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 CNS Story:

CALIFORNIA-FIRES (THIRD UPDATE) Oct-26-2007 (1,310 words) With photos posted Oct. 23, 24, 25 and 26 and graphic posted Oct. 25. xxxn

Efforts made to reach out to wildfire refugees; one church is lost

By Catholic News Service

SAN DIEGO (CNS) -- As the fierce Santa Ana winds abated, giving firefighters a chance to make headway on wildfires that have scorched about 490,000 acres in Southern California, Catholic groups and other relief agencies likewise took the opportunity to make headway in helping those fleeing the flames.

Catholic Charities agencies in four California dioceses have been helping evacuees find shelter and comfort.

Despite the scope of the blazes, which destroyed at least 1,800 homes and caused the evacuation of hundreds of thousands of Southern California residents, there was relatively little personal injury.

Three fire-related deaths had been confirmed through Oct. 26, with 21 injuries attributed to the wildfires. Smoke-choked air and power outages continued to hamper those living through the ordeal. An Associated Press story said four charred bodies were discovered by Border Patrol agents at a migrant camp east of San Diego near the Mexican border, but officials had not yet determined if they died in one of the fires.

By Oct. 23, more than 900,000 people had been evacuated from their homes. Two days later news reports said many evacuees were being allowed to return to their neighborhoods to see what had become of their homes. Property damage in San Diego County alone reportedly has surpassed $1 billion.

St. Bartholomew Church, a mission church on the Rincon Reservation, and several homes on the reservation were destroyed in one of the fires, according to Bo Mazzetti, a councilman for the Luiseno tribe on the reservation.

He told the San Diego Union-Tribune daily newspaper the loss of the church was a spiritual blow to the tribe. "That's something we've all attended, that church. It's devastating to see that," Mazzetti said.

The St. Bartholomew Church property is owned by the Luiseno tribe, not by the Diocese of San Diego, although a deacon or priest from a nearby parish regularly ministers to reservation residents. The same is true of two other mission churches on reservations close to the Rincon Reservation, both of which were believed destroyed in the blazes.

At San Rafael Parish in San Diego, parish employees and many parishioners were allowed back Oct. 23.

"There are still some hot spots ... but we're hoping that most people can get back in. In some areas where the evacuation order has been lifted ... there's no power," Father Dennis Mikulanis, the pastor, told Catholic News Service in an Oct. 25 telephone interview.

San Rafael suffered roof-tile damage from winds of 60-70 mph. However, "in my parish here in (San Diego's) Rancho Bernardo (district) more than 600 homes were destroyed," Father Mikulanis said, including those of five parishioners.

Good Shepherd Parish took in Father Mikulanis and opened up its old convent and rectory to evacuees.

Mission San Luis Rey in Oceanside became a somewhat accidental shelter for 100 Spanish-speaking immigrants, mostly Guatemalans who could not take refuge at their parish church because it, too, had been evacuated.

"We were not planning on having a shelter here," said Carmen Parra, the mission's director of social concerns. "We found a few families in our parking lot, and we decided to open up our little facility where we have bingo," she told CNS in an Oct. 25 telephone interview.

"This is a first for us. We're a church and we do have an office. We can help people with food yearlong, but this is something -- we needed to do this. We couldn't let these people go."

Parra said bingo was on hold for the time being: "You kidding? We've been getting a lot of calls about bingo: 'Are you having bingo tonight?' Maybe if everything goes well, we'll have bingo on Saturday. First things first."

A representative of Catholic Mutual, the San Diego Diocese's insurance company, said Oct. 24 no harm had come to any church properties owned by the diocese.

A portable building used as a computer lab behind Our Lady of Malibu School in Malibu, in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, was among those buildings destroyed in the wildfires.

Firefighters were able to save the church's main buildings after parish staff evacuated the site early Oct. 21 to escape the Malibu Canyon fire.

An Our Lady of Malibu portable building used as a teachers' workroom next to the destroyed computer lab was scorched in the fire. Several junior-high classroom windows cracked from the fire's intense heat and layers of ash were deposited on the church and hall. Post-fire preliminary assessments indicate some water, wind and smoke damage to parish buildings.

"Even though it's a big loss for a small school like us, in comparison to our neighbors, we are so fortunate," said school co-principal Suzanne Ricci. Forty-seven computers, two servers, printers and digital equipment were lost in the destroyed computer lab, a setback to administrators' plans to focus on educational technology during the 2007-08 school year.

Catholic Charities San Diego, in partnership with other agencies, established a presence inside Qualcomm Stadium -- a football stadium that doubled as a shelter for as many as 15,000 evacuees -- in offering hot meals. By the end of the day Oct. 26 the stadium was closing as a shelter, as many people were returning home.

Catholic Charities San Diego also established a locator system whereby pastors and parishioners can connect with one another, and recruited diocesan priests to visit the stadium to provide spiritual and emotional care to evacuees.

Ken Sawa, executive director of Catholic Charities San Bernardino, visited one shelter with 1,600 occupants and reported that each one could very easily qualify for Catholic Charities assistance.

In the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, the Catholic Charities arm has been coordinating its response with local disaster and community leaders. A number of shelters have opened up in the archdiocese. Initial support will be offered in the area of case management services and assistance to clients to locate additional resources, such as assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

In Orange County, between Los Angeles and San Diego, fires were away from populated areas and largely contained. Catholic Charities Orange County staff was keeping in touch with the Catholic Charities USA disaster response office staff in case further action was needed.

The Diocese of San Diego shut down its chancery building Oct. 23, but reopened the next day, albeit at about 60 percent strength as employees were tending to fire-related situations in their homes.

The Catholic-run University of San Diego announced Oct. 23 it was canceling classes for the remainder of the week.

The university's Web site notified parents that, while the school was not in any physical danger from the fires, it was compiling a list of homes willing to take in students on a temporary basis.

"Parents and their students are encouraged to consider their options and make the decision best for them," the Web site said. "Many USD faculty and staff have been affected by the fires and we are very understanding of these decisions."

At Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, officials said it was unaffected by the fires but should an evacuation be necessary the university has made arrangements with another college to temporarily shelter students.

St. Patrick Church in Carlsbad, in the San Diego Diocese, opened its doors Oct. 23 as a shelter, saying it could accommodate up to 200 people.

President George W. Bush Oct. 23 declared a state of emergency in Southern California and ordered federal officials to help local officials bring aid to the region.

The next day, he signed a major disaster declaration for Southern California. The declaration will speed federal dollars to people whose property losses aren't covered by insurance and will help local and state agencies pay for the emergency response.

- - -

Contributing to this story were Mark Pattison in Washington and Paula Doyle in Malibu.


Copyright (c) 2007 Catholic News Service/USCCB. All rights reserved.
This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or otherwise distributed.
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