church also has provided meals for evacuees at the centers.
One of the first steps when somebody has faced loss from a fire, Garland said, is to provide a “defusing.”
“You just let them talk about it and give them some information about the grieving process,” he said. “One lady lost a two-bedroom house in the mountains, and to her, losing that house was like losing a loved one. It was really a dream home. She wasn’t staying at the center but had come in for the purpose of getting counseling.”
Another family had escaped their home at the very last moment.
“Their house was burning down, and the [fiberglass] back of their truck just melted,” Garland said. “Their boat caught on fire, so they had to stop and unleash the boat. … They were praising God they were able to get out.”
Greg Smith, a volunteer chaplain with the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department and California Division of Forestry, said he has been busy serving in the affected areas talking with families while also providing protection from looters.
“Many of the homes have been lost for I don’t know how many days, but lots of the families are just now sifting through the rubble, crying, hoping to find things,” Smith said. “Yesterday one lady and her husband were sifting through the rubble, and she was really hoping to find a piece of jewelry that was a family heirloom. The fire had been so hot that everything, even metal, was melted in there. In a moment of great joy her husband reached down in a spot that apparently had not gotten quite so hot and found that particular piece of heirloom jewelry, and she was praising God.”
Many people, particularly the elderly, often are in “complete shock,” Smith said. Part of his role is also to help get individuals connected with the American Red Cross and other agencies that can provide clothes, food and temporary housing.
“In some cases we’ve gone in to find the family members and bring them out, or we’ve transported the people to the evacuation centers where they could make phone calls and get cared for,” Smith said. “We have had a couple of deaths. People were just overwhelmed and died of a heart attack. So it’s tragedy upon tragedy.”
Southern Baptist public safety chaplains receive endorsement through the North American Mission Board Chaplains Commission.