As wildfires ravage the West Coast destroying thousands of acres of timberland and homes —including the homes of three of his church families—an EPC pastor in southwest Oregon is requesting “prayer for wisdom and a vision” as the church seeks to minister to those amid the storm.
“It’s pretty overwhelming,” said Dustin Jernigan, Lead Pastor of Jacksonville Presbyterian Church in Jacksonville, Ore. “It’s hard not to find somewhere on the Oregon map where a community hasn’t been decimated. There are whole towns that are just gone.”
According to the National Interagency Fire Center, 87 large wildfires are burning in California, Oregon, Washington, and Idaho. Many residents are under evacuation orders. In Oregon alone—Gov. Kate Brown said the state has never before had so many uncontained fires—more than a million acres have burned. As of September 14, at least 35 people have died as a result of nearly 100 wildfires that have scorched more than 4.7 million acres. At least four people died from the Alameda Fire, which burned 3,200 acres about 10 miles east of Jacksonville between Medford and Ashland, Ore.
Jernigan reported a “heavy orange haze over Jacksonville and the entire region, causing terrible air quality.” Coupled with the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, he noted that residents are weary.
“It feels that we have already been running a marathon, and all of a sudden a bear showed up and is chasing us,” he said. “We are already exhausted. Now we have a whole different problem. Some people don’t have a place to sleep tonight. The main thing we need is prayer for wisdom, a plan, and a vision.”
The church opened its multipurpose sanctuary the weekend of September 11-13 to about a dozen families who either had lost their homes or who were fleeing the devastation of the wildfires. Following the first few days, the number of people utilizing the shelter diminished, after which people were taken into church member’s homes.
Brenda Rosch, one of those who stayed at the church, told the Wall Street Journal that she fled her mobile home near Medford with only the clothes on her back and a tablet computer. The entire mobile home park where her home was located was destroyed.
“I was resting, and the next thing I know the sheriffs are outside, there is dense smoke in the valley, really thick smoke, and the sheriffs are outside saying evacuate now, evacuate now,” Rosch said.
When the evacuation order went out last week, Jernigan said he drove to the downtown area of Jacksonville to let the police know the church would be opening its doors to the displaced. While there he met a family who had driven three hours south from Eugene to the Medford area in an attempt to get away from the smoke of the fires.
“The irony was that one of our children’s directors had just left our town to drive three hours north to Eugene with the same idea in mind. To me, that is symbolic of the panic that we face. People are driving hours away and to get away from the fires. It’s a statewide problem,” he said.
Richard Evans, who serves the congregation as Associate Pastor for Missions, Discipleship, and Congregational Care, said he sees God at work in the crisis.
“I just see so many ‘God things’ in this,” he said, recounting an experience of one of the families in the church that lost everything.
“The afternoon of the day the fire ripped through—when it was nowhere near them at that point—the member went out for a hair appointment and something told them to take their dog with them. As much as they’ve lost, if they had lost their dog as well it would have been devastating,” Evans said. “It might seem like a small thing, but our lives are about everything, even small things. Yet I know a lot of people who haven’t been able to save their pets.”
Kate Hoskin, who grew up in the church and has a master’s in counseling psychology, addressed the congregation on September 13 at Jernigan’s request.
“She said that if people do not begin processing a crisis like what residents are experiencing, that in 72 hours PDSD (Prolonged Duress Stress Disorder) can set in,” Jernigan said. “But she also said the quicker that people can begin processing their trauma, the better off they are from having longtime effects.”
While the wildfire crisis is the immediate focus, Jernigan added that the pandemic has posed the greater existential threat. The church’s pre-COVID in-person attendance of 400 is now about 200, he said.
“Living here, people have a framework for wildfires. People don’t have a framework for not doing corporate worship for a year and a half. That’s more of, ‘What in the world, how do we continue operating?’”
He said the combination of the pandemic and wildfires has impacted his own family and their 5-year-old special needs son.
“I want to remind other EPC churches that COVID has been especially hard on families with special needs, because they have had to forgo in-person schooling and services like therapies,” he said. “Now for us, it’s even harder because our son can’t even go outside, he can’t go to speech therapy, physical therapy. We don’t do Sunday School like we used to, and we don’t see friends like we used to. I just want to blow that horn and say, ‘Hey pastors, if you have families with kids with special needs, they are a particularly affected group of people right now.’”
by Tim Yarbrough