REDDING, California — The Trump administration has declared California a major disaster. Eighteen major fires are burning right now and at least eight people have died.
One of the blazes, the Carr fire in Redding, has destroyed more than 1,000 homes and displaced tens of thousands of people.
But while the devastation is historic for this northern California community of 90,000, there’s also a rising hope.
On Sunday morning at Bethel Church, thousands lifted their hands and sang about God’s love. You can still see the smoke here from the nearby fire which continues to burn north and west of town.
The Carr fire started July 23rd outside of Redding and surprised many by invading the city a few days later.
It destroyed entire neighborhoods and seemingly cherry-picked homes in others, decimating some homes while leaving others on the same street intact. The fire’s ability to jump properties has left some in Redding to rejoice and other to mourn—and everyone to question their sense of safety.
Pastor Elizabeth Woning at Bethel has spent the last week as a volunteer counselor at the church. “Whether you were in the evacuation area or you’ve lost a home or your home is ok, the whole community is on edge,” she told CBN News.
The air quality in Redding is still poor as the fire continues to burn. Churches like Bethel are handing out breathing masks. It’s just one of the many needs, and local churches have come together to meet them in what they believe is a new chapter of unity.
Ben Sprague, the preaching elder at Crosspointe Community Church, told CBN News, “We’ve had over 30 churches meeting together, praying together, trying to problem-solve, trying to think of a better solution long-term to help families.”
The Red Cross set up a shelter at Crosspointe and five other churches have rallied to support it.
Bethel has partnered with the Salvation Army to host a distribution center. Mercy Chefs offers meals and the center provides food, clothing and household items to those who’ve lost everything — that includes at least 25 on Bethel’s staff.
Pastor Kris Vallotton said “we have people on our teams who lost their homes. Most of us—lots of us were displaced.”
Bethel member Tony Stoltzfus lost his home which doubled as his office. Three days after the Carr fire started, he woke up to evacuation orders. “We threw our suitcases in the car. We got our pets. I got our computers,” he said.
Mary Lu Konkel lost her home as well. “I didn’t even know what I was doing,” she said describing the rush to pack. “I just threw my clothes in. Then I grabbed a lot of Bibles.”
For Stoltzfus and Wonkel and thousands of others who are newly homeless, housing is the urgent need. “They’ve piled up in their friends’ homes,” said Woning. “So every couch, every available floor space—people are moving into these spaces.”
Fire victims expect the government will allow them to start sifting through the wreckage of their properties this week. Churches and national ministries will provide chaplains for those who wish an escort during the painful process.
Chaplain Jim Wesley at Crosspointe said it’s important to accompany people. “The first time they see their home burned they just fall on their knees and cry and you have to be there to support them,” he said.
For Stoltzfus, the tears have already come but he’s grateful for a few mementos he still has and his work as a personal coach which uniquely prepared him. “A lot of what I do in my work is to teach people to detach their desire for their things in the world that they think will fill them and find the desire of their heart in their relationship with Jesus,” he said.
Wonkel is holding fast to her faith and a word from the Lord. “As I was packing—being an intercessor—I was just praying in the Spirit. I had no words. And even before I left the house I kept hearing ‘new beginnings, new beginnings, new beginnings,” she explained.
Bethel has raised $450,000 to help fire victims, thanks to generous donations from Gateway Church in Texas, Joyce Meyer Ministries and TBN.
Experts warn it will take years for Redding and other communities hit hard by the fires to recover and rebuild. But this city is hoping to set an example of what it means to recover well.
Vallotton is teaching from his life verses in Isaiah and believes God will truly create beauty from these ashes. “It’s only God who could take ashes and make beauty out of it. It’s only God who could take a disaster and create hope in the midst of it,” he said.