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Wall of flames set to roar through Arizona communities

SHOW LOW, Ariz. (BP)–More than 4,000 Southern Baptists joined the exodus of evacuees fleeing a monstrous fire that has burned more than 305,000 acres and displaced about 30,000 people.

Authorities report that at least 186 homes have been consumed by the fire, including 116 in towns west of Show Low. A Southern Baptist church in Overgaard, Ariz. was reportedly lost in the fire, according to Matt Gaston, director of evangelism and missions for the Desert Pines Association.

Hundreds of firefighters are trying to save Show Low from the blaze, but a fire department spokesman said the town is in imminent danger.

The fire has already ripped through a number of small mountain towns including Linden, Pinedale, Clay Springs and Heber-Overgaard.

Gaston said the fire could devastate the small Baptist association. “If we lose these churches we’re going to lose the economy of our association,” Gaston told Baptist Press in a telephone interview from the association’s office in Snowflake, Ariz. “It’s going to be very difficult for these pastors and our association. Our largest churches are in the forest area. If they are gone, we are going to be hurting big time.”

Some of the association’s largest churches are in the path of the blaze and face destruction. Those churches provide the financial lifeblood of the association, Gaston said. “When you don’t take up offerings you don’t make payroll,” he noted. “That’s blunt and it’s hard to say, but it’s the truth.”

Most of the association has been evacuated and church services were cancelled, leaving pastors and their families time to pack up their belongings and head for safety.

Randall Frantz, associate pastor of the First Baptist Church, Show Low, said one of the most important factors was making sure the congregation was safe.

“We went through the church directory and made sure we knew where all our senior adults were heading and if they needed assistance,” Frantz said. “A lot of people called us to let us know that they were safe so we have a pretty good idea where everyone is.”

Frantz, his wife, and their two small boys, were forced to evacuate their home over the weekend.

“We packed up our car and the church van with pictures, books, videos of the kids and the necessities of life,” he said. “It was hard leaving everything else behind.”

Frantz, who also serves as the chaplain for the Show Low Police Dept, said he has also spent time ministering to police officers, some of whom have lost their homes to the blaze.

“The officers are doing pretty good, but it’s really been stressful,” he said. “I’ve been able to develop a rapport with them over the past three years. The only thing you can do at this point is be there for them.”

The association office in Snowflake has become an evacuation center not only for area pastors, but also for resort ministry workers.

Gaston said they plan on taking care of their ministers through the disaster.

“That’s what we’re here for,” he said. “Up in this area, we are all like family.”

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