Wildfire destroys dozens of Latter-day Saint homes in Oregon; many more displaced

Latter-day Saints are numbered among the legions of Oregonians upended by wildfires over the past week across their state.

The blazes claimed lives, destroyed homes and displaced tens of thousands.

No Latter-day Saints were injured in the blazes and missionaries serving in affected regions were all safe, accounted for and serving others.

Still, the state’s large Latter-day Saint community will be in pain for weeks to come.

The homes of more than 60 families “have been destroyed or damaged,” Elder David L. Wright, an Area Seventy, told the Church News.  Hit particularly hard was the Medford Oregon Stake, where 60 member homes were lost to the fires.

The Oregon communities of Talent and Phoenix were most dramatically affected.

A missionary apartment in Phoenix was also destroyed, but its occupants cleared out long before flames arrived. “Wherever there is even a hint of a fire threat, the missionaries are being moved until that threat diminishes,” said Elder Wright.

Besides the Medford stake, members from the Central Point Oregon Stake, Springfield Oregon Stake, Salem Oregon Stake, Oregon City Oregon Stake and Mount Hood Oregon Stake were all affected by the wildfires.

This photo taken by Talent, Ore., resident Kevin Jantzer shows the destruction of his hometown as wildfires ravaged the central Oregon town near Medford late Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2020. (Kevin Jantzer via AP)
This photo taken by Talent, Ore., resident Kevin Jantzer shows the destruction of his hometown as wildfires ravaged the central Oregon town near Medford late Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2020. (Kevin Jantzer via AP) Credit: AP

No Church meetinghouses or other Church properties were damaged.

Hundreds of firefighters were enlisted to battle a pair of large blazes that threatened to merge near the most populated part of Oregon, including the suburbs of Portland, the Associated Press reported.

Gov. Kate Brown said more than 40,000 Oregonians had, at some point, evacuated and about 500,000 more experienced different levels of evacuation, either having been told to leave or to prepare to do so.

The high number of fires occurring simultaneously in the span of just a few days in Oregon was fueled by dry conditions, high temperatures and especially strong, swirling winds, according to the Associated Press.

Brown said that more than 1,400 square miles (3,600 square kilometers) burned in Oregon, nearly doubling the land that burns in a typical year in the state and an area greater than the size of Rhode Island.

Oregon officials haven’t released an exact death count for the wildfires, but at least eight fatalities have been reported.

Kim Carbaugh fled from her home in Lyons with her husband, two children and two horses.

“When we were driving away and I could see actual fire, the red and orange flames. At the time I didn’t feel scared, I had so much adrenaline — we just had to leave,” she told the Associated Press from the livestock stables of the evacuation center at the State Fairgrounds in Salem.

With the two large fires — called the Beachie Fire and the Riverside Fire — threatening to merge in the early days of the disaster, some firefighters in Oregon’s Clackamas County were told to disengage temporarily because of the danger. Officials tried to reassure residents who abandoned their homes. Law enforcement officials said police patrols would be stepped up to prevent looting.

While understandably staggered by the wildfires, Latter-day Saints were fortified by both receiving and providing ministering service.

Boaters pass by the Seattle skyline during hazy air conditions Friday morning, Sept. 11, 2020. Smoke pollution from wildfires raging in California and across the Pacific Northwest worsened in San Francisco, Seattle and Portland, Oregon, on Friday, giving those cities and others in the the region some of the world’s worst air quality. (Erika Schultz/The Seattle Times via AP)
Boaters pass by the Seattle skyline during hazy air conditions Friday morning, Sept. 11, 2020. Smoke pollution from wildfires raging in California and across the Pacific Northwest worsened in San Francisco, Seattle and Portland, Oregon, on Friday, giving those cities and others in the the region some of the world’s worst air quality. (Erika Schultz/The Seattle Times via AP) Credit: AP

“The local leaders — the bishoprics and Relief Society presidencies — have done a great job managing the needs of the members and helping them find places to stay if they have nowhere to go,” said Elder Lawrence P. Blunck, an Area Seventy and longtime Oregon resident.

Local Church leaders have partnered with the Red Cross to deliver relief to members and non-members alike.. The Central Point Oregon stake center has been utilized as a community shelter. More than 100 people found refuge inside the building or exterior grounds during the first days of the evacuations.

Elder Wright fought emotion while sharing the account of a displaced elderly couple who arrived, disoriented and distraught, at the Central Point stake center. They were soon taken in by a nearby Latter-day Saint family  “who opened their home, calmed them down and helped that senior couple feel safe and secure.”

The full-time missionaries “have been absolute stars” serving however they are asked across Oregon. “They are being deployed to serve and help in the community. It’s gratifying to see,” said Elder Wright.

On Wednesday, Sept. 16, the Area Seventy reported that the short term needs of displaced members were being met.

“The element in the room is long-term housing,” Elder Wright noted in a text. “We are trying to determine who had insurance and who did not.”

Medford Oregon Stake President John Clason told the Church News on Wednesday almost all the members from the Bear Creek Ward had been displaced. Church and federal assistance was expected to offer a measure relief to many Latter-day Saint families who lost their homes.

The ongoing pandemic only enhances the fire crisis, added President Clason. Schools have not been reopened in the region due to COVID-19, and many displaced youth do not have internet access to participate in virtual classes. Parents and Church leaders worry about them falling behind in their studies.

“A lot of the kids,” said President Clason, “are really going to be hurting.”

Members in the Medford stake can at least seek comfort worshipping, at appropriate social distances, with fellow Latter-day Saints. Updated Sabbath-day meeting policies now allow wards in the Medford stake to meet weekly.