From the Worldwide Faith News archives

[PCUSANEWS] Church aid is salve to fire survivors

Date Fri, 2 Apr 2004 12:32:53 -0600

Note #8188 from PCUSA NEWS to PRESBYNEWS:

April 2, 2004

Church aid is salve to fire survivors

25 Presbyterian families lost homes to California wildfires

by Evan Silverstein

LOUISVILLE - Ashleigh Roach was a good Christian girl. She never touched
alcohol, smoked cigarettes or experimented with drugs. The pretty 16-year-old
blonde was a standout student who always had a hug for anyone who needed one.

"She grew up knowing that Christ was her savior," said her mother, Lori
Roach. "That there was a God. That there was a Heaven."

Ashleigh was a "bright star" who cast a warm light on the world around her,
said her father, John Roach - a girl who enjoyed reading the Bible and had a
gift for seeing "the good things in everybody."

"She was always excited to do new things, and go to new places, and learn
about everything around her," Roach said of his youngest daughter, who played
the xylophone in her high school band and also played the piano and the harp.
"Nothing was ever a chore ... because she was always so enthusiastic."

Last Oct. 25, not long after Ashleigh got home from a homecoming dance, the
sky was rosy with light from a fire that had started just north of the
Roaches' neighborhood north of San Diego. They weren't too concerned. They'd
seen flames race across dry California hills many times. Officials said this
one wasn't coming toward their 4,250-square-foot home. Besides, there was a
fire station just down the hill. Ashleigh sometimes took fresh-baked cookies
to the men stationed there.

Still, Lori and John took turns watching the fire. They packed clothes and
other essentials in their Ford Expedition, just in case. About 5:30,
satisfied that the blaze was passing to their west, they went to bed.

Three hours later, the Roach family was awakened by two San Diego County
sheriff's deputies warning them to leave. The fire had changed direction and
jumped a road and was just 20 minutes away.

In half that time, the house was on fire. The Roaches walked through thick,
acrid smoke to escape by the front door. Visibility was under five feet.

"It was a firestorm" whipped up by the famous Santa Ana winds, John Roach
recalled. "The fire was eating 3,000 acres an hour."

John and Lori jumped into the Expedition and raced away from their burning
home. They reached safety but their vehicle broke down, its electrical system
melting in the heat. Ashleigh, her sister Allyson, 21, and her brother Jason,
23, escaped in Jason's Mustang. In blinding smoke, the car collided with
another vehicle, spun out of control, hit a tree and was engulfed in flames.

Ashleigh, pinned in the car, was killed. Jason suffered minor burns but was
able to get out of the burning vehicle. Allyson, like Jason a student at
Palomar College in nearby San Marcos, was burned over 85 percent of her body.
She was taken to a San Diego hospital, in critical condition.

Allyson was in intensive care for three months. She still has physical
therapy every day. Ashleigh was honored with a well-attended memorial at the
family's home church, Westminster Presbyterian in Escondido.

"It's difficult, but ... our faith is very strong," Lori Roach said in a
recent interview. "We never really got angry at God. We just felt

The fire that consumed the Roaches' house came to be known as the Paradise
fire, named for a small town in the area. It was one of three wildfires that
burned a 40-mile swath from Valley Center to Tijuana, Mexico, blackening
400,000 acres, destroying 2,400 homes and killing at least 17 people. People
as far away as Texas smelled the smoke.

"The fire comes through fast and furious," said Mario Janesin, an employee of
the Presbytery of Riverside. "That's what happened down here in San
Bernardino. They lost a couple of hundred homes. ... The wind was blowing 60
miles an hour, and it just went poof."

Ashleigh was one of two people killed by the Paradise fire, which authorities
believe was started purposely. It destroyed 221 homes in and around Valley
Center, scorched 56,000 acres and injured scores of people. Fire crews worked
12 days before it was contained.

Presbyterians in the San Diego, Riverside and Santa Barbara presbyteries were
hit especially hard. Wylie Woods, one of two conference facilities owned by
the Synod of Southern California and Hawaii, sustained major damage in the

At least 25 Presbyterian families lost homes, including 14 belonging to
members of Rancho Bernardo Community Presbyterian Church in San Diego.

"They've gone through different stages," the Rev. David Turner, an associate
pastor, said of the fire victims. "Everything from anger to acceptance to
hope. ... For the longest time there was anger at God, anger at the
community. A lot of times, they just wanted to be left alone."

Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PDA) has divided a total of $129,200 among
three middle governing bodies in Southern California to help with recovery
and rebuilding efforts. Some of the money came from the denomination's One
Great Hour of Sharing offering; most was contributed specifically for
wildfire response.

The Presbytery of San Diego received $60,000; the Presbytery of Riverside was
issued $33,500; and the Synod of Southern California and Hawaii got $35,700
to help clean up and reopen Wiley Woods.

"The facility is still beautiful," camp director Donna Ward said. "You can't
tell there was a fire until you come all the way to the bottom of the
driveway and actually turn to where the old lodge was. We lost about six
acres, including four buildings." Wiley Woods closed after the fire but has
since reopened.

PDA funds also have been used to buy emergency supplies, provide operational
support during the initial recovery stage, help with tree and debris clearing
and support long-term recovery groups, said Stan Hankins, PDA's associate for
U.S. disaster response. He said some money also will be used to help families
whose homes were uninsured or underinsured or who lost their livelihoods.

"One of the things that we're hearing is there's still concern with the
number of dead trees that remain in the region," Hankins said. "What really
fueled a lot of that fire were those dead pine trees that had succumbed to
the Pine Bark Beetle. So we anticipate requests for assistance ... to clear
some of those dead trees, so they don't become fuel for another fire."

In most cases, rebuilding hasn't started in earnest. Many survivors are still
plodding through red tape, clearing debris and negotiating with insurance

It's hard to comprehend the extent of the disaster.

"You drive and you drive and you drive, and it's still burned," said the Rev.
Robert "Bob" Davis, moderator of the Presbytery of San Diego's disaster
assistance response team (DART). "It was an impossible situation for

"Judging from what experts have talked about in terms of other fires, it's
not uncommon for a year to 18 months to be needed just to clear the land."

Davis is associate pastor of the Roaches' home church, which helped the
family establish a trust fund to help pay for Allyson's continuing medical
care. He said the presbytery may use some PDA funds to help further with
those expenses and to help provide housing for volunteer cleanup crews,
especially those in Valley Center and Lakeside, where more than 500 families
lost homes.

"The amount of support we've received for this was just unbelievable," Lori
Roach said. "It's what pulled us through."

For example, she said, a prayer group from her church often gathered outside
the ICU to pray for Allyson. The family was remembered every Sunday in
worship, and Davis and others often call on the Roaches in their temporary
rental home.

The Presbytery of Riverside reported that at least 11 Presbyterians within
its boundaries lost homes, all worshippers at First Presbyterian Church of
San Bernardino.

"Right now the priority is to get the lots cleaned of the dust from the
debris and ashes so that they can decide to rebuild," said the Rev. Jeffrey
Silliman, executive presbyter. "Then the money will go to help those people
buy materials as they do rebuild. Volunteer labor is being lined up to help

The presbytery also is using some PDA money to support long-term recovery
organizations including Rebuilding Mountain Hearts and Lives, a group based
in the San Bernardino mountains that was created in the wake of the fires.
The Rev. Bill Stanley, the pastor of Lake Arrowhead Community Presbyterian
Church is a founding member who serves on its board of directors.

Stanley put together a community worship service based on PDA materials
called "Out of Chaos Comes Hope," and his group brought in the Rev. Warren
Dale, a Methodist minister, to train caseworkers to help survivors.

Contributions for relief and cleanup efforts can be made through
congregations or sent to the Presbyterian Center, Central Receiving Service,
Section 300, Louisville, KY 40289. Refer to designated account number
9-2000165. To give by credit card, call PresbyTel at (800) 872-3283 or visit
PDA's secure Web site at

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