California burns: Army responds

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The Salvation Army provided assistance at multiple emergency staging areas across the Southland.

by Christin Davis –

Captain Michael Paugh and Captain Enrique Ramirez help a fire victim sort through the rubble of a mobile home in Sylmar [Photo by Sonny Loo].

Southern California was recently scorched by three fires the Tea, Sayre, and Freeway Complex fires affecting Montecito, Sylmar, Corona, Anaheim Hills, Yorba Linda, and Diamond Bar that burned 35, 662 acres, destroyed 987 homes and structures, and displaced 26,000 evacuees, according to the Los Angeles Times.

The Salvation Army set up multiple canteens to assist fire victims and emergency personnel physically and emotionally in Sylmar, Santa Barbara and Orange County.

“A key part of this response was the great partnership between the Army, the Southern Baptists and the Red Cross,” said June Loo, divisional director of emergency disaster services and service extension. “Together we addressed the needs of people in the immediate and most urgent phase.”

In Santa Barbara, The Salvation Army including the Santa Barbara Corps, Hospitality House and the Carpinteria ARC fed hundreds of evacuated Montecito residents at San Marcos High School as well as more than 80 evacuated Westmont College students at the Reality Church in Carpinteria.

A local board and care facility evacuated 11 clients and two staff members to the Hospitality House, a 65-bed transitional living facility.

“At one point, we could see the hillside light up and in less than five minutes, the fire tripled in size,” said Jack Clitheroe, Hospitality House director. “It was a tense atmosphere.”

The Army’s response in the area lasted more than five days, including three meals a day to victims, emergency workers and volunteers, who continued sifting through the ashes once the land cooled.

Orange County
Tustin Ranch Corps Officer Major Lee Lescano began to prepare the canteen to head north when the fire in Montecito began. Things changed, however, when response was needed locally.

In 24-hours, the canteen served meals and water at three different evacuation center locations throughout Orange County to evacuees and emergency personnel.

The fire directly impacted two families from the Tustin Ranch Corps who had to evacuate; both homes remain standing.
Once the immediate threat subsided, members of the Orange County team left to assist in Sylmar.

“The response in Southern California was excellent considering how crazy the fire was and the number of fronts that came up,” Lescano said. “I was so pleased with the number of soldiers that called and wanted to help; it allowed us to put together a team to lend much needed assistance.”

Pat Riley, social services director for the Pasadena Tabernacle, and volunteers took the corps’ canteen to Sylmar High School, a Red Cross evacuation center for the Sayre Fire victims. The team of four served over 640 plates of food the first day. More volunteers returned the next two days.

Riley said most of the victims he spoke with came from the Oakridge Mobile Home Park in Sylmar, where nearly 500 of the 600 mobile homes burned, including one man who held his 3-day-old baby. Riley was impacted by a large chalkboard in the gymnasium where instead of recording damaged homes, officials listed the few addresses with remaining homes.

“The faces of the people really bothered me,” Riley said. “It was very emotional, but at the same time, seeing people embrace each other and show concern for others when their home had just been destroyed, humbled me.”

Riley recalled having a conversation with one woman, who suddenly stopped mid-sentence with a blank look in her eyes and said, “I don’t have a home to go home to.” He prayed for her right there.

A fire even broke out right above the evacuation center, adding more smoke and ash to the already charred air.

Captain Michael Paugh from Crestmont College arrived at Sylmar High School on November 16 to a room of 1,500 people waiting for updates.

Paugh noticed one woman in her 80s, sweating from the heat, walking around the room in a daze.

“She was looking for someone to cry with, someone to lend her a phone, someone to listen,” Paugh said. “She was alone in California and needed to call her children on the East Coast. She said her life here was over; with nothing to her name, she won’t be able to rebuild.”

On November 17, three days after the fire ravaged the Sylmar community, residents of the Oakridge Mobile Home Park were given 10 minutes each to go through the fire debris that was once their home. On November 18, they were allowed to begin sifting for anything salvageable in the ruins. Salvation Army officers from Crestmont College were onsite to provide emotional and spiritual support to the fire victims.

Once a neighborhood, the area is now designated a crime scene. The first glimpse residents were allowed was on a public transportation bus that drove small groups through the park, past cadaver dogs sniffing for human remains amidst the rubble.

“An elderly gentleman couldn’t stop crying,” Paugh said. “He was completely devastated, yet was still able to say, ‘You know, I’m alive. All you can see is rubble, but I have my life.’”

With a canteen positioned next to the LAPD command center inside the park, Paugh said he and other Army responders would be available for multiple days.

“The victims are not thinking about their safety or health,” Paugh said. “We want to make sure they drink water and eat in this 90 degree weather.

“They just want someone to listen to them,” Paugh said. “We are here to help them through this process.”

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