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Ref: Churches gather in California to discuss wildfire response and recovery

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Churches discuss wildfire response
Red flag warnings posted for weekend across Southern California.

Church leaders from throughout the San Diego County area gathered Thursday to discuss the response to people affected by the Southern California wildfires. Firefighters, meantime, prepared for a weekend of hot dry winds which could spark new fires.

While almost all of the wildfires have been fully contained, red flag warnings were posted across Southern California for Friday night through Sunday. Firefighters and firefighting equipment have been pre-positioned in high risk areas should the Santa Ana winds that spread the fires last week ignite new blazes.

Forecasters said the winds this weekend were not expected to be as strong as the ones that whipped the flames last week of nearly two dozen fires. Those fires blackened more than 500,000 acres and destroyed more than 2,000 homes. At times, winds were reported to be gusting from 80 to 100 mph.

Disaster response groups and local churches have been assessing damages, providing assistance and looking at long-term recovery needs.

The meeting of church leaders - also attended by local, state and federal officials as well as representatives from community- and faith-based disaster organizations - was designed to bring local churches together in order to better coordinate their response efforts.

Several of those at the meeting had attended a Southern California VOAD (Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster) earlier in the week.

"The outcome that we're hoping for is that churches in the San Diego area will know better who their church neighbors are and discover ways to share and receive help in serving the needs of our congregations and our communities," said Dave Hall, outreach ministries pastor at Emmanuel Faith Community Church, which sponsored and hosted Thursday's gathering.

"What we're here to do today is to figure out as churches how we can better serve our people in need and our congregations and how we as churches can reach out to and serve the needs of our communities, whether it's the one we live in or some other part of the county," he said.

After brief presentations by about 18 groups and agencies, church leaders split into smaller groups by region to discuss their concerns. Among those making presentations were representatives from Mennonite Disaster Service, CRWRC (Christian Reformed World Relief Committee) Disaster Response Services, Convoy of Hope and City Team Ministries.

The role of the faith-based community will be pivotal to the recovery, according to those at the meeting.

"Without you, folks would not survive. Without you, people would be hurting," said Leroy Gilbert of the Department of Homeland Security's Center for Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.

Gilbert said that when Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff returned to Washington after visiting the fire-stricken areas, "he literally bragged about the contributions that faith-based organizations are providing.

"He was immensely impressed with what you all are doing for victims of this firestorm," Gilbert said. "We are certainly going to use many initiatives that you are doing as a prototype for other cities throughout the United States."

Teresa Manley, who headed the long-term recovery committee for the 2003 Cedar fire in San Diego County, said she expected the interfaith community would soon form a similar long-term recovery committee to deal with the latest fires.

"It's going to take years," she said of the recovery. "It really is."

State Sen. Dennis Hollingsworth, whose district takes in most of the area affected by the fires in San Diego County, said the lessons learned from the Cedar fire have helped speed the response.

"We're years ahead of where we were [in 2003]," he said. "The whole county structure and organization is so much more organized because we've been through it before.

"We're much more encouraged than we were four years ago that people are going to be taken care of," he said.

Still, church officials raised questions about what resources were available to assist diverse groups such as the homeless, illegal aliens, non-English speakers and Native Americans.

Illegal aliens are "afraid to come forward," said one audience member. "They're in hiding now and won't come out for food or water."

Hollingsworth agreed with Manley that the recovery could take years and said he hoped that it would occur evenly throughout the county, with no one area lagging behind another as happened in the Cedar fire.

He noted that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was shipping 60 to 65 trailers to the La Jolla Indian Reservation to provide temporary housing for people who lost their homes there. He said rebuilding of the homes would be the responsibility of the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

"In the medium term, they (Native Americans) are actually in a better position than a lot of folks in the back country who didn't have insurance," he said.

"Hopefully everybody will be able to get back on their feet quickly, no matter whether they live in Potrero or Poway," he added.

Manley said she expected areas in the back country would likely face a longer road to recovery. She said those areas had no city government, fewer resources and residents were either uninsured or underinsured.

"The key thing is sticking to it until that last person, that last neighborhood, that last area is taken care of," Hollingsworth said.

Hall said one of the biggest challenges facing the overall recovery was "finding creative and appropriate ways to channel volunteers and donations.

"There's more than we know what to do with," he said.

One responder said he had a truck ready to come to Southern California to deliver 50,000 pairs of shoes to fire survivors. Among the items he said were already on hand were 5,000 blankets, tools, hygiene kits and food boxes.

FEMA officials continued to urge people to utilize Aidmatrix, an online system that logs financial and product donations. It also allows responders to log in to access those items, as well as to post their needs. The site is available on the California Office of Emergency Services home page.

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