Northwest Fire Recovery

November 01, 2015 | Kathy Marson

Washington wildfires broke all-time records this summer, according to Tom Vilsack, U.S. secretary of agriculture. Oregon and Washington were among the hardest hit states this year, with hundreds of thousands of acres scorched in the Northwest. How did the schools and churches in Upper Columbia Conference fare? As of this writing, no schools or churches have been destroyed, but many of members had to evacuate their homes and there were some close calls.

Henry Buursma, head teacher of Peaceful Valley School in Tonasket, Wash., says, “School started a week late due to the fires. None of the students had to evacuate.” But as Buursma was at school preparing for registration, he learned the fire was heading straight for his home. He evacuated to the Colville, Wash., area.

Ted Hunter, local Adventist church member and firefighter, said the wind changed direction, allowing them to get a handle on the fire before it destroyed the whole valley. Buursma was able to go back home and watch the back-burning from his house as ash floated down. “I feel we were very fortunate,” says Buursma.

Ryan Kilgore, pastor of Brewster and Chelan churches in Washington, reports, “I had a number of church members who were evacuated from their homes. To my knowledge, no one lost any property in these fires. Out of those who were evacuated, many went through the fires of last year, so they are veterans. We have all been under high stress with these fires.”

The Chelan Church had some excitement on the last day of their their Everest-themed Vacation Bible School. As Jennifer and Ryan Kilgore drove to Chelan on Friday of VBS, fire burned on one side of the highway as they watched airplanes dumping fire retardant on a fire near the butte. They decided to drive on to see how many kids were at VBS. The night before, lightning had struck the butte just south of town.

All the kids were at there, and they had a great final day. After VBS closed, the leaders watched from the church lawn as the fire gained momentum and inched closer to town. Some members had homes close to the fire. Sandy Zimcheck, the VBS director, was not worried because she lived across the river. Some families went home after VBS and were met with evacuation orders.

Jennifer Kilgore says, “We had good community participation. This was the first time we held a Vacation Bible School in Chelan. We had 13 kids, with four kids from the Adventist church. That was pretty awesome. When it was over [and] the kids were leaving, the fire was decidedly bigger but still up on the butte. It seems like it was under control. So we were planning on having a wrap-up meeting on Sabbath where the parents come. Everyone was planning to come.”

Emotions were high as they left the church because many had been evacuated last year. Zimcheck arrived home, and her three young children hopped out of the car. Even though she had not been concerned about the fire since she lived on the east side of the river, she looked out her window towards the Chelan side. The unthinkable was happening. She saw hot embers carried by the 35 mph winds ignite fires between her house and the river. She evacuated immediately and learned later that fire came within 250 feet of her property.

“We canceled church that Sabbath,” says Jennifer. "We were disappointed because the kids had been so excited about God and then to have no church or VBS ceremony was really disappointing.” They had gathered food like lasagna, apple pie, salad and peaches for Sabbath lunch. God had a plan for that food. Jan Ellis, a Chelan Church elder, learned the Red Cross needed food for displaced families. Ellis used the VBS food, and, along with more food from the Lutheran pastor, they had enough. “We felt God used that food for the community anyway," Jennifer says.

They decided to follow up the next Sabbath even though they thought no one would come. “We contacted them all. Everyone came,” says Jennifer, “even those who were not part of our church.” God provided everything they needed, more food and even decorations came from another church who had held the Everest VBS too. Through this VBS, the kids learned that God has the power to comfort and God has the power to heal. This truth was a reminder to the whole church and community that God did this for them.

Each day the kids had learned a Bible verse and took home a key chain with same verse. This was hope to hang on to as they went through the fires. The Chelan VBS was truly faith-affirming. As a result of VBS, a new family is attending and looking for a church home.

There are many stories out there of how churches had to grapple with feeding evacuees, the stress of close fires and the possibilities of “having to grab and go,” as Darlene Clark, Republic (Wash.) Church newsletter editor, stated. Much land has been scorched in these communities. Many lost their homes and will need to help. Some members are working with local organizations to meet needs. Many have lost more than everything because they could not afford fire insurance. Thank you in advance for being the hands and feet of Jesus in the months ahead, to those in need.