“Members, Missionaries Help Victims of Fire,” Ensign, Jan. 1994, 76–77
Relief efforts by members and missionaries in southern California are underway following fires in twenty-six communities that ravaged areas involving twelve stakes. Thirteen homes of Church members were lost, and numerous families were evacuated from their homes. There were no personal injuries to members or loss of Church property.
The fires ranged from Ojai in the north to Poway in the south, covering an area approximately 140 miles long. Fires reached inland as far as eighty miles. More than two hundred thousand acres were burned, and eleven hundred structures were destroyed. The fires, the majority believed to involve arson, flared during a ten-day period in late October and early November.
Richard Brunson, captain in the Los Angeles City Fire Department and a member of the Pacific Palisades Ward, Los Angeles California Santa Monica Stake, was dispatched to man hose lines in the Chatsworth fire.
“We are in a desert climate,” observed the fourteen-year firefighter veteran. “Each year we have Santa Ana winds. They are very warm and very strong. Once you have a brush fire started and very high winds, the fire is difficult to extinguish.”
During and following the fires, Church members were quick to respond to community needs.
Bishop Donald J. Thompson of the Calabasas Ward, Los Angeles California Canoga Park Stake, reports that his ward meetinghouse was used as an evacuation center for a neighborhood elementary school. The Calabasas/Malibu fire began approximately half a mile from the school site.
“We are part of the Meadow Oaks Elementary School’s emergency plan,” he explained. “The school children were evacuated by bus to our building. The building has a large lawn area, and teachers maintained classes at the church site.”
Forty-eight hours after the Laguna/Emerald Bay fire began, members of the Laguna Niguel California Stake had collected more than three hundred bags of clothing. Working with members of other faiths, men, women, and youth from all of the stake’s ten wards sorted and distributed clothes.
“Our stake was given an empty bank building to turn into a sorting and distribution center for clothing,” explained Linda Duncombe, a member of the Laguna Niguel Fourth Ward. “We obtained clothing racks from Deseret Industries to help organize the clothing. The center was staffed by Church members and opened to community members requiring assistance.
“After the fires, many of our stake members recognized the need for sandbags to use as erosion buffers to prevent water runoff and flooding,” Sister Duncombe added. “Families in our stake spent family home evening filling thousands of sandbags for future use.”
Approximately eight hundred Church members from throughout the area worked closely with missionaries from the California Carlsbad Mission in relief efforts which included cleanup, food distribution, counseling, child care, security, communications, and housing.
“This cooperative effort isn’t only about fires, food, or clothing,” said Alvin Clawson, president of the Laguna Niguel California Stake. “It’s also about working together to strengthen our community. Many of these individuals may need our love and support more than our clothing and food.”
Bishop Keith Milliken of the Pacific Palisades Ward, Los Angeles California Santa Monica Stake, was forced to evacuate his home when threatened by the Calabasas/Malibu fire. Neighbors on three sides lost homes, but his home was spared.
“We had members and missionaries from the California Los Angeles Mission helping residents with raking, cleaning, washing, sweeping, and clearing ash and debris inside and outside homes. We know there will be more opportunities, and we will be there to help,” Bishop Milliken said.
Children in the Newbury Park California Stake decided to focus on treats for the firefighters. “Three hundred children from all wards in our stake baked cookies for nearly six hundred firefighters,” said Donee Robinson, assistant director of public affairs for the stake. More than one hundred of the children served the cookies to firefighters and support personnel in a neighborhood park.
Elsewhere in southern California, missionaries from the California Ventura Mission worked with the Red Cross to help feed firefighters. According to mission president Roger C. Butterfield, missionaries served nearly eight hundred meals—hot breakfasts and packaged lunches—to those on the line. “The Red Cross approached us because we have worked with them previously in other volunteer efforts,” President Butterfield explained. “There was a need, so we sent the missionaries out to help.”
Those who lost property and possessions in the fire are now struggling to handle the loss. Claron Oakley, a member of the Pasadena Second Ward, lost his home in the Altadena fires. His greatest loss, however, was a hallway filled with six generations of family photographs. He escaped with only a handful of the snapshots.
“I lost the wedding pictures of my three children, and the only picture in existence of me and my wife on our wedding day in 1950,” he said.
Robert E. Hedrick, president of the Los Angeles California Santa Monica Stake, sent a letter to members of his stake. In part, the letter read: “The real strength of our people comes … from our firm belief that our Heavenly Father knows each of us individually and the trials and challenges we face. He has given us His Son to teach how to love, minister, and care for our brothers and sisters.”