Wildfires finally die, but flame of service is still burning bright

Wildfires that ravaged Southern California for nearly two weeks have died down, but the flame of service is burning bright as members and missionaries are joining clean-up and relief efforts.

"I am just constantly impressed at how quickly and effectively - with a great spirit of love and cooperation - the leaders and members are immediately going into action," said Elder John H. Groberg of the Seventy. "They aren't waiting; they are moving right ahead. They're calling Church headquarters and saying, `This is what we've done.' "Elder Groberg, president of the North America West Area, toured several stricken areas on Oct. 29-31, including one of the areas hardest hit - Laguna Beach. "The areas I saw reminded me of World War II," he told the Church News. "There were big areas where nothing but chimneys were standing. It reminded me of a war scene."

He credited the emergency preparation efforts of members and local Church leaders for their quick response during the fires. "We have well-organized priesthood quorums there," Elder Groberg added, "and several stake presidents have reported that all of the affected members were immediately taken care of."

According to the California public affairs council, at least 13 LDS families lost their homes in blazes that ravaged areas in and around 26 communities and affected 12 stakes in Southern California. In addition to the loss of eight LDS homes reported in the Nov. 6 Church News, five homes were destroyed in the Los Angeles California Santa Monica Stake. This stake includes Malibu, Calif., just up the coast from Los Angeles. In the Malibu fire, 350 structures, mostly homes, were burned. As of Nov. 9, no serious personal injuries to members or loss of Church property was reported.

In speaking of relief efforts, Elder Groberg explained that the area presidency has given the following instructions to members and Church leaders in Southern California:

Increase your fast offerings to help those affected by the fires.

Make sure affected members are taken care of.

Volunteer your service to the Red Cross or various relief agencies.

He added that - although available - Church welfare relief supplies haven't yet been requested because "members have turned out in great numbers and have donated about everything that is needed."

These donations have included food, clothing, time, money and facilities.

For instance, Bishop Donald J. Thompson of the Calabasas Ward, Los Angeles California Canoga Park Stake, said 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 have a long-standing arrangement that we are a part of the Meadow Oaks Elementary School's emergency plan. The school children were evacuated by bus to our building. The building has a large lawn area, and teachers maintained classes at the Church."

In the California Laguna Niguel Stake, members collected more than 300 bags of clothing within 48 hours following the Laguna/Emerald Bay fire. Men, women and youth from all of the stake's 10 wards worked with members of other faiths to staff a clothing sorting and distribution center.

"Our stake," said Linda Duncombe of the Laguna Niguel 4th Ward and a counselor in the stake Relief Society presidency, "was given an empty bank building to turn into a sorting and distribution center for clothing. We obtained clothing racks from Deseret Industries to help organize the clothing and create more of a store-like atmosphere.

"After the fires," Sister Duncombe continued, "many of our stake members recognized the need for sandbags to use as erosion buffers to prevent water runoff and flooding in the winter. Families in our stake committed an evening and filled thousands of sandbags for future use."

In addition, approximately 800 stake members and many missionaries from the California Carlsbad Mission have worked in relief efforts that include clean-up, food distribution, counseling, child care, security, communications and housing.

"This cooperative effort isn't really about fires, food or clothing," explained Stake Pres. Alvin Clawson. "Our situation is about working together to strengthen our community. Many affected individuals may need our love and support more than our clothing and food."

However, following the fires, many areas were off limits to non-residents. To go into an affected area, relief workers had to be escorted by a resident. One such resident was Bishop Keith Milliken of the Pacific Palisades Ward, Los Angeles California Santa Monica Stake. His home was spared, while neighbors on three sides lost their homes. Bishop Milliken took both members and missionaries into the area to assist neighbors in the early stages of clean-up.

One of the missionaries assisting in Bishop Milliken's ward was Sister Tyra Kendall. "We raked lawns and swept up ashes. While we were working, one of the elders gave a first discussion to a resident. We invited him to the Los Angeles Temple visitors center and the Christmas programs we are planning."

In referring to the opportunity to serve, Pres. Hedrick of the Santa Monica stake wrote in a letter to stake members: "Unsolicited acts of caring are the essence of the gospel of Jesus Christ and help us understand the true joy that comes from ministering to our brothers and sisters in need.

"The real strength of our people comes not from our ability to face and overcome any trial or challenge, but 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 us how to love, how to minister and care for our brothers and sisters."

This caring for one another impressed Elder Groberg during his visit to the affected areas. "The attitude of members has been wonderful," he noted. "Some of the stake presidents commented that this has been a faith builder. Some who lost homes said, `I have my wife, my family, my testimony and the love and help of my neighbors, and that's what counts.' "

There have also been stories of those who thought their homes were lost, yet returned to find them standing. One such home is owned by well-known astronaut Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin, whose wife, Lois Driggs Aldrin, is a member. It was reported in the Nov. 6 Church News that Mr. Aldrin's home was destroyed, but it is now reported to have only been slightly damaged.

According to the Associated Press, about 1,100 homes were destroyed in the wildfires, with about 200,000 acres burned. So far, three people have been reported killed. Many of the fires are blamed on arson.

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