Wildfires char southern California

No serious injuries have been reported among Church members in the more than a dozen separate wildfires that have raged through Southern California since Oct. 26, but homes of at least eight LDS families have been destroyed. And while no LDS meetinghouses have been destroyed, fires have come close to at least two.

Alvin Clawson, president of the Laguna Niguel California Stake, told the Church News that five families from the Laguna Beach Ward lost their houses. Laguna Beach is about 40 miles south of Los Angeles, where more than 300 homes have been destroyed.One of the homes lost in Laguna Beach was owned by well-known astronaut Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin, whose wife, Lois Driggs Aldrin, is a Church member. Mr. Aldrin and Neil A. Armstrong were the first men on the moon on July 20, 1969.

Of the other LDS homes lost, said Keith Atkinson, director of public affairs for California, two were in Temecula, 30 miles south of Riverside, in the Murrieta California Stake; and one other home, destroyed in the Altadena fire, was in the Pasadena stake.

No LDS meetinghouses have been damaged so far, but Brother Atkinson said there have been close calls. "The fire came within a block of the Laguna Beach meetinghouse, and within 300 feet of the Newbury Park meetinghouse in Thousand Oaks."

Thousand Oaks is about 30 miles northwest of Los Angeles. Thirty-five structures were destroyed there, but no LDS homes were among them.

In describing the destruction, Grant Brimhall, city manager of Thousand Oaks and a regional representative, said: "Massive home sites were destroyed. Homes, several million dollars in value, were turned to rubble. It was like they were vaporized. In places where trees had been, white ash was left on the ground. We had 2,700 firemen fighting the fire here at its peak."

In his position as city manager, Elder Brimhall met with California Gov. Pete Wilson when the state's chief executive visited Oct. 30 to assess damage and to discuss the prevention of winter flooding.

"Because the foliage has been burned, the soil has become more impermeable. So now, we're working on how to avoid problems from potential mudslides," Elder Brimhall added.

In speaking of the fury of the fires, Donee Robinson, assistant director of public affairs for the Newbury Park stake, said: "The flames were literally 100 feet in the air. You could see the flames just tunneling right down the canyon. The winds spread the fires like crazy. Embers the size of quarters were going everywhere."

One member, Richard Brunson of the Palisades Ward, Santa Monica California Stake, was more than a witness to the fires. He was one of the firefighters. As a captain with the Los Angeles Fire Department, he helped fight a fire that threatened 150 condominiums in Chatsworth, near Thousand Oaks.

"For the first three hours, the fire was slow burning," he said. "We weren't in its direction. Then the wind changed and the fire swept straight at the condominiums. There were a lot of spot fires that came behind, and we had to make sure we weren't cut off from our water supply.

"For about 40 minutes, we were fighting heavy fire. Then when other units arrived, we extinguished the fire."

Out of the ashes and embers of these blazes are coming stories of service and charity - on both group and individual levels. Pres. Clawson of the Laguna Niguel stake said that on Oct. 29, an emergency meeting of civic organizations and community churches was held in Laguna Beach in a Presbyterian church. "We formed committees to serve the emergency and long-term needs of the families who have been displaced," Pres. Clawson said. "Members volunteered to serve on six of the committees."

Pres. Clawson explained that relief efforts now occurring include providing clothes to the families who lost homes.

In the Newbury Park stake, Sister Robinson related, 300 Primary children baked cookies, and about 100 of the children delivered them and fruit to firefighters in their area.

About 20 missionaries from the California Ventura Mission helped the Red Cross feed firefighters in Thousand Oaks, said mission Pres. Roger Butterfield. "The Red Cross was strung too thin," he related. "They had the physical facilities, but they didn't have the manpower."

The missionaries helped take Red Cross vans to the fire line in Thousand Oaks. Each van provided about 400 meals. The elders both drove the vans and served the food.

In recalling the service, Elder James Grgich of Tooele, Utah, said: "Seeing the relief in the firefighters' eyes is something I'll never forget."

Elder Jared McFarland of Milo, Idaho, who was with Elder Grgich, related: "The firemen were so grateful. Some had not been fed in 24 hours. We'd pull up to their fire truck, and they'd say, `You guys are lifesavers. God bless you.' "

In speaking of individual efforts of members to serve those in need, Elder Brimhall spoke of a little LDS girl who brought peanut butter sandwiches to the head cook for the firefighters in Thousand Oaks.

"The cook showed me a note that had been attached to one of the sandwiches. It read, Don't worry. I washed my hands before I made this,' " Elder Brimhall said. "Here's this cook who's anold salt.' He choked up."

The wildfires have left thousands of scarred acres and hundreds of charred homes, businesses and civic structures. By Nov. 1, firefighters were dousing what they hoped were the last of 13 fires, but then the next day several more blazes erupted, causing more evacuations and more devastation.

According to the Associated Press, the wildfires broke out along a 200-mile arc from Ventura County through Los Angeles to the Mexican border. Gusting desert winds fanned what had been brush fires to blowtorches. Blazes erupted in separate locations from the coast to as far as 80 miles east of Los Angeles.

At least six of the fires are blamed on arson, while a fire at Altadena, about 11 miles northeast of Los Angeles, was started when a homeless man's campfire got out of control. The causes of the other fires are unknown.

Early damage estimates, reported the Associated Press, were at $500 million - but are rapidly climbing. More than 171,368 acres had already burned before the new fires erupted. About 830 structures have been destroyed, at least 700 of which were homes. More than 25,000 people were evacuated during the first 13 fires. Most have been returning to their homes, but many are finding only charred remains.

In the wake of the new fires, hundreds have been evacuated from the afflicted areas, including students from Pepperdine University in Malibu.

So far, the blazes have caused more than 60 injuries, mostly to firefighters. No deaths have been reported.

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