At 2:00 am on October 9, 2017 Edwin Guzman was awakened by the sound of roaring wind. When he looked outside he could see nothing but a sky darkened by smoke. He quickly realized that his family and home were in the path of a raging wild fire. He went back into his house awakened his wife, son and his parents telling them to get up they had to leave immediately. He then went back to alert his neighbors. Within 5 minutes he, his family and 2 dogs were in their 2 cars looking for a way out of their neighborhood. Familiar streets were impassable due to fire.
That was the beginning of the most costly and deadly wild fire in California’s history. Nearly a quarter of a million acres were burned, 9,000 buildings destroyed, 44 lives lost. Cost exceed $9 billion dollars.
When disaster like this hits there is an immediate outpouring of aid. At one point in the recovery relief agencies requested no more products be sent as they had no place to store them. Cash was then the most beneficial donation. As with most disasters the immediate outpouring declines as the process moved from recovery to rebuilding.
As a church we intentionally decided to wait for a couple of months before jumping to help. Our hope was to find a church or specific families we could help in a meaningful way. Rather than just sending money we wanted to build a relationship with people affected by the fires and be a source of help and encouragement.
On Monday, January 29th, Jay Scott, Gary Stafford, and Tim Barley drove to Petaluma to visit the Iglesia Cristiana a Hispanic church in Petaluma. There we met with the pastor, Edwin Guzman, his wife Sandra, and several other staff members, including Sylvia Rodriguez, the outreach director, who has an extensive list of the people and their needs. The pastor, his wife, and the church staff have been working tirelessly, literally since the night of the fire, to house, feed, and care for those who lost everything in the disaster. The church has about one hundred and fifty members, and they have a list of sixty-five people, none of whom were from their church, who they continue to serve.
They received tremendous initial support from the surrounding community for those who suffered loss, but now the focus of the relief is on rebuilding. Many people who lost their homes will continue to pay their mortgage, even though there’s nothing left of their homes. If they had insurance, most didn’t have insurance that would cover a complete rebuild, and so it will cost about twice as much to rebuild as they will receive in compensation from their insurance companies. And this doesn’t include permit fees (in excess of $30,000) nor the expense to rebuild the foundation of the house, if it was severely damaged or removed by FEMA. It’s very complicated, expensive, and emotionally draining.
But we were deeply inspired by Pastor Edwin, Sandra, and the staff. Their attitudes are filled with hope and confidence in God’s faithfulness to them. When we learned of all the service that Edwin has been providing for others, Jay suggested that we consider helping him to rebuild his home. His family is the only one in their church family who lost their home. Edwin and his wife seemed stunned by our offer – they’d not taken a moment to even consider help for themselves because they’ve been so busy helping everyone else.
We asked if we could go to see where his home had stood. We drove to the Coffee Park neighborhood and it was truly and eerie sight. There were hundreds of homes, completely gone, while other homes on the perimeter of the fire scorched areas were completely intact with green lawns and lush landscaping. It looked like a subdivision where a new development was just about ready to break ground for construction, until you looked closely and saw the ash and scorched debris and realized everything had been incinerated. There is only one new construction home started, and in fact, only five permits have been purchased and issued as of now. While many people are selling their lots and using the sale price to pay off their mortgage (or at least a portion of their mortgage), Edwin and his family aren’t yet sure what to do. They’ll be praying about our offer to help rebuild with men and women from VBC.
Sylvia continues to track of many families who are in need and she’s has sent us a list of families they’ve been helping, and what their needs are. Many families need financial assistance to get into a rental property. There are 10 to 12 families than need furniture, 2 who need cars. We are working with Sylvia to determine specific items of furniture to meet the needs. We are hopeful that within 2 weeks we can present the opportunity to the VBC family and perhaps other church bodies to help those who suffered through this disaster.
Continue to pray for the Sonoma and Santa Rosa communities impacted by these devastating fires. The people are hurting, but there is so much potential for hope to rise from the ashes through the message of Christ’s love and truth.