United Methodist Committee on Relief

Wildfire Recovery in California

By Michelle Okabayahsi*

In the wake of the worst wildfire season recorded in California, the United Methodist Committee on Relief is working alongside the California-Nevada and California-Pacific annual conferences as they continue providing relief to survivors and begin planning for what will be a multiyear recovery program. “These fires are catastrophic for so many individuals, families and communities. The immediate needs are great, and the recovery will take time,” notes Cathy Earl, UMCOR’s director of disaster response and U.S. partner relations.

Initial $10,000 solidarity grants from UMCOR are providing immediate relief as planning to support long-term recovery commences. These grants provided for emotional care, gas cards, Tyvek suits, handmade sifters to help families sort through the remains of their belongings, and solar lamps for children.

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Camp Fire

The Camp Fire in northern California is the deadliest and most destructive in California history, razing 18,000 structures and killing 86 people. The California-Nevada Conference is assisting survivors as they work to find a new normal. The affected communities are currently being opened in zones, and residents are allowed to return for the first time to sift through their belongings and determine their next steps. They are not doing this alone. UMCOR-trained Early Response Teams are helping residents in this work, and while their physical help is appreciated, ERTs also offer an important listening ear. ERT members are trained to walk beside survivors and offer a ministry of caring, first and foremost.

Currently ERTs are the only United Methodist volunteers on site; the conference is encouraging individuals and groups who want to volunteer in the future to register their interest online:

Woolsey Fire

The Woolsey Fire in southern California burned more than 1,600 homes and claimed at least three lives. Currently ERTs are not allowed in the affected area, due to government regulations. Once the heavy equipment has completed the initial excavation, an on-the-ground response in the burned-out communities can commence. In the meantime, the California-Pacific Conference is engaged in coordinating recovery efforts in conjunction with other agencies through established Disaster Assistance Centers. These centers are a one-stop shop for survivors, where they can register with multiple agencies and government services for the help they need. In addition to connecting survivors with practical resources, the conference is also providing a ministry of caring through their presence at these centers by creating space for survivors to share their stories.

Already the California-Pacific Conference has logged more than 555 volunteer hours and talked with more than 200 survivors through their Disaster Assistance Center presence. “All of us who touch a survivor are called to be a caring presence,” says Christy Smith, UMCOR disaster consultant who is working with the conference.

Those interested in volunteering their time to assist in recovery should reach out to their jurisdictional volunteer coordinator here.

How You Can Help

Your donation to U.S. Disaster Response, Advance #901760, provides for UMCOR’s disaster response grants, training and support for the annual conferences responding to these and other U.S. disasters.

*Michelle Okabayashi is a freelance writer for Global Ministries.