Picking up the pieces: Aftermath of the Angora fires
The Salvation Army helps a community devastated by fire
by Georgia Tzanidis
On Sunday, June 24, 2007, residents of South Lake Tahoe community held their breath as flames engulfed their neighborhood. Originating from an illegal campfire that burned out of control, the Angora Fire—which fell under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Forestry Service—forced hundreds of families to evacuate their homes.
A few days later on June 27, The Salvation Army—notably the Reno ARC and the two-week-old Lake Tahoe service extension unit—became actively involved with the relief effort with other non-profit assistance agencies already there. In keeping with its mission, The Salvation Army ministered to residents both physically and spiritually.
Determined to organize an appropriate Salvation Army response, Major Doug Williams, Reno Corps, and Major Wayne Wetter, Redding Corps, went to Lake Tahoe to assess the situation. Western Territorial Disaster Services Director, Monica Severson, joined them to assist Williams, who was assigned the incident commander.
The El Dorado County Fire and Sheriff’s Department set up their own command post at the local airport. The Salvation Army brought in beneficiaries from the Reno Adult Rehabilitation Program to help clean up the command post and organize the numerous donations of food, water and even chocolate ice cream bars. They also cooked and helped serve food to police and other fire officials. Additionally, the city was having trouble handling such a large number of donations at one time to such a small community, so TSA advised them on how to handle these donations and helped curb the influx of potential donations that could not be used.
The disaster provided an opportunity for The Salvation Army service extension unit in Lake Tahoe, just two weeks old, to help their community. Jerry Foster, the service extension representative, also serves as the fire department chaplain and pastor for South Lake Tahoe Calvary Chapel. He and volunteers from the church assisted in handling food donations and cleaning up the command post. They also set up a service center at the Lake Tahoe Community College to provide short-term assistance, help for other unmet needs, and information on The Salvation Army long-term recovery efforts.
Salvation Army mobile canteens from Reno and Sacramento were stationed at the checkpoint for residents just outside the burn area. TSA volunteers were able to provide water, masks, gloves, kits, and snacks to people who were there waiting in line. Since canteens could not drive past this point, Salvation Army vans, loaded with coolers, took cold water and snacks into the burn areas where fire victims were returning to their homes for the first time.
The Sheriff’s Department made it clear that emotional and spiritual care teams were needed as fire victims returned to the burn area to see what was left of their homes. Because of his relationship with The Salvation Army and the Lake Tahoe area, Foster requested aid from the qualified CISM (critical incident stress management)-trained Salvation Army personnel for the residents affected by the fire. For three full days, The Salvation Army ministered to people not only emotionally and spiritually but also physically with cold water and snacks.
During the fire response, The Salvation Army’s influence was perhaps felt most in the ministry and emotional support given to the victims. While a lucky few returned to find their homes completely unscathed by the fire, most found nothing but ashes and pieces of what they had before. As they sifted through the ashes hoping to salvage anything to keep as a memory—perhaps a ring or piece of CorningWare—the fire victims turned to Salvation Army emotional and spiritual care (ESC) workers to help them deal with the devastation. For some, it was enough just to have someone to talk to who would listen. For others, they wanted to have someone to pray with. And they did. Severson served as one of the Salvation Army’s ESC workers. “We were standing in the street holding hands in a circle with the fire victims and praying,” she recalls. “I remember thinking that this is what William Booth was talking about when he spoke about street ministry. We definitely provided our ministry of presence to this community with our support. It’s awe-inspiring and humbling at the same time.”
A total of 254 homes and 3,100 acres were lost as a result of the Angora Fire. Although the last of the flames are extinguished, it is clear that the effects of the fire will linger for years to come. As the Lake Tahoe community looks to rebuild their homes and their lives, they know they will not be alone in the struggle. They hung signs and banners from trees along the roads thanking police, fire officials, and all assistance agencies for their support. The Salvation Army’s presence was not only seen—it was felt. And that is what matters most.