Around 1:30 a.m. on October 9, Letila Varca-Tiko’s daughter told her parents they needed to leave their house. The 9-year-old said “someone woke her up and told her they needed to get out now.” Confused, her parents asked her what she meant, but within minutes, a neighbor arrived with horrifying news: their neighborhood was in the path of a fast-racing fire.
In the days that followed, the Tubbs fire, along with several other fires in Northern California’s wine country, would consume 210,000 acres and around 5,700 buildings, sending more than 90,000 people in search of safety. The wildfires have become the deadliest California has seen in a century, with 42 lives lost.
At St. Eugene’s Cathedral, parishioners began to show up before dawn, looking for a place to stay. Father Frank Epperson, the cathedral rector, opened a parish center, and borrowed food to feed them from the school cafeteria while the call went out for cots and bedding. Marian Sister Mary Rose told Angelus News that many of the evacuees were from nearby Oakmont Senior Living Community, which burned to the ground. Eventually, the parish was serving 100 displaced people, a number that gradually dropped as people left to stay with friends and family members, or transferred to larger evacuation centers that provided medical care.
Varca-Tiko, sitting at First United Methodist Church in Santa Rosa, another evacuation center, said “We didn’t know where to go, so most everyone came here.” A member of the Fijian children’s ministry, she found it comforting to be staying at what she called “a second home.”
She had found it difficult to accept what had happened, the loss of their home, and of the lives of so many, but “I prayed for peace, and I got peace.”
When the family returned to see their neighborhood, they discovered that their house had escaped the flames. She said that the fire had given her a new perspective on what matters most in life.
“Joy doesn’t come from ownership,” she said.
Rising to the Fire
The first Sunday after the wildfires began, ash flitted down as people, wearing white construction face masks to guard against the smoke, entered the church for Mass. In his homily, Father Jeffrey Keyes said that although the Church was celebrating the liturgical season of Ordinary Time, “this is no ordinary time.”
Cardinal Newman High School, five miles from the Cathedral, had lost half its campus. Approximately 50% of the families of the school had been displaced, he said, and 20% of them had lost their homes. Nearby St. Rose lost its preschool building, and the roof of the main school was damaged.
Father Keyes had to provide lessons, he said, and “I don’t even know if they have their books.”
Cardinal Newman is focused on trying to resume educating the students amid the uncertainty. Online education has been explored, as well as using satellite sites while waiting for permission to return to the campus.
At the local FEMA center, Ronnie Nunley, a Red Cross coordinator, told Angelus News that “the community is stepping up tremendously.” From Tennessee, he was just one of the volunteers who had traveled across the country to assist with the relief.
“We’re just here to help,” he said.
Fawn Moran, the Sonoma County St. Vincent de Paul disaster services coordinator, told Angelus News they had a booth inside offering people a “home in a box,” to help with lost possessions. The package includes furniture, bedding, kitchenware - everything needed to resume a home life.
Reaching the Margins
Moran said an immediate goal of St. Vincent de Paul was to reach out to farmworkers, many of whom were “too terrified” to visit the federal aid center or apply for assistance from FEMA, due to their immigration status. ICE has announced a temporary suspension of immigration enforcement in the fire affected areas.
Another concern is a new wave of homelessness rippling through the community.
“For all those people who were on the edge to begin with, if you lose your housing, and then your employer loses their business, you’re really in a bad place,” Moran said.
“There’s several layers to this that are going to be with us for the next few years.”
Sister Mary Rose at St. Eugene’s praised the heroism of the men and women working to contain the wildfires, but also praised the heroism of those who generously donated their time or goods to the evacuees.
“The heroes in any situation like this are being Christ to one another,” she said.
For Sister Mary Rose, her community’s work continues to be keeping people focused on the things “that truly matter,” and supporting one another.
She said, “I know that people's faith is strong, and we will rebuild as time permits.”
Nicholas Wolfram Smith writes from Oakland, California.