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Santa Rosa diocese hit hard by ongoing wildfires

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SANTA ROSA, Calif. — The Diocese of Santa Rosa “has been hit hard” and “is in an ongoing state of uncertainty” because of Northern California wildfires that began the night of Oct. 8, said Bishop Robert F. Vasa.

At least 12 major fires were raging across the region, according to news reports. Of those 12, at least five were zero to 5 percent contained, and the rest were 15 to 70 percent contained. Fanned by warm winds, they devastated a vast swath of North California’s wine country and forced 20,000 to evacuate. They left at least 23 people dead, and hundreds of others were missing.

A destroyed section of Cardinal Newman High School is seen following wildfires in Santa Rosa, Calif. A series of deadly Northern California wildfires has killed at least 17 people, destroyed more than 2,000 buildings, including a section of the Catholic school. (CNS photo/courtesy Diocese of Santa Rosa)

“Santa Rosa is extremely smoky with the sun a mere red ball,” the bishop said in an Oct. 10 statement. He also noted that for the many hundreds who have lost their homes, “the sense of great helplessness is palpable.”

A CNN report noted how fast-moving the fires are, saying they “torched 20,000 acres in 12 hours.” Local civic authorities said factors that contributed to the rapid spread of the flames included dry conditions, high-speed winds and lots of vegetation.

Over 17 fires were burning across the state, including in Southern California; more than 115,000 acres had burned.

In a statement Oct. 12, the chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ domestic policy committee called for prayer for all impacted by the fires. “Today we ask for the intercession of Almighty God as wildfires rage in Northern California,” said Bishop Frank J. Dewane of Venice, Fla., quoting from Verse 10, from Isaiah 41. “Do not fear: I am with you; do not be anxious. I am your God.”

“As brave men and women respond to these disasters, battling the fires and helping people to safety, we call upon God for improved weather, for the blessing of rain and favorable winds, to assist them,” the bishop said. “We pray that those who are missing or are still in harm’s way will be found and protected. May God grant eternal rest to those who have died, and bring them into glory with him forever.”

He also prayed “for generosity, care, and concern from neighbors and surrounding communities for those who are grieving and displaced.”

Bishop Dewane acknowledged that the natural disasters and other calamities the nation has endured as of late have left many feeling weary, but “we know that God cannot be outdone in generosity and charity.” He prayed God would provide all “with new wellsprings of love” to help those “hurting so deeply today.”

In Santa Rosa, Bishop Vasa reported that most of the parishes in the diocese were fine but that a Catholic high school and elementary school that share a campus suffered serious damage. Early reports indicated that “a significant portion” of the high school had been destroyed.

After Cardinal Newman High School officials were able to assess the damage, they reported that the news was better than first thought and that most of the high school’s facilities, including the chapel and retreat center, were “unscathed.”

However, they verified that the library, the main office building and portable buildings that housed several classrooms were lost. Another classroom building suffered roof damage and some of its windows were blown out. Of the athletic facilities, the school’s baseball infield and dugouts were damaged.

The diocesan chancery also was “in the heart of a severely fire damaged part of the city but fortunately was entirely spared,” Bishop Vasa said in his statement, but it was being used as an evacuation center and would remain closed to diocesan staff “for the unforeseeable future.”

“So I am currently working from my car and trying to visit a few of the evacuation centers,” the bishop said.

Residents embrace near the remains of destroyed homes Oct. 9 after wildfires in Santa Rosa, Calif. A series of deadly Northern California wildfires has killed at least 17 people, destroyed more than 2,000 buildings, including a section of Cardinal Newman High School in Santa Rosa. (CNS photo/John G. Mabanglo, EPA)

“In the city, they estimate that 1,500 homes and businesses have been lost,” he continued. “I have met numerous folks who are in shelters and who have no home to which to return. The sense of great helplessness is palpable.

“That helplessness extends to the caregivers who know that short term solutions are necessary but also severely inadequate to meet the long-term needs.”

The six-county Diocese of Santa Rose includes four of the counties hit hard by the fires — Sonoma, Napa, Lake and Mendocino counties. Bishop Vasa called on all Catholics of the diocese to help their brothers and sisters who “have been severely impacted by the devastating fires and are in immediate need of your prayers. Please do not hesitate to offer your help though ongoing prayer, donations, and emotional support.”

“You may even be inspired to offer your home to a family who has lost everything. Simply imagine yourself and your family going through what many are experiencing now in reality, and act accordingly,” he advised.

Bishop Vasa said he would try to send occasional updates to the people of the diocese. “I appreciate the outpouring of concern and especially prayers. When people ask how they can help, I answer that I really do not know. I do know that prayers are the greatest source of solace and help.”

“My heart and prayers go out to all this displaced by the fire, especially those who have lost their homes,” he said. “I am extremely grateful to all the caregivers who have reached out so generously to your brothers and sisters in need.”

He added: “We all need to recognize that this is a long-term recovery and we are not yet done with the active fires. There is always need for ardent, consistent and devout prayers. I know that we can all count on you for this as well.”

In a letter to the Cardinal Newman High School community, church officials said that until further notice, all students, families and staff “are to stay away from the campus as it is in the evacuation zone and the site is not safe.”

School officials were working on a way to hold classes in another location, suggesting they might come up with a “hybrid” solution, offering some classes online. They invited families from the high school and St. Rose Elementary School to an evening meeting Oct. 12 on the “state of the schools” to share information and “how we plan to go forward.”

“We continue to pray for our families and our community who have suffered during this time, especially those who have lost their homes, business and have been displaced due to evacuation,” the letter said. “May God’s grace give you peace in this challenging time.”

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Some fleeing wildfires in Tennessee describe it as escaping ‘hell’

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PIGEON FORGE, Tenn. — St. Mary’s Catholic Church was at ground zero in the wildfires that devastated parts of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge Nov. 28, and while flames reached to within yards of the tourist city church, it appears to have been spared.

Some parishioners weren’t as fortunate.

Father Arthur Torres, associate pastor at Sacred Heart Cathedral in Knoxville, Tenn., assists volunteers Nov. 29 in unloading items donated for victims of the wildfires that ravaged the Great Smoky Mountains region. (CNS photo/Bill Brewer, The East Tennessee Catholic)

Father Arthur Torres, associate pastor at Sacred Heart Cathedral in Knoxville, Tenn., assists volunteers Nov. 29 in unloading items donated for victims of the wildfires that ravaged the Great Smoky Mountains region. (CNS photo/Bill Brewer, The East Tennessee Catholic)

Its pastor, Carmelite Father Antony Punnackal, was forced to evacuate St. Mary’s as intense fires came within 300 yards of the church that sits in the heart of Gatlinburg.

The church and rectory have been closed since then, but the priest has received reports that the buildings were spared from the blaze but sustained smoke damage and possible damage from high winds that fueled the flames.

The wildfires left a swath of destruction in and around the city of Gatlinburg, causing at least 13 deaths, more than 50 injuries, and tens of millions of dollars in property damage. Dozens of residents and visitors to the tourist destination still are missing. Three people who suffered serious burns were transported to Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville.

As of midday Dec. 2, the city of 5,000 residents still was closed down, with only emergency personnel allowed to enter as well as residents and property owners on a limited basis.

“I know of seven families in our parish that lost everything,” Father Punnackal told The East Tennessee Catholic, the magazine of the Diocese of Knoxville. “Five of them lived in apartments that burned to the ground. They lost their housing and all their belongings. They’re also jobless because the businesses where they worked burned.”

Many evacuees reported fleeing through horrific infernos, with intense flames licking at their vehicles as they fled down narrow mountain roads to safety. But a number of residents and tourists perished in the flames, and rescue workers still were trying to account for everyone.

Some members of Holy Cross Parish in Pigeon Forge also lost their homes, belongings and businesses. The fires burned nearly 16,000 acres in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Father Punnackal was told he could re-enter Gatlinburg Dec. 2 to assess the church and rectory. But he could only stay for a few hours.

He said that as he monitored the spreading fires Nov. 28, smoke was entering the church and rectory to the point it became unsafe to breathe. Shortly thereafter, he was forced to evacuate with just an overnight bag as fire threatened the property.

Father Punnackal has been staying at Good Shepherd Catholic Church in Newport while his parishioners were spread out in shelters and hotels, or with family or friends.

“I’m now far away, and I can’t get to my parishioners. I have tried to go back, but I’ve been unsuccessful,” the priest said. “I greatly appreciate everyone offering help. I’m doing what I can, but we have a long way to go.”

While a severe drought over several months prompted many of the recent eastern Tennessee woodland blazes, officials are investigating whether some of the wind-whipped fires above Gatlinburg were caused by individuals, either accidentally or intentionally.

The wildfires raced down the mountains, eviscerating everything in their path: homes, condominiums, chalets, cabins, apartments, businesses, automobiles. YouTube was populated with harrowing cellphone videos of people fleeing, blinded by thick, suffocating smoke, many of them unsure if they would make it out alive. Some of them described the situation as escaping the “gates of hell” and running through “rivers of flame.”

As a stream of vehicles exited Gatlinburg and surrounding areas, shelters were set up to accommodate those displaced, which numbered as many as 2,000 at one point. Evacuees were receiving food, clothing and other help in shelters set up by the American Red Cross, said Father Andres Cano, pastor of Holy Cross.

“Many people are showing solidarity and generosity toward the people affected by the fires,” he said, adding that “there is a longtime recovery ahead for the people and the local community.”

Father Cano was assessing the impact of the wildfires on his parish. As of Dec. 1, the parish knew of one family that lost their home to fire, but more could be affected. He also said parishioners’ employers in and around Gatlinburg were affected, and those parishioners are now out of work.

Knoxville Bishop Richard F. Stika has been working with volunteers from around the diocese to get assistance to the Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge communities.

On Dec. 1, the bishop announced a $25,000 grant for fire victims through the Diocese of Knoxville’s St. Mary’s Legacy Foundation. The $25,000 grant is in addition to $735,000 that the St. Mary’s Legacy Foundation will be distributing to charities and nonprofit groups throughout eastern Tennessee in 2017.

“What happened in the Gatlinburg area was unexpected, and each day we’re hearing about more lives lost, more property destroyed, and more heartache for many, many people. The St. Mary’s Legacy Foundation has a very precise way of evaluating grant distributions before they’re announced. In this case, the foundation felt it was best to react to this tragedy immediately,” Bishop Stika said.

“The St. Mary’s Legacy Foundation also recognizes that many communities across our entire diocese have been affected by wildfires, and more recently, tornadoes. For this reason, the $25,000 grant will be channeled into our diocesan Fund for Wildfire Victims. We want to make sure we can help everyone who needs assistance,” he added.

East Tennesseans began donating needed items to the Sevier County relief effort early Nov. 29, and those donations continue.

Sacred Heart Cathedral in Knoxville began a drive to collect bottled water, food, and clothing that has turned into a multiday effort. Those donated goods were delivered to the National Guard armory in Sevier County, just outside of Pigeon Forge, where Guard troops are assisting in the relief effort. Diocese of Knoxville schools also took part in collecting donations.

Bishop Stika said offers for assistance were coming in from around the country, including from Archbishop Paul D. Etienne of Anchorage, Alaska, who chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Subcommittee on the Catholic Home Missions, and the Archdiocese of New Orleans. He said Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville, Kentucky, has helped in getting information out about the relief effort.

“It just shows that the Catholic Church is the face and hands of Jesus, and that we do together what we can’t do by ourselves. Together, with the Holy Spirit, we can overcome anything,” Bishop Stika said.

The diocese is accepting donations online for its assistance fund at http://tinyurl.com/j6gf2wd. All parishes and mission churches in the diocese were asked to hold a special collection at Masses the weekend of Dec. 3-4 for relief efforts.

The wildfires damaged or destroyed more than 700 homes and businesses, including about 300 buildings Gatlinburg and about another 400 in Pigeon Forge.

Sevier County native Dolly Parton announced her My People Foundation will give $1,000 a month in assistance to people affected by the wildfires that also destroyed a number of cabins near the Dollywood theme park. The theme park itself was not damaged in the fires, according to Dollywood officials.

Father David Boettner, rector of Knoxville’s Sacred Heart Cathedral, also was working to get assistance to St. Mary’s and Holy Cross parishioners.

He is confident the popular tourist destination will rebound.  

“It is tourism that built this area and it is tourism that will bring it back,” Father Boettner said. “Dolly Parton, to her credit, has reinvested in her home community. The immediate need was emergency assistance. Now that has shifted to long-term needs, getting people back into housing, to get these folks back on their feet and rebuilding the community.”

By Bill Brewer, editor of The East Tennessee Catholic, magazine of the Diocese of Knoxville.

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Tennessee bishop asks for prayers, help for victims of wildfires. tornado

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GATLINBURG, Tenn. — Catholic parishioners in the Diocese of Knoxville are among those who have lost homes and businesses in the wildfires that ravaged tourist areas in the Great Smoky Mountains region Nov. 29, said Bishop Richard F. Stika of Knoxville.

Smoke plumes from wildfires are seen Nov. 29 along the Smoky Mountains National Park near Gatlinburg, Tenn. Raging wildfires fueled by high winds claimed the lives of at least three people, forced the evacuation of thousands, including Father Antony Punnackal of St. Mary's Church, and damaged hundreds of buildings in the popular mountain resort town. (CNS photo/courtesy National Park Services handout via Reuters)

Smoke plumes from wildfires are seen Nov. 29 along the Smoky Mountains National Park near Gatlinburg, Tenn. Raging wildfires fueled by high winds claimed the lives of at least three people, forced the evacuation of thousands, including Father Antony Punnackal of St. Mary’s Church, and damaged hundreds of buildings in the popular mountain resort town. (CNS photo/courtesy National Park Services handout via Reuters)

News reports said the death toll from the fires had reached at least seven, with as many as 45 people suffering injuries. Two others died when a tornado swept through Tennessee the evening of Nov. 30.

AP reported that officials also have determined that at least 300 structures in Gatlinburg have been damaged or destroyed. Initial reports put the figure at 150 in the resort town. The blaze “left whole neighborhoods in ruins,” said Reuters.

More than 700 structures have been damaged or destroyed throughout Sevier County, which includes Gatlinburg.

“The Catholic community of east Tennessee continues to pray for those who have been affected by the terrible wildfires in Gatlinburg and other communities across the region,” Bishop Stika said. “We are grateful for all the men and women who bravely put themselves in harm’s way to protect people and property that were in danger.”

“I recognize that the good people of east Tennessee come together quickly in times of need. The Diocese of Knoxville shares that commitment,” he added.

Also late Nov. 30, the diocese received word that it appeared that St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Gatlinburg Gatlinburg suffered no fire damage. “The extent of any smoke or wind damage cannot be determined until officials reopen the roads into Gatlinburg,” a diocesan statement said.

Earlier that day, the diocese reported that the pastor, Father Antony Punnackal, had to evacuate but was safe.

Bishop Stika asked that all parishes and mission churches in the diocese hold a special collection at Masses the weekend of Dec. 3-4 to benefit victims of the fires in Gatlinburg and across the region. The diocese also set up an assistance fund for fire victims and was accepting donations online at http://tinyurl.com/j6gf2wd.

He reported that Mercy Sister Mary Christine Cremin, executive director of Catholic Charities of East Tennessee, was leading efforts to help many of the diocesan agency’s clients in Gatlinburg and Sevier County and anyone else in need of assistance.

The clergy and staff at Sacred Heart Cathedral and Sacred Heart Cathedral School initiated a food drive to benefit fire victims, and supplies were already on their way to Gatlinburg, according to the bishop.

“If conditions permit,” Bishop Stika said, he planned to celebrate Sunday Mass Dec. 4 at St. Mary’s in Gatlinburg.

“I ask that your prayers continue for all the victims and their families,” he said.

The twister that hit Tennessee was part of a storm system that spawned at least a dozen tornadoes that swept through parts of the South. The National Weather Service said parts of Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi also were affected. Besides the confirmed fatalities in Tennessee, at least 30 people in Alabama reported injuries.

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Catholic leaders in Holy Land pray for those hit by wildfires

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Catholic News Service

JERUSALEM — Catholic leaders in the Holy Land expressed solidarity with those affected by regional wildfires, which continued to burn after five days.

“We thank God for the fact that the majority of human injuries were light; we express our solidarity with those who suffer from physical or material damage,” they said in a Nov. 25 statement.

A plane drops fire retardant during a wildfire near Nataf, Israel, Nov. 26. (CNS photo/Ronen Zvulun, Reuters)

A plane drops fire retardant during a wildfire near Nataf, Israel, Nov. 26. (CNS photo/Ronen Zvulun, Reuters)

“Our country needs the fire of love which unites people, expands hearts and thoughts and enables a safe life full of faith, justice and love,” they said.

By Nov. 28 security officials said most fires were under control; of the 90 fires that broke out throughout Israel and the West Bank, 40 were suspected arson, they said, adding they believe the outbreak of the initial fires was due to a combination of negligence, accidents and dry, windy weather after a two-month drought.

Local mosques and Christian institutions made themselves available for those evacuees in need of a place to stay, though the majority of the people stayed with family and friends or in hotels.

The fires broke out Nov. 22 and spread across the countryside, damaging hundreds of properties and forcing the evacuation of tens of thousands of people, 60,000 of those in the mixed Jewish-Arab city of Haifa, Israel’s third -largest city. Firefighters also battled flames in several Arab and Druze villages, including a village outside of Nazareth, and several communities outside of Jerusalem, including the Neve Shalom community, where Jews and Arabs live together.

Haifa is home to a large population of Christian residents who make up 14 percent of the city’s inhabitants. The numerous brush fires in the city did not affect the neighborhoods where the majority of Christians and Christian institutions are located.

At the same time in a sign of rare regional cooperation with its Arab neighbors, Israel received assistance in form of personnel and equipment from Jordan, Egypt and the Palestinian Authority in addition to other countries, including the United States, Turkey, Greece, Cyprus, Azerbaijan, Italy and Russia.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to thank him for his assistance, and the Israeli press reported that Jewish settlers from Halamish, one of the hardest-hit communities, came out to thank the Palestinian firefighters who had helped battle the flames.

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