During the 41-year history of the Diocese of San Bernardino, these fires have impacted our Church in many ways: forced evacuations of parish staffs, destroyed the homes of parishioners, cancelled church events and called the Church to provide pastoral care to fire victims.
The Diocese was only two years old when the Panorama Fire struck the north end of San Bernardino city in November, 1980. Sixty families belonging to Our Lady of Assumption Parish lost their homes to that fire. Sadly, a founding member of the parish, Joseph Benjamin, died due to suffering a heart attack during the fire.
The pastor and his team at OLA spent many days consoling the people living in the north end of town, both Catholics and non-Catholics alike. Our Lady of the Rosary Cathedral was selected to be a disaster relief center for the American Red Cross.
Shortly after the Panorama Fire, Bishop Phillip Straling, the founding Bishop of the Diocese, called for a study on diocesan responses to emergency situations. Diocesan staff working with Catholic Mutual Insurance developed the first guidelines on diocesan disaster responses.
In 2003, the Diocese was reminded of the power of mother nature when its 25th Anniversary Celebration scheduled for November 2 was cancelled due to the Old Fire. This fast-moving vegetation fire started in the hills above the city of San Bernardino, closing the Cal State University, San Bernardino campus where the Anniversary Celebration was to be held. The 25th Anniversary Celebration of the Diocese was eventually held on January 18, 2004.
After the fire, Catholic Charities and the Office of Small Faith Communities sponsored a Night of Healing and Recovery for the survivors of the Old Fire on January 11, 2004. Allstate Insurance donated $101,000 to Catholic Charities to help people impacted by the fire.
To expand the diocesan response for preparation and response to emergency situations, Bishop Gerald Barnes developed the Diocesan Office for Emergency Operations Collaborative in 2012. This new ministry created training opportunities for parish and school staffs that included: first aid, CPR and the use of Automated External Defibillators (AEDs), preparing for active shootings, disaster supplies and emergency drills. To assist the Diocesan Bishop during a disaster, an emergency management system was developed for the Diocesan Pastoral Center.
The fall wildfires have not been confined to the San Bernardino area. In September, 2016, the Blue Cut Fire impacted the communities of Wrightwood and Phelan in the High Desert. St. Junipero Serra Parish in Phelan and Holy Family Parish in Hesperia provided pastoral care and support to numerous victims of the 36,000-acre fire. Catholic Charities set up a station at the San Bernardino County Fair Grounds in Victorville where the evacuation center was located.
They provided the fire victims with lodging and gift cards for clothing and basic personal needs.
The Diocese of San Bernardino continues to collaborate with county emergency officials and other non-profit disaster groups. Several new initiatives include: training for pastoral and emotional care providers; sponsoring Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) trainings along with local fire departments; developing a HAM radio system within the Catholic Church and working with the American Red Cross to assist parishes that wish to be an approved shelter during an emergency.
For more information on preparing your church ministry for an emergency, please contact Ann Marie Gallant in the Diocesan Office of Emergency Operations Collaborative at 909-475-5441.
Peter Bradley is Archivist in the Diocese of San Bernardino.