Editor’s Note: Story was updated Nov. 19 to include latest information regarding the death and destruction toll.
By Brandon Elrod
PARADISE, Ca.—Members of Paradise Ridge Southern Baptist Church have asked their pastor, Bob Sorensen, if they will continue to have a church in Paradise, Ca., but not because their building is gone. They ask because the Camp Fire destroyed much of their community.
“We’ve had disasters before, and we thought we would be able to just go back” once it ended, Sorensen said. “But you can’t go back.”
While the church still stands—“an amazing thing,” he said—Sorensen’s home was destroyed by the fire.
“I still have people from the church who are missing that I can’t find,” he said. “I spend hours a day trying to find them.”
On the day the blaze overwhelmed Paradise, Sorensen and his wife, Linda, got the call that their granddaughter’s school was being evacuated. The typically 15-minute drive turned into an hour and a half trip. It required five hours of driving amid fire and smoke to make it down the ridge and into safety.
“It was wall-to-wall traffic trying to get out,” Sorensen recalled. “There were flames and smoke. It never turned daylight that day.”
With more than 80 deaths reported deaths and counting, the Camp Fire has officially become the most lethal in California’s history. More than 12,700 residential, commercial and other structures have been destroyed.
“The fire came on so fast, and it was just mass confusion,” said Mike Bivins, the Southern Baptist Disaster Relief (SBDR) director for California Baptists. The roads into and out of the towns of Paradise and Magalia, Ca. are limited.
“The fire seems to have trapped more people than was originally figured,” he said.
Bivins has heard horror stories, like pastor Sorensen’s, from survivors in shelters who had to run and drive for their lives to escape the fire.
First responders continue search and rescue efforts, using cadaver dogs to help them find victims in the aftermath. Emergency utility crews are traveling into the area to ensure that electricity, propane and gas will not create hazards for residents once they are allowed to return.
Once the responders complete their jobs, Bivins and SBDR will begin cooperating with the churches in the region. They will assess how best to support the pastors, congregations and communities, many of whom have lost homes and loved ones.
“We are working with the local pastors to assess the needs and discern the best way to reach the community,” said Bivins. “We don’t know what the needs are right now other than prayer, gift cards and other financial support.”
Bivins mentioned that non-perishable items, such as clothes and blankets, are not needed at this time.
For now, SBDR chaplains are serving with American Red Cross to provide spiritual care for those in shelters, and a laundry and shower unit has been set up at First Baptist Church of Gridley, Ca., for survivors in the area who need the care.
In Paradise and Magalia, Ca., three Southern Baptist churches miraculously survived the blaze: Paradise Ridge Southern Baptist Church, First Baptist Church Paradise and Magalia Pines Baptist Church. Read more in this report from Baptist Press.
Charles Woods, the associational missions strategist for the local Sierra Butte Baptist Association, stays in touch with those pastors every day.
“I would ask for all of us here, especially me, for prayer about how to minister to everyone best,” Woods said. “Pray for the knowledge and wisdom to know what to say and what to do in the way that they best need it. That’s my heart’s desire right now.”
For Paradise, Ca., residents are wondering what the next steps will be for their community, but when people ask pastor Sorensen if he plans to stay, he says that decision is not his to make.
“As long as God keeps me there, I’m going to stay,” he said, “because I know there are people who are going to need help.”
Brandon Elrod writes for the North American Mission Board.