“Latter-day Saints Join Efforts after Oakland Fire,” Ensign, Jan. 1992, 75–76
Missionaries jumped in to help with relief efforts in the wake of a fire in Oakland and Berkeley, California, that killed twenty-five people and destroyed more than 3,000 houses, apartments, and buildings.
“They know how to do everything—except make coffee,” a Red Cross shelter manager told Elder Kent Parrish and his wife, Sister Sue Parrish, who serve in the California Oakland Mission.
The homes of three Latter-day Saint families and the apartment of two LDS students attending the University of California, Berkeley, were among those reduced to ashes in the 20–22 October 1991 fire.
On Sunday, as thousands of families were evacuating, missionaries came to President Robert A. Madsen, California Oakland Mission, and asked what they could do to help. “Do what Christ would do,” he said.
They then volunteered at Red Cross shelters—scrubbing floors, preparing food, and directing traffic. Within a week after the fire, at least 140 missionaries had been involved in around-the-clock shifts.
“The principal evacuation center dismissed other volunteers so our ‘clean, hardworking’ missionaries could run the food services. We made the meals, twenty-four hours per day, for all the fire fighters, policemen, emergency services, and the displaced,” President Madsen said.
Red Cross officials praised the efforts by the missionaries. In one service center, the missionaries offered an image of order and normality that helped calm people who had lost everything in the fire.
In order to better use the missionaries’ talents, the Red Cross trained them in a two- to three-hour seminar to work with victims in damage assessment, disbursing funds, and filing insurance claims.
Throughout the region, members of the Church rallied together as many of them, including President Gary Stephen Anderson, of the Oakland stake, were evacuated from their homes. The Oakland Temple’s parking lot was turned into a helicopter landing pad and refueling station.
Members of the San Leandro California Stake, under the direction of President Jay Douglas Pimentel, aided in relief efforts by sending a thousand sack dinners to volunteers fighting the fires and offering housing for evacuees.
After immediate needs had been met, the San Leandro stake began work to coordinate long-range cleanup efforts in conjunction with other stakes in the area, the Red Cross, the city of Oakland, the Oakland Interfaith Council, and other volunteer organizations. “Our role is now one of resource and support,” President Pimentel said.
Although the fire burned along a mountain ridge near the Oakland Temple, it was contained before it approached the temple, said Robert L. Lillywhite, temple recorder.
“The fire was about a mile away,” he said. “But since the temple was closed on the two days of the fire (Sunday and Monday), our patrons weren’t affected by the fire.”
On Sunday, October 20, Bishop Samuel Richard Wickel, Jr., of the Oakland Third Ward, in the Oakland California Stake, had finished Church meetings and was visiting with members when word came that parts of the city were burning. He sent everyone home.
“We could see the fire coming our way. It was about 2:00 p. m. The fire fighters kept fighting the fire. By 4:00 p. m. we had to leave. We could see a wall of flames shooting thirty to forty feet in the air.”
Sister Margaret Wickel said, “It was so dark in our house from the intense smoke that we had to use flashlights to find the sleeping bags and to read our list of phone numbers.”
“We moved a block away,” Bishop Wickel continued, “and stood and watched our homes. The heat was so bad and the air was so bad that we could hardly breathe. We could see the wall of flame coming to our house, and my wife said, ‘Let’s leave. I can’t stand to see our home go.’”
The fire fighters made the fire line at the house, and as the Wickels and their neighbors watched, “we could hear the crackling sounds of pine and eucalyptus trees and the explosions of gas lines and car gas tanks,” Sister Wickel said.
Bishop Wickel spent the rest of the day helping with relief efforts. It wasn’t until Monday that the Wickels learned their house was still standing, and it was Wednesday before they could move back in.
Sister Wickel said the fire came within half a block of the back of their home and within a block on either side.
The fire began Saturday, October 19, and was thought to be extinguished; but it re-erupted on Sunday. City officials place the damage at $1.5 to $2 billion.
Allen Teichert, San Leandro stake public affairs director, said the area destroyed by the fire “looked just like Hiroshima. Nineteen hundred acres completely destroyed where nothing exists except chimneys.”
The Ron McLain family of the Oakland First Ward, Oakland California Stake, was one of the three Latter-day Saint families whose house burned. “We had no warning to speak of. When we realized the gravity of the situation, only scant minutes separated us from being engulfed by the fire that swept through the neighborhood and completely destroyed all of our homes,” said Brother McLain, who escaped with his wife, Deena, and their two daughters, Laney and Rachel.
“We lost all of our personal possessions in the fire except the clothes we were wearing when we had to evacuate,” Brother McLain said, adding, “We’ve been inundated with love and support, for which we will be eternally grateful.”
On Monday, Brother McLain returned to see what had happened to his home. “It had been completely destroyed. As I stood in front of it surveying the ruins, I turned in a complete circle and noted that as far as I could see, no home was left standing.”
Then his thoughts turned to the welfare of those around him. “Though I felt a sense of loss for all of us, I was simultaneously taken with a determination to help rebuild the neighborhood and my community by doing whatever was necessary.”