Thousands homeless in California’s worst disaster


by Kathy Lovin – 

With the San Diego and San Bernardino County wildfires approaching full containment, The Salvation Army’s relief effort has begun transitioning from emergency disaster response to short-term recovery as personnel try to help survivors, some of whom lost everything, get their lives back on track.

In keeping with Army policy, gifts donated to The Salvation Army for the relief efforts will stay in the community for which they are given.

Called the “worst natural disaster in California’s history,” more than 3,600 homes were destroyed and 743,000 acres burned. Twenty-two people lost their lives in the infernos that swept the area.

The “Cedar” and “Paradise” fires in San Diego County burned more than 330,000 acres, destroyed 2,427 homes and claimed 17 lives. The “Cedar” fire will go on record as the largest single fire in the California’s history. In neighboring San Bernardino County, two fires—the “Old” fire and “Grand Prix” fire—also raged, burning approximately 160,000 acres and 942 homes, and claiming the lives of three individuals.

The Sierra del Mar division, which encompasses both counties, has its work cut out. Disaster response efforts, called “Operation Firestorm Relief,” has served more than 125,000 meals and provided comfort to evacuees, survivors, and fire and law enforcement personnel since the first fire began.

“Salvation Army staff members responded quickly to the waves of evacuees who were fleeing the firestorms, said Sierra del Mar Divisional Commander Lt. Colonel Doug O’Brien. “For days, our staff members and volunteers provided every imaginable support to hurting people.

“While managing that emergency response, Salvation Army team members were also laying the foundation for long-term support for our neighbors who are now homeless, or who are returning to homes without power and other utilities. Undoubtedly the emotional and spiritual support provided by Salvationists were as important to many people as the material assistance they received at command centers, shelters, and as Salvation Army mobile units visit burned out neighborhoods.”Expressing his gratitude, O’Brien also said, “We were grateful, too, for the support of Salvationists around the world who have provided assistance during this crisis, but especially for the support of our Territorial Commander Commissioner Linda Bond, whose prayer with survivors while standing in the burned-out rubble of their homes in San Bernardino marks the hallmark of our compassionate services.”

During the first week of the fires, corps officers throughout the division established 13 fixed-meal and aid stations, visited charred neighborhoods, served meals, and dispensed desperately needed items, like gloves, socks, masks, flashlights, phone cards, hygiene and clean-up kits, from six mobile canteens, to people who had returned to see what was left of their homes.

Major Glen Madsen, El Cajon corps officer, reports they also assisted stranded motorists and truckers on Interstate 8 with food, gas and transportation.

San Bernardino Corps Officer Major Russ Fritz estimates the Army has served nearly 50,000 meals in San Bernardino County since the fires began. Thousands of individuals have received assistance, although specific numbers will not be available until all the vouchers have been counted.

A/Captain Martin Cooper, Moreno Valley Corps, took groups of Marines from March Air Base with him on trips into the mountains—sometimes spending the night in the canteen—in order to provide food and comfort kits to hundreds of firefighters working in Running Springs, Arrowhead and the Rim Forest area. They also served members of the press corps and the California Highway Patrol at the roadblocks.

The Ray and Joan Kroc Corps Community Center served as an evacuation center that sheltered a total of 130 people during the first two days of the fires. The KROC Center kitchen also served up more than 5,000 meals to feed those on site and to be delivered by canteen to others involved in the disaster relief effort.

“Currently, we are focusing our attention on serving the hardest-hit communities of Ramona, Alpine, Crest and Julian. Mobile canteens are canvassing the backcountry area staffed by cadets from Crestmont College in an effort to identify those areas in greatest need of our service,” said Major Ed Loomis, divisional secretary and incident commander of Operation Firestorm Relief.

He added, “We are also setting up relief centers at five Salvation Army Centers throughout San Diego County to provide short term assistance to victims of this terrible disaster.”

The Army has a presence at FEMA’s Recovery Centers in Alpine, Harbison Canyon, Lakeside and Santee. Five Family Services Centers, under the direction of Divisional Social Services Director Bill Molina, are also serving survivors with financial aid in the form of vouchers and other assistance in Chula Vista, El Cajon, Downtown San Diego, the KROC Center Corps, and Escondido.

Major Doug Williams, San Diego Adult Rehabilitation Center administrator, opened 14 San Diego area thrift stores to survivors, generously allowing them to have three changes of clothing, “no questions asked,” and at no cost to them.

Kroc Center Directors Majors Tim and Cindy Foley, Kroc Center Corps Officers Majors Brian and Millie Bearchell, Divisional Development Director Adrienne Finley, Divisional Youth Ministers Captains Steve and Nancy Ball were all evacuated from their homes in the San Carlos neighborhood of Eastern San Diego County but were allowed to return the next day. Their homes were not damaged.

Sierra Del Mar’s Camp was not so fortunate. Some of the most devastating loss in the Cedar fire happened in the Ramona area, a remote, unincorporated part of San Diego, where Sierra Del Mar’s camp is located along the Mussey Grade Road.

A total of 13,000 square feet of building space and storage at the camp, including a 2,000 square foot conference center, the infirmary, one meeting room, two sleeping cabins, the camp director’s home, other staff housing, and the maintenance yard and shop containing tools, golf carts, gators, and a minivan were destroyed. The total property loss is estimated to be in excess of $3 million dollars, though insurance is expected to cover most of the damage.

From the end of June to mid-August, the camp hosts about 135 kids a week and employs 35 camp staff. The conference center, which is also rented to the public, was booked for weekend retreats through the end of the year. The loss of potential revenue from campers and rentals is expected to be in excess of $100,000 dollars.

Camp Director Dave Patton and his staff were evacuated, as were the 100 guests who were using the camp for a weekend retreat at the time of the fire. When allowed to go back to survey the damage, Patton noticed that many of the old live oak trees were spared. He also saw that the fire burned right up to the edge, but did not destroy the 35-foot cross that graces the property. This is the second fire the cross has survived.

Financial and other assistance began to pour in as soon as the first word of the fires hit the news. A number of companies have been generous in helping The Salvation Army care for the fire and law enforcement personnel, and the survivors, including: WalMart, Taco Bell, McDonalds, Sears, Home Depot, Americares, Rembrandt, Home Town Buffet, Waste Management and many others.

ClearChannel Radio owns 11 radio stations in San Diego and has some of the most popular radio shows and on-air personalities in the area. They joined with seven Westfield Shoppingtowns in San Diego to promote a daylong live broadcast on November 1 that raised more than $300,000 to support the Army’s disaster relief efforts.

O’Brien was a frequent guest on local television and radio news programs where he often repeated the slogan, “Your gift stays here.” The Army’s pledge to use 100% of the donations earmarked for “Operation Firestorm Relief” in the local community was greeted with great enthusiasm from donors.

Nearly 1,000 “My Stuff” bags from The Dr. Laura Schlessinger Foundation were en route to San Diego, where the Army distributed them to San Diego area children who are survivors of the fire and were evacuated from their homes with few of their personal belongings. The Foundation’s My Stuff Bags program usually provides these bags to abused and neglected children who are rescued by children’s services from abusive or dangerous family situations, leaving their homes with only the clothes on their back. The bags contain personal items they can call their own as they settle into their new surroundings.

“The San Diego fires left so many children with nothing, we knew we had to help,” says radio talk show personality Dr. Laura Schlessinger. “In many regards, these children feel the same loss and helplessness.” The bags contain toys, toiletries, educational supplies, and clothing items.

Expressing the presence of God by words and deeds—demonstrating “compassion in action”—has been the primary purpose of the Army’s disaster relief efforts in San Diego and San Bernardino Counties as people, neighborhoods, and entire communities have suffered the ravages of this deadly fire. The work will continue without ceasing in the weeks and months ahead as Army officers, staff and countless volunteers work hand in hand with fire survivors as they begin to rebuild their homes and their lives. We count on the truth of Catherine Bramwell Booth’s words, “Love will teach our hands to serve and multiply our powers.”

Camp Mt. Crags houses students

The Salvation Army Camp Mt. Crags in Malibu opened its doors to assist 150 displaced students and 50 staff members of CEDU High School. Located in Running Springs, Calif., CEDU High School is the nation’s first emotional growth boarding school and has been pioneering the path to success for struggling young people for more than 35 years.

Army offered the students and staff members housing, breakfast, lunch and dinner and all the recreational activities available on the campsite.

“Due to the difficulty containing the fire in the Running Springs area, we were unable to return to our campus. We were fortunate enough to locate an accredited Salvation Army camp where we were able to deliver the CEDU program and provide our students with the structure and normalcy to which they are familiar. We would like to thank The Salvation Army for their gracious support during this time of need and for turning over their camp to our faculty and students,” said Dr. George P. Condas, Executive Director of CEDU.

Cadets assist in relief efforts

Cadets had their first taste of disaster response as they joined the fight against Southern California’s devastating wildfires. “Some cadets were on the fire lines giving food and drink to the firefighters,” said Cadet Suzanne Mondell. “My group organized, fed and took care of displaced people and animals and also rescue workers as they came off the line.”

Mondell, 28, and her classmates joined the response team in San Diego, where Army crews mobilized disaster relief resources when the fire in Ramona broke out, and worked around the clock to serve the needs of firefighters and the thousands of people evacuated from their homes.

“Emergency disasters are where The Salvation Army serves best,” said Crestmont College President Lt. Colonel Raymond Peacock. “Our cadets bring not only their enthusiasm but also their skills to those who are experiencing great losses at this time.”

Losses have been physical and emotional; Mondell’s group worked at the San Diego rodeo grounds, used as the central point for rescue personnel, and helped Salvation Army officers provide not only physical relief but also counseling and prayers for those affected by destruction and loss. “Some of the firefighters who are seasoned war veterans with experience in Vietnam told us they had never seen such devastation,” said Mondell. “We’re all running on adrenaline. My classmates on the fire lines were just 50 yards from the firefighter who lost his life this week. It’s prayer that’s kept us all going.”

Donations to the relief efforts may be made in one of three ways:
Call 1-800-SAL-ARMY, or send a check payable to The Salvation Army and marked “California Wildfires” to your local Salvation Army; or make an online donation through


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