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Southern Baptists prepare and respond to wildfires on the West Coast

The Tamarack Fire burns in the town of Markleeville in Alpine County, Calif., July 17. (AP Photo / Noah Berger)

DOUGLAS COUNTY, Nev. (BP) – Several wildfires burning across the U.S. West Coast are prompting some Southern Baptists to evacuate from their homes, while others are responding to practical needs.

Two large fires sparked by lightning strikes are still burning weeks later – one in Oregon and one in California that has now crossed over the border into Nevada, according to The Associated Press.

Reports say the fire in southern Oregon has expanded up to four miles a day but is now one-third contained. Evacuation orders were given for at least 2,000 homes during the course of the fire. Many buildings and homes were destroyed, but no deaths have been reported.

In addition, the Tamarack Fire originated near Lake Tahoe after a lightning strike July 4. The accumulation of fires in California and Nevada has forced the closing of parts of highway U.S. 395 in both states, AP reported.

A voluntary evacuation request from local law enforcement was issued this week for areas surrounding Douglas County, Nev.

Adam Barkley is pastor at Topaz Ranch Estates Church, a Southern Baptist church in Douglas County whose members have been asked to evacuate. Even today (July 23), Barkley learned of two families in the church who have lost their homes and belongings in the fire.

Barkley said the voluntary evacuation request represents the first stage of threat for a wildfire, and indicates it is wise for residents to get prepared as the next stage would be a mandatory evacuation.

Members are leaving with a few belongings and dispersing in several directions, including north toward Gardnerville, east toward Smith Valley or south via motor homes. Many are headed to stay with friends and family.

Barkley told Baptist Press wildfires have become annual events for the community over the past few years, and while it has taught church members to always be ready for a crisis, it has affected their faith as well.

“In any area of life where we face something that’s outside of our own control, it creates an orientation to look to God and ask for strength, guidance and protection,” Barkley said.

“Most of the church are up in years, and so their property is all that they own and have. One is more looking to depend on the Lord as a lifestyle and then act accordingly during these times. God is sovereign over all things, but wants me to do my best with the abilities and gifts that He has given me and trust him with the rest.”

This Sunday the church will meet virtually, which Barkley said should go off without a hitch because the church was doing that throughout the COVID-19 pandemic when every member of the 35-member church would join together on an audio zoom call.

Barkley said the Nevada Baptist Convention has been in constant communication with the church and has been supportive throughout the crisis.

Additionally, the California Southern Baptist Convention is currently serving people who have been displaced by the Tamarack Fire in both rural California and Nevada.

Mike Bivins, CSBC director of Disaster Relief, is on deployment with state disaster relief volunteers who are helping meet practical needs by providing meals and building relationships with those displaced.

Bivins explained one of the most important roles of disaster relief ministry is building relationships. Southern Baptist DR volunteers are partnering with the local Salvation Army and area Southern Baptist churches.

“We’re building community disaster ministry and Southern Baptists have a seat at the table because of our local churches,” Bivins said.

One of the churches Bivins and the team are serving at is Smith Valley Baptist Church in Nevada, near one of the communities to which members of Topaz Ranch Estates Church evacuated.

Summer Walker, wife of Smith Valley pastor Travis Walker, said ultimately the goal in serving the community is sharing the Gospel of Christ, and she asked Southern Baptists to pray for opportunities for them to do so.

“Sharing the Gospel is the most important thing we can do,” Walker said. “Our physical needs and emotional needs are secondary to the Gospel. We pray that God will open the door to share, not only with these people who have been displayed but with all the local volunteers we are working with and just shine the light of Christ through serving.”