Episode 3: Sarah Jane Weaver interviews California and Oregon stake presidents about ministering after wildfires

In November 2018 Camp fire, the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California’s history, claimed 88 lives and destroyed more than 18,000 structures in and around Paradise, California.

This year, fires in Oregon have once again destroyed thousands of homes and uprooted the lives of thousands of families as their devastating flames have torn across the state’s forest and communities.

For Chico California Stake President John Meyer and Medford Oregon Stake President John Clason, their ministries have been shaped and defined by these tragedies and changed the way they look at service and the importance of ministering to God’s children.

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Transcription of the podcast

Sarah Jane Weaver: In January 2019, I visited Paradise, California. It had been two months since Camp Fire, the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California’s history, had claimed 88 lives and destroyed more than 18,000 structures. I will never forget driving down those quiet, flattened neighborhoods. There was an eerie feeling as I viewed those communities silenced by the magnitude and intensity of a fire. I thought of that experience again this September, after learning the wildfires had affected communities that are now part of the Medford Oregon Stake, where more than 80 Latter-day Saints homes were lost. The 2020 Oregon wildfire season has been one of the most destructive on record in that state. In September of this year, the Almeda fire ripped a nine-mile-long path in a matter of hours, burning 2,800 structures. 

Today, I am grateful to welcome two stake presidents whose ministries have been shaped by these tragedies: Chico California Stake President John Meyer, and President John Clason of the Medford Oregon Stake. President Claesson, let’s start with you today. Can you share how your stake was affected by the Almeda fire, and now, almost two months later, how your members are doing?

1:17  

President John Clason: Yes, thank you for having me on. I appreciate it. So as you said there, we lost well up to about 2,800 homes and commercial and public buildings in that fire, and it was a very sudden thing. It wasn’t a fire that encroached in from the forest that we knew about beforehand, we think we started with arson in North Ashland, and that day happened to be a very dry and very windy day. Suddenly, the fire just really took hold and made its way very swiftly up the I-5 corridor, and we’ve got a Greenway kind of a creek that runs up along there. It just jumped back and forth across that, across the highways, and made its way all the way up through Phoenix and Talent, even almost to the southern border of Medford. So overall, we lost about 83 member homes, actually. 73 of those were in the Bear Creek Ward, and another 10 in the Ashland Ward, which is the ward I’m from. Obviously, it was a very, very traumatic day. There were a lot of close calls, but thankfully, no one in the stake was injured, or, of course, lost their lives, so overall, we have a lot to be grateful for, and thus far the recovery process is going on well.

Sarah Jane Weaver: How are the members doing emotionally there?

2:43  

President John Clason: You know, I think it’s mixed. I think, overall, spirits are good, and people are progressing fairly well on the track to recovery. Emotionally, it’s been a rollercoaster ride for most people, including those who did not lose homes, but were significantly involved in the relief effort, or had to evacuate and came back to their homes still standing. So it’s a mix of at first, shock that something like that could happen in an urban environment, and then just an urgency to go to safety. Then shock again, when people return to their home site and see it completely gone. After that, I think it was often followed by a resolve to push forward and to do what it takes to proceed along the recovery process. But also at times, it was common for people to be a little bit lost, or a little bit unsure about what to do – a bit dazed, if you will, even though they were safe and secure. They were just overwhelmed about what step to take next. Another element of the emotional rollercoaster was just a deep sense of gratitude. The state really rallied together to help those that were affected – not just our state, surrounding states and even members across the country reached out and had an impact on the recovery effort going forward. The last emotional element of it was a desire to get back and to help to be needed again. A lot of these people went from being self-reliant, self-sufficient, to suddenly being in great need, and then having those needs met, and then wanting to be needed again and to contribute again to the overall recovery effort.

Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, President Meyer, I bet some of those themes feel familiar to you. It’s been two years in November since Camp Fire claimed Paradise. Can you recount for us what happened on that day and then give us an update on the members there?

4:45  

President John Meyer: Yeah, certainly. I sure appreciate the opportunity to reflect and think about that event. So it was on November 8 that the fire initiated and started up on the ridge and covered a couple of communities; Paradise, Magalia, some neighboring smaller communities, but it accounted for about 50,000 people that were displaced, about 19,000 structures burned, and all of that happened within about a six hour period of time. So it was a really fast-moving fire, and it was really destructive. There are 86 persons that are deceased, one of which is a Church member. Since then, we’ve had about 700 of our Church members move out of the area, move to other states, and the population in the area declined just about 90%, so a pretty substantial movement from the area. There are a few homes that are starting to be rebuilt and re-gather.

Just to give a sense of the order of magnitude – that following Sunday, the fire happened on Thursday, and by Sunday, we’ve gathered all the Saints together in the Paradise and Magalia area. We had a meeting, and then we broke individuals into separate groups to meet with mental health counselors, professionals. We fit everybody who still had a home in the high council room. So there were very, very few people that had had a home remaining.  

The event was significant and painful and challenging and fairly traumatic. I think the emotional element of that is still quite a part of our community, particularly with this last fire that came through our area again on August 17, where we did some additional evacuations and some housing of the persons in the valley, in the Chico community. It kind of brought back all of those feelings and concerns and issues that the children are experiencing around the fire of that magnitude. As far as how the Saints are doing today – those that are remaining in the area are really still quite hopeful, are working their way through the logistics of how to deal with more permanent housing, are more stable in their work and employment, and managing their families. The COVID layer on top of that has complicated it quite a little bit, but I think overall, the ministering element that had occurred and still has occurred in a really natural way has been a substantial blessing (for) both those that have ministered and those that have received ministering care. It really has made the activity of ministering not really an event or something we need to call for, or create a program around, it has just become a natural part of the DNA and culture in our area with the community. That’s been a real blessing as a result of this pretty substantial tragedy. 

So mixed emotions, hope and sorrow. A lot of triggers reflect back on the fire, whenever there’s smoke in our community, which lately has been quite a little bit, so that’s been a challenge. But the Saints are strong, and the community has really done a great job caring for one another, the extended community, our friends, and other nonprofits and local government agencies. That’s been a real positive result looking back on the last two years.

Sarah Jane Weaver: Now, President Claesson, President Meyer brought up the complication that we’re all facing right now, in the COVID-19 pandemic. It has to be one thing to help dozens of members who have lost homes, and so many more who have been evacuated. It has to be a lot harder to do that during a pandemic. Tell us how your stake dealt with that challenge. 

8:47  

President John Clason: I don’t know that the pandemic had a massive impact on the immediate response. When the fires were raging through the valley in the towns, thought of the pandemic just went out the window and the immediate concern was survival and safety. Right off, we opened up on that night, that evening (when) the fires happened. We opened up a couple of church buildings as gathering points, places to distribute supplies and potentially for some people who didn’t have any other places to go, they could spend the night. So, now there were, of course, the sanitation and the distancing requirements that had to be implemented at those venues. That also applied to one of the larger county venues where Jackson County opened up. We have to call the expo, it’s like the local fairgrounds here, and they’ve got some large buildings there, a lot of open space and they’ve made out as a central hub for the whole valley for people to go. Of course that was subject to a lot of the distancing and safety and sanitation requirements that we all know about with COVID. 

But other than that, I don’t know that we were impacted that severely in terms of the immediate response. As we’ve gone into more of a medium to long term recovery effort, COVID certainly has had an impact on the ability to rebuild in terms of labor supply and efficiency with that, and producing new housing and so forth. It’s really driving up costs in that sector, so that’ll be an impact in the long run, which obviously not only affects our region, but many others. So COVID did have an impact in terms of some of the logistics early on, but probably not so much in terms of the immediate response and getting people to safety and the immediate needs that they had.

Sarah Jane Weaver: I was with President Nelson after the fires in Paradise, and he visited that community and walked through and ministered to the members. I’ll never forget what he said. He stood up in Chico, and he said, “We can hardly comprehend the tragic losses you have sustained – loss of life, loss of homes, loss of jobs, workplaces, and much, much more.” And then he added this: “The accounts of your suffering are only exceeded by the accounts of your ministering.” I’m hoping that both of you can respond to that quote, but let’s start with you, President Meyer.

11:34  

President John Meyer: Yes, and that was quite a remarkable and a beautiful day, it was on January 13 of 2019. In that special conference, he furthered that sentence and phrase that you just rehearsed with the following: “You had provided an example to the world about ministering in a higher and holier way, and for this, I thank you.” I’m really grateful to President Nelson for his visit. It was, for me personally, a very important point in time, and I appreciated the conversation that he and I had about the topic of revelation. He had come to minister to God’s children here, and it was just a beautiful experience to hear him share his testimony. He spent some time talking about the words that were pronounced by Isaiah, and particularly with this, “we come into them, that mourn in Zion, to given to them beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness, that they might be called trees of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, that he might be glorified.” And he described that Isaiah likened the righteousness who mourn, including those brothers and sisters, that were serving in our community, to the trees of righteousness planted by God. His message was more than uplifting. it just buoyed the entire body of Saints, and really made it possible to continue to serve and to minister and to be ministered to over the remainder of the rest of 2019. His words have been a blessing to us in an indescribable way.

Sarah Jane Weaver: It’s a different time for you and your stake as you’re dealing with these tragedies, and Church leaders can’t visit in person, but I have no doubt that you and the Latter-day Saints there have felt the same level of ministering. Is that the case?

13:46  

President John Clason: Yeah, absolutely. In terms of receiving some of that ministering from the senior leadership of the church, I received a call from Elder Cook from the Quorum of the Twelve a few weeks ago, and he was very intent and sincere on understanding what had happened and how the members were doing, and he wanted to make absolutely sure that we had everything we needed, and that we were being supported fully by the Church and resources of the Church and so forth. So as we had that conversation, he made it very clear that he and the other senior Brethren in the Quorum of the Twelve and the First Presidency had specifically gathered in person and basically offered a prayer on our behalf to Heavenly Father that we could be blessed and upheld and supported and succored, and also asked me to to communicate that to the stake, which I did. My stake members, hearing that an Apostle had called on their behalf and that he and his brethren had knelt in prayer on their behalf was very, very touching to them and meant a lot, that the Brethren know our condition and they have petitioned the Lord on our behalf. So that was very, very meaningful for us. 

And of course, at the local level, it was just an outpouring of activity with ministering from every temporal and spiritual angle that you can imagine. Most of the Bear Creek Ward, for example, almost the entire ward was displaced, and so the existing ministering assignments were not accurate at all. So we really put a call out to the entire stake and assigned additional sets of ministers to everyone who was impacted, and it really became an amazing process to see the entire stake and surrounding stakes gather and focus, drive forward to assist and to minister to and to succor to those who have lost so much. It’s really taught me that when a group of people, jointly united, decides in unison to do something, there’s really no stopping them and miracles will happen. Absolutely. 

Sarah Jane Weaver: What was so remarkable to me about President Nelson’s visit to Chico and Paradise was that that ministering trip occurred just two days after he had lost his own daughter to cancer. And I remember he was standing in front of the church building in Paradise that had burned, and he talked about mourning the loss of his daughter, and then he talked about the grief that that brings. And then he said, “Yet, there is nothing we would rather do than try and be of help to others.” President Meyer, talk about the service, talk about that help that you felt and that you witnessed some members who may be going through their own thing who may have lost their own homes, but were reaching out to others.

16:49

President John Meyer: I remember that conversation that you highlighted. It was a tender moment to witness President Nelson mourn the loss of his sweet daughter, and at the same time, just extend beyond himself to care for others almost at the exact same point in time. It was really quite a witness that he is a prophet of God who loves all of God’s children. His ability to minister is one worth trying to emulate, and I was really grateful for him continuing to come and visit our community, even though we knew that his daughter had passed a couple days prior. 

In regards to your question about service in the community: I think I’m a little taken aback, I shouldn’t be, I’ve been in the church as a convert now for over 30 years, just taken aback at how proactive and how engaged and how involved the Church members are to care for one another. And I’ll give you just a small sampling. What I’ll share with you has to do with caring for people in the community. It didn’t matter if somebody was a member of the Church or not. We eliminated the concept of membership, and we transitioned to love and care for all of God’s children. 

So, for example, I don’t know how many thousands and thousands of beds are in the community now that were produced and donated by the Church and distributed for months and months after the fire, replacement of suits and ties and all the good Sunday attire. 

We have hundreds and hundreds of starter kits that were donated by individuals. So once somebody moved into an apartment, or they moved into a trailer, or were in a temporary housing unit or structure, then there was a starter kit that they could begin to get settled again. There was a wonderful stake up in Washington that provided musical instruments and replaced pianos, and French horns, and harmonicas, and on and on and on. Deseret Book provided pictures of the Savior. So when somebody finally had a home to live in, we were able to put those paintings that were donated into their homes. Plus, we put those paintings into the homes of almost all the other churches in our community. Those of every single faith are now in possession of a painting of the Savior with a note that it’s a gift from your friends at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, in consequence to serving together for the Camp Fire. We had stakes in Hawaii provide care. There’s a stake in Washington, Otello, they brought crews down to the Paradise area on multiple occasions and cut trees. Ver,y very hard work, saving millions of dollars in labor cost with their volunteer effort. Scriptures were replaced by another stake. Trailers were donated from businesses in Utah that were transported here to our community and then transferred to a new owner that needed a place to live. And this just went on and on and on. The amount of care that people gave to one another, it’s stunning, kind of indescribable. I should know that it’s natural for us to do that as a people, but to witness it, and to see it extend, even to this day, is pretty compelling evidence that we’re sons and daughters of God, because only loving creatures like that would care for each other for such a long period of time.

Sarah Jane Weaver: President Clason, you mentioned this as well. But were you surprised by how the members responded, how the community responded, how they reached out and served one another?

21:01  

President John Clason: I don’t know if surprise is the right word, because we all have the experience of watching general conference or something, and the session’s done, and the world report comes on, and it shows all the members out there in yellow shirts, doing some service in an area of need. And so, we’re very familiar with that culture, but then when you actually see it in person, you actually experience the tragic events and see firsthand the members gathering together, it’s pretty astounding. I don’t want to call it a surprise, surprise is something that happens that you don’t expect. But even though you know this is our culture, it’s still pretty amazing, and pretty astounding to see that kind of effort and the efficiency of it and enthusiasm of it. It’s pretty special. We had a number of full-time missionaries here that were really put to work and became the MVPs of the government-led relief efforts. This crew of full-time missionaries quickly established a reputation of being the go-to people for whatever needed to get done at some of these gathering points that the county set up. So there’s a lot of other great things that happen in that regard.

Sarah Jane Weaver: I’d like to shift a little bit as we draw out to a conclusion of this podcast, but when President Nelson visited Chico, he recounted the story of Horatio Spafford, who was a real estate investor, who also was impacted by a horrific fire. In fact, he lost his whole fortune in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. And shortly thereafter, his son died. In this time of sorrow for his family, he put his wife and four daughters on a ship to England. He received word shortly thereafter, that the ship that his family was on had sunk and that all four of his daughters had been claimed. Then President Nelson told of Horatio getting on a boat to England himself, and when he passed over the spot where the shipwreck had occurred, he wrote down the words of comfort and hope that had filled his mind, and those words would later become the text for the hymn “It is Well with My Soul.” 

And on that day, President Meyer, you can recount for us what happened, but he asked the Chico Stake Choir to sing that song, and then he added a verse of his own at the end that Sister Wendy Nelson, his wife, had written, and I want to read those words, and then have you each comment on them, because so often, we can draw eternal perspective from earthly challenges. But these are the words that he added, for his own verse of “It is Well with My Soul:” 

My future’s as bright as the covenants I keep,

My covenants with God give me power

To rise from the ashes and grief of the past,

Praise the Lord, praise the Lord. Oh, my soul. 

President Meyer, you were there, you would have felt that. Can you respond and tell us what those words mean to you today?

24:23  

President John Meyer: I would be honored to. I will first tell you a little funny story about the music associated with that hymn. We were invited to have the stake choir sing that, and then these new words that Sister Nelson penned that you just read were to be included in the rendition. And the music was to be shipped to us from FedEx, from the tabernacle choir president, but it got lost. And so we received the music just a few days before conference, and so there was a lot of panic and worry and wanting to do a really, really wonderful job performing that beautiful musical number. And so the choir practiced and practiced and did a spectacular job. But when they performed it at that conference, it really was beautiful. And the words that were penned by sister Nelson: “my future’s as bright as the covenants I keep, to rise from the ashes and grief the past, Praise the Lord” – when that was sung, which we’re going to replay again during our stake conference coming up here next week, on the second year anniversary on November 8, it was just a touching moment. That song has become sort of a pillar of a musical number for us. We use it frequently and enjoy it and appreciate it. It’s been a beautiful addition to our testimony. So grateful that President Nelson and Sister Wendy Nelson brought that forth to the Saints in our area.

Sarah Jane Weaver: President Clason, can you also talk about any eternal perspectives you’ve gained in this time?

26:00 

President John Clason: You mentioned before, as you read through the verse that Sister Nelson wrote, that covenants are really the source of power in our lives, and I saw that firsthand. Every baptized member in the Church has covenanted with God to obey the commandments, to mourn with those that mourn. Part of the main commandments is loving God, that’s the first and greatest commandment, and the second is liken unto it, to love our neighbor. We saw covenant-keeping in abundance with this experience. And now, I think in terms of an eternal perspective, I think it gives us a small glimpse of what the eternities will be like, in terms of so many people around us doing what is right and striving with perfect unity and desire and effort to achieve a common goal. And that’s what happened here. It sounds like that’s what happened in Paradise as well. And truly, it was just a small sliver of eternity, if you will, that’s kind of how I look at it, with the hearts and minds of the people knit together, to strive and to help them to love, all within a condensed period. And there’s great, great power that comes from that. So it was a harrowing but magnificent experience to see people come together in that nature.

Sarah Jane Weaver: Great, President Clason. So the final question I’m going to ask you today is what you know now about being a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the wake of a tragedy like the Almeda fire.

27:45  

President John Clason: First and foremost, there’s really no substitute for the guidance of the Spirit and direct revelation. We don’t receive training to deal with disasters of this nature. There’s a few basic guidelines, but that’s pretty much where it stops. And so, in the aftermath, each morning, we would wake up and feel prompted to do certain things, and the leaders that were on the ground, at the ward level, it was the same there. For example, the Relief Society president in the Bear Creek Ward had only been in her calling for a month, and prior to that, had only, for the last couple of decades, served in Junior Primary and Nursery. So here she was, on the frontlines of trying to respond to a major disaster. The Lord guided her each and every day, and lifted her up and helped her know, and all of us to know, what we needed to do that day or that minute. That’s one key lesson: you can’t really overstate the importance of spiritual guidance and revelation, and I would just couple that with just trusting in the Lord that His hand is in all things. As long as we press forward with our covenants intact, and with giving the best shot that we can every day, that all will be well. We can take great comfort in that. Those are probably the primary lessons I’ve gathered from this experience.

Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, President Meyer, I’d like to give you the final word today. What do you know now that you didn’t know two years ago before Camp Fire?

29:21  

President John Meyer: Well, I just would like to say amen to President Clason’s comment about revelation. When you were asking what have you learned, I will share that in sort of a private way. 

When I was set apart as the new stake president, about four weeks later, I received instruction, I believe, from the Lord, that said that there would be a substantial disruptive event in the community. Be prepared. And 11 months later, the fire took hold of our community. In my conversations with President Nelson, there was a substantial amount of discussion about personal revelation. Right after the fire that following morning, which was Friday at 4:30 in the morning, I would be woken up by the Lord and given a specific, clear instruction on what to accomplish, and that continued for a very lengthy period of time. In that conversation with President Nelson, he asked to rehearse what some of those instructions were, and what the results were, and things of that sort. So I have a real strong testimony, as does President Clason, that revelation is central, and key, integral, and I just am certain that God, that this is His church. 

And the second thing that I feel grateful to have witnessed and to be able to participate in and see are the results of the promises that President Nelson left on the Saints in our area when he came to visit. He invoked a blessing, and he said that “God loves you, cares for you and your loved ones.” He said, “I bless you to be strong and safe, and know that as you serve God and your fellow man, that he will note it.” And then he further said, “I bless you with the knowledge that God lives, and Jesus is the Christ, and that this is His church.” And that blessing that he left upon the Saints in our community has materialized, and I trust and love President Nelson and count him as a dear prophet of God that we sustain and love. I’m just sort of taken aback on how intimate and personal God’s love is to each of His children. I have felt it, I have witnessed and felt it in the lives of others, and even during tragedy, there is so much hope that God pours out upon His children that I can’t help but be completely confirmed and certain that we have a loving and kind Father in Heaven that looks after our interest.