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Lessons Learned From Responding to California’s Wildfires

Members of the Rocklin California Stake load up a van with boxes of donated supplies to give to victims of the Dixie Fire near Yuba City, California, in August 2021. They posted the project on JustServe.org. Photo by Andrea Zimmerman, courtesy of Church News.All rights reserved.

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By Mary Richards, Church News

Last year, several wildfires forced mass evacuations and burned thousands of homes throughout California. Local stakes and wards mobilized with their neighbors to help people in need. In the process, they found ways through JustServe.org and their new relationships to be ready for the next time — because, unfortunately, they know there will be a next time.

Here are some of the ways Church members responded in love and service after California’s wildfires in 2021, along with the lessons they learned.

Soccer Player to Soccer Player

When the Caldor Fire, which began in August 2021, kept spreading into September, families lost their homes near the town of Grizzly Flats in El Dorado County. And a group of soccer players reached out in love to their rivals.

Patsy McGavock coaches a soccer team and helps with JustServe for the Citrus Heights Stake, south of the fire. She posted projects on JustServe for gift cards and other donations to help the fire victims. The community was organizing other needs, and then McGavock got a heartbreaking email from another soccer coach.

The coach explained that, unfortunately, they could not play their upcoming game — because the girls on that team had been evacuated from their homes. Some already knew their homes were lost in the fire.

McGavock, who grew up in El Dorado, had a prompting: “How much might it mean if they knew kids their age were thinking of them? Because of course the response in the communities here is immediate, they start sending things. But there is a need on a human level to connect,” she said.

She asked her league if they could all write cards to send to the other soccer players, and she set up a table on the field the day all the soccer teams would be there to get their photos taken. The table included information about the JustServe projects and gift card donations for fire victims. It also coincided with efforts around the 9/11 National Day of Service.

Soccer players writing cards for another team whose players had to evacuate their homes during the Caldor Fire. This took place on the 9/11 National Day of Service on September 11, 2021. Photo by Patsy McGavock, courtesy of Church News.All rights reserved.

“Some came as a whole team, and some came as individuals to drop off cards or write some. There were some amazing messages from the kids,” said McGavock. “They wrote things like, ‘You’ve got this, you don’t need to feel alone, it’s going to be okay, just keep having hope.’”

She shared the experience from one of her players on the Monarch team, 11-year-old Cameron: “I sent a letter to the Sierra Gold Soccer Club because I thought that kids should be able to play soccer or any sport they love, and those kids needed support,” said Cameron. “I wanted to be there for them even if I did not know them because nobody should be dealing with that alone.”

McGavock was touched to see a volleyball team in the Sacramento area present gift baskets to the players in El Dorado. And ward members didn’t just open up their meetinghouses for evacuated people, they opened their homes, too. McGavock said they housed everyone.

“I reached out as a JustServe capacity, but the surrounding community had already met most of those needs. It was a testimony to the good,” she said.

An Outpouring of Donations

The Dixie Fire — the second-largest blaze in California state history — lasted from mid-July to late-October 2021. In the first week of August, people had to flee their homes in the historic mountain town of Greenville. News reached other stakes in California, and they rallied to help.

“The town of Greenville was basically wiped out,” explained Andrea Zimmerman, the JustServe specialist for the Rocklin California Stake. “We knew we had to do something.”

Church members and the community started organizing donation drives and finding other projects to post on JustServe.org. And within days, people from surrounding cities and stakes were responding with clothing, bedding, shoes, toys, food, water and much more to deliver to the evacuees.

“People went to the store and bought new things for all these children. It was truly an outpouring. These people could not use all that stuff, it was so much,” said Zimmerman.

Children stand by tables of donated items at the Yuba City Community Center on August 8, 2021. Several stakes gathered donations through JustServe for victims of Northern California’s Dixie Fire. Photo by Andrea Zimmerman, courtesy of Church News.All rights reserved.

Several truckloads of donations were collected and driven to the community center in Yuba City, where the items were organized and the fire victims were invited to collect what they needed. Members of the Yuba City Stake provided lunch at the center, then took more donations and drove them to other areas in need around Northern California.

Zimmerman spoke with several evacuees and family members at the center that day and answered their questions about where the donations came from. She was able to share with them more about the Church and the members’ testimonies of service.

“The coolest thing for me was seeing in such a short time the amount of support and love for people in need. There was so much generosity,” said Zimmerman. “We just wanted them to know of our love and support after they had lost everything.”

Other JustServe Projects

Another fire that also started in Northern California in August 2021 was the River Fire, with Church members in surrounding cities rushing to help the victims.

The Auburn California Stake posted several projects on JustServe to direct the community to where they could drop off donations. The stake’s JustServe specialist, Denise Hoffman, said one of those locations was Auburn Oddfellows Hall, where missionaries donated their time to collect, organize and pass out the supplies.

“The room was on the second floor, so our missionaries worked several days collecting donated items from the cars driving through and running them up and down the stairs,” said Hoffman.

Members of the Auburn California Stake stand on the second floor of the Oddfellows Hall in Auburn, California, in August 2021, with some of the many donated supplies for victims of the River Fire. The stake coordinated with the community on disaster relief through one central website and posted projects on JustServe.org. Photo by Denise Hoffman, courtesy of Church News.All rights reserved.

She had lots of people asking them how they could help and what they could do. “We had more volunteers than we knew what to do with,” she said, and more donations than they needed. People went to buy new things and gift cards for the victims.

“When you are a fire victim, the last thing you want is someone’s used clothes. When you have lost everything, you want new clean sheets, for example. You don’t want someone’s torn jeans,” said Hoffman.

“It really brought the community together, and it just shows you that when an emergency happens, people are willing to step up and help their neighbors,” she added.

Meanwhile, around the same time, the Redding California Stake saw that there were many needs as a result of all the fires, but one need that is seldom mentioned during fires is the need for “sifter boxes.” These are used to sift through the ashes after a structure has burned in order to find belongings that survived the fire.

Clint Cronic, a resident of Redding, California, designed a project to get material and labor to build sifters. The stake JustServe specialist, Julie Schwab, found the project on Facebook and posted it on JustServe to help find volunteers.

Sifter boxes help fire victims sort through debris and ashes to find anything that survived a fire. The Redding California Stake JustServe specialist posted the community project on JustServe.org to find volunteers to build the boxes in Fall 2021. Photo by Julie Schwab, courtesy of Church News.All rights reserved.

Community Organization

Hoffman said her stake and community had already learned from fires in previous years how important it is to consolidate efforts into one place. She checked Facebook to see what people were trying to do, then she contacted them to see how she could make a project out of it.

“It brought our community together, and JustServe was a bridge,” she said. “Then when someone made riverfiredonationhub.com, I made it a major project on JustServe.org and linked to that website.”

Hoffman explained how the area Church communications council already had an emergency plan because they had dealt with fires before. They already knew resources around them and how people could help.

“The biggest thing people needed, because they couldn’t go back to their homes, was gift cards. So everyone donated gift cards, especially for hotel rooms, and we linked that to the website and collected them at the Oddfellows Hall,” she said.

Hoffman also works with the interfaith coalition in her area, and they worked together on these efforts as well. Now she knows that next time, if something like this comes up again, the community, the Church, JustServe and other nonprofits will “kick in the plan. We’ve got these resources, and we can use them again.”

This idea of community organization came up in a panel discussion in California earlier in 2021, where Sister Sharon Eubank, first counselor in the Relief Society General Presidency and director of Latter-day Saint Charities, spoke about working together.

She noted that the Church is the second-largest faith denomination in California with some 1,200 congregations. The Church also has a long history providing humanitarian relief in the state.

The panelists agreed the optimal moment for faith-based humanitarian response organizations to build ties with their government counterparts is not in the aftermath of earthquakes, wildfires, pandemics or other disasters.

Instead, the partnerships established long before disaster strikes best help alleviate suffering.

Future Service

McGavock saw something beautiful happening in El Dorado County — while she was reaching out in her Church and JustServe capacity, the community surrounding had already met most of those needs.

“It was a testimony to the good,” she said. “There is so much good actually happening that we don’t see because there are louder voices telling us that we are divided. If there is a need, someone is always filling it. We want to support the network that allows them to get the resources that they need.”

Zimmerman built new relationships with community leaders and organizations by serving the fire victims that she knows will help with any disaster relief in the future.

“We met other churches there, and it was kind and wonderful to work with them. They don’t have the organization we do, so we can get the word out and get it in JustServe,” she said.

McGavock said unity-building will happen through these relationships and efforts to serve together.

“That’s what I hope, that we can build the world we want by seeing people first. And seeing a need and filling it. Just seeing a need no matter how small and filling it.”

Copyright 2021 Deseret News Publishing Company

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