Mormons regrouping after California fires


As Diablo winds blasted the wildfire out of the mountains and down into the Coffey Park neighborhood of Santa Rosa in the middle of the night on Oct. 9, Jack Reisner saw the first embers arriving.

“It was the middle of the night, but it felt as hot as if I were standing in the sun in the middle of a hot day,” said the Primary chorister in the Peterson Lane Ward. “I was standing in the swirling wind. It was like the ‘Ten Commandments’ movie. I know now what the children of Israel and the armies of Pharaoh saw. I understand the pillar of fire now.

“It was here.”

The fire consumed his home in 40 minutes, leaving nothing but ash, the skeletal remains of vehicles and a rock wall. The Reisners were among more than 150 Latter-day Saint families to lose homes as 16 fires raged through Northern California for nearly two weeks. No members died or suffered serious injury.

In all, the wildfires killed 42 people, burned more than 6,700 houses and businesses, forced more than 100,000 people to evacuate their homes and required the efforts of more than 10,000 firefighters from around the country.

The Tubbs Fire leveled Coffey Park, destroying 1,300 homes. In the aftermath, the neighborhood looked like the German city of Dresden after the Allies firebombed it during World War II. Chimneys stood like monuments to the houses lost. The skeletal remains of cars and trucks sat in streets, on driveways and where garages once stood. The area smelled like wood fire, burned rubber, melted plastic and molten metal.

Peterson Lane Ward Bishop Allan Darrimon and his wife also lost their home.

“As we drove out, thousands of embers were blowing down the street around us,” said Veronica Darrimon, a seminary coordinator in the Santa Rosa California Stake. “Embers the size of your hand were flying horizontally in the wind, hitting shrubs and lighting them up like little bonfires. Then we saw some hit a colleague’s house, and Coffey Park started lighting up.”

The fire forced Santa Rosa California Stake President Gary Kitchen to evacuate his home twice. He spoke at a stake-wide meeting on Sunday in borrowed clothes. Fairfield California Stake President Jamie Edmond coordinated his stake’s response while being forced to live away from his threatened home for a week.

In Fairfield, Grant and Alemitu Staking of the Cordelia 2nd Ward had just celebrated the arrival of baby Damian four days earlier. They woke up on Oct. 9 to the overwhelming smell of smoke. To protect little Damian as well as Annalise, 6 years, and Dominic, 3, the Stakings accepted an offer from friends to stay in Pleasanton until the unpleasantness passed.

Their home was never directly threatened, though they were in a pre-evacuation zone.

“A lot of this depended on the wind,” Grant Staking said. “It’s amazing how something you can’t see can affect your life so much.”

Local LDS leaders activated emergency plans to help members and others in the community. Four Church buildings served as shelters, one for more than a week. Evacuees slept on mattresses on the floors in the Stony Point Ward building. Couples or families occupied classrooms. The Primary room was partitioned into sleeping areas for single sisters. Another room held elders from the California Santa Rosa Mission.

All week long, ash fell from the air and gathered on the hoods of cars in the building’s parking lot.

California Santa Rosa Mission President Jim Wright said all missionaries in the area were safe and accounted for, but a third of his 155 missionaries and 14 senior missionaries were affected by the fires in Santa Rosa and Napa. Many spent time cleaning the bathrooms and providing other services at the Church buildings used as shelters.

Daren Blonski, a volunteer firefighter and Primary teacher in the Cordelia 2nd Ward, thought his friend was exaggerating when he called on Oct. 9 and said the entire city of Sonoma was on fire.

While his wife prepared to evacuate their three children, Blonski said flames blew as high as 300 feet as he fought fires in the foothills of Sonoma and Napa. “I saw seven homes go up in Lovall Valley on (Oct. 11),” he said. “That was the most ferocious, the most violent I saw the fire behavior.”

The First Presidency sent Elder Carl B. Cook, a General Authority Seventy, to the area to assess needs and provide support. He spoke at Sunday meetings in Santa Rosa and Napa and urged members to follow President Thomas S. Monson’s counsel to look up.

He also counseled them to follow the scriptural mandate to “Fear not,” a phrase he said is repeated 450 times in the Old Testament and many more in the New Testament.

As firefighters began to contain the fires this week, Church members prepared to help clean up.

“We’re itching to get out and help people,” Grant Staking said. “We’re getting ready to go to Santa Rosa to help.”