While firefighters in northern California are currently battling 17 wildfires in five counties, Bishop Robert Vasa of the Diocese of Santa Rosa, one of the hardest hit areas, is typing updates and messages of support from his car, in between visits to evacuation centers.
“Our diocese has been hit hard, as you know well, and is in an ongoing state of uncertainty,” he said in his Tuesday message.
The fires, made worse by dry conditions and unrelenting winds, have already scorched at least 100,000 acres and have killed at least 21 people since the beginning of the week. Thousands more have been displaced, their homes and businesses destroyed.
Much of the area of the Diocese of Santa Rosa has been under mandatory evacuation, including the chancery and the local Catholic Charities office. One of the diocese’s Catholic high schools has been almost completely destroyed by a fire, and an elementary school has sustained significant damage.
“Most of our parishes are fine,” Bishop Vasa wrote. “The one exception is Cardinal Newman High School and Saint Rose elementary which share a campus.”
A “significant portion” of the high school was destroyed, he noted, along with the preschool building and the roof of the elementary school.
Graham Rutherford, principal of Cardinal Newman High School, sent a letter to parents and students, assuring them that all students and staff had been accounted for and were safe, and asked them to respect the evacuations and not go near the campus until officials have given the all-clear.
“Thank you for the many kind and generous efforts made by countless members of our community to help each other and to help others in this hour of need,” he added. “We are proud to see our school year motto, ‘One School: Undivided’ lived out with such compassion.”
Bishop Vasa also noted that he has visited several evacuation centers and spoken with many people whose homes and businesses have been destroyed.
“The sense of great helplessness is palpable,” he wrote. “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.”
Father David Jenuwine, Parochial Vicar of St. Apollinaris Catholic Church in Napa, California recounted some of his own experiences with the fires in e-mail comments to CNA in between helping out at evacuation centers.
On Monday, the first day of the fires, Jenuwine said he started smelling smoke around 4 a.m. and realized the area had lost power.
“When I figured out what was going on, I exposed the Blessed Sacrament around 5:00 am and started praying. People started showing up for morning Mass at 6:15 am. I went inside (again still dark – no power), and got ready for Mass” he said.
“Mass in complete darkness, knowing your friends and parishioners are in jeopardy, is an awe inspiring experience. The prayers took on an eminence and an importance,” he said.
The verse that “jumped from the page” of the day’s readings was: “Who is my neighbor?”
“I spoke briefly about that verse, and how that would be our clarion call for the next several days,” Jenuwine said. “Because without limit, right now, EVERYONE is our neighbor.”
Full story at Catholic News Agency.