BETA

LDS fire victims begin long recovery

Members, missionaries united in relief efforts

EL CAJON, California — Teens typically dread that first Monday back to school after an extended time off. Not Jeanette Fleckenstein. Yes, she's always been a good student and enjoyed school. But on Monday, Nov. 3, Jeanette was simply eager to return to the comforting routine of homework, school lunch and perhaps fifth-period geometry.

Missionaries from the Penasquitos Zone of the California Carlsbad Mission haul away scorched appliances and debris from the site of a destroyed home in the Scripps Ranch community near San Diego.
Missionaries from the Penasquitos Zone of the California Carlsbad Mission haul away scorched appliances and debris from the site of a destroyed home in the Scripps Ranch community near San Diego. Photo: Photo by Jason Swensen

No wonder. The past several days had dealt Jeanette a life's worth of change and uncertainty.

Like scores of other LDS Californians, Jeanette Fleckenstein, 14, is homeless. Her family's house east of El Cajon in the Crest community of San Diego County was reduced to ashy ruin Oct. 26 — a casualty of one of the most devastating fire seasons in state history. The wildfires of 2003 delivered a powerful hook to the collective chin of Golden State residents. More than 60 LDS families will be forced to rebuild or relocate after fire ravaged their houses.

Even those Church members in Southern California who did not experience the wildfire's rage first-hand expect to feel a range of emotions in the coming months. They are pre-eminently grateful none of their own were lost or seriously harmed. They are saddened by the tremendous property loss. Many say they are staggering from the life-altering moments of the past two weeks — yet optimistic that better days await.

Those LDS families who lost all but the most basic of provisions are now owners of a tome of fresh memories. Some are frightening and sad. Others, inspiring and uplifting.

"It's been a little overwhelming," admits Michael J. Robertson, bishop of the Granite Hills Ward, El Cajon California Stake, where 14 LDS homes were lost. The earnest priesthood leader has spent the past couple of weeks finding shelter for displaced members, overseeing the ward welfare council and offering spiritual comfort to his flock. Still, Bishop Robertson is a happy, happy man. Neither he — nor any other Southern California priesthood leader — was enlisted to conduct a single fire-related funeral.

Duane Nielsen, left, and his son, Cameron, 14, sift through the charred remains of their San Bernardino home.
Duane Nielsen, left, and his son, Cameron, 14, sift through the charred remains of their San Bernardino home. Photo: Photo by Jason Swensen

"We're so blessed," said Bishop Roberston, "no lives were lost."

Frightening Moments

LDS families who surrendered their homes and property to the blazes all have stories to tell. Many, including Don and Susan Olsen, add they've learned something of blessings amid the loss.

The Olsens were awakened early Oct. 26 by a friend's phone call. His haunting message: "Get out, the fire's on top of you." With little time to do anything except throw on a few clothes, the Olsens rushed outside their Wildcat Canyon home in San Diego County. The winds were fierce. Sister Olsen remembers struggling for breath as greedy flames sucked the oxygen from the air.

She and her children climbed in one car and headed out of the canyon. Her husband rushed through the neighborhood, warning residents by hollering and pounding on doors. "We felt like the Lord was taking us by the hand and telling us where to go," Sister Olsen said.

Fifteen minutes later, the Olsens' rural community was engulfed in flames. The blaze claimed 11 people living just three miles away. Now the Olsens — members of the Lakeside 2nd Ward, Santee California Stake — are "possession poor." Sister Olsen will forever grieve the loss of her wedding ring and the set of scriptures her father used on his mission decades ago. But her family remains. Tenacious, together and healthy.

"I feel like I've lost everything — but everything that's important to me I still have."

Unexpected Losses

Duane Nielsen struggles with the notion that he's a wildfire victim. California's most cautious insurance inspector would have never looked at Brother Nielsen's house and categorized the structure "wildfire vulnerable." The home is perhaps a half mile from the San Bernardino hills and has stood for more than half a century.

Amid the destruction, members enjoyed small victories. Ruth Maas of the Granite Hills Ward, El Cajon California Stake, displays wedding ring found in the ruins of her home site.
Amid the destruction, members enjoyed small victories. Ruth Maas of the Granite Hills Ward, El Cajon California Stake, displays wedding ring found in the ruins of her home site. Photo: Photo by Jason Swensen

Yet a combination of unseasonably warm temperatures, angry Santa Ana winds and acres of dry or dead trees and brush allowed the flames of the now infamous Old Fire to carve an unexpected path Oct. 25 through Brother Nielsen's San Bernardino neighborhood. The family heeded an evacuation order, but couldn't fathom losing their home. "There's no way the fire could get all the way down here," Brother Nielsen remembers thinking when he saw the blaze moving down off the hills.

Rillene Nielsen gathered up a few photo albums and the family history records, and then the Nielsens drove three miles to their ward meetinghouse. Brother Nielsen's brother-in-law, Mark Elliott, stayed behind to monitor the fire's movement. Minutes later, Brother Elliott delivered unbelievable news. The Nielsens' home was lost.

"I thought [Mark] was joking, but then I sensed the emotion in his voice," Brother Nielsen said. "I started crying with him."

Folks who have called San Bernardino home for decades were shocked with the sort of destruction that visited the Nielsens' home and hundreds of others. "The devastation is beyond what any of us could see and contemplate," San Bernardino County Fire Division Chief Mike Conrad told The Press-Enterprise.

The Nielsens have returned to their home site several times since the fire, sifting through ash in hopes of finding something of value. They've had little luck. But they say joyful memories arise from tragedy. They're humbled by the support offered by family and fellow members from the San Bernardino 2nd Ward, Highland California Stake. Everyone asks what they can do. One fellow member even gave an old guitar to Brother Nielsen, a music lover.

Despair Turns to Hope

Dieter Merkle's thankful his insurance provider will help rebuild his Scripps Ranch home that was consumed Oct. 26 by a 20-foot flaming finger of the Cedar Fire in San Diego County. But even the best policy can't replace Brother Merkle's journals from the past 30 years, along with family history records and a 3,000-book library.

View of Interstate-8 from Harbison Canyon testifies of the absolute destruction caused by the Cedar Fire in parts of San Diego County. The Cedar Fire is being called the largest wildfire in California history.
View of Interstate-8 from Harbison Canyon testifies of the absolute destruction caused by the Cedar Fire in parts of San Diego County. The Cedar Fire is being called the largest wildfire in California history. Photo: Photo by Jason Swensen

Yet the trauma of losing his home has been tempered by the encouragement and support from the Church and the Scripps Ranch community.

"I'm glad I have the strength to go forward," said Brother Merkle, of the Scripps Ranch 1st Ward, Pe┬Łasquitos California Stake. "The despair has been replaced by hope."

A Refining Fire

It's been said a refiner's fire can char and destroy — or forge a new, unrealized strength.

Priesthood leaders throughout blackened regions in Southern California say their members have discovered fortitude, hope and service amid the sorrow. Folks have opened their homes to put up LDS fire victims and developed new, lifelong friendships. Relief Society units answered calls for food, clothing, toys and school supplies. No request was dismissed as trivial. Everything from boxes of breakfast cereal to a drum set were donated by members anxious to help.

Meanwhile, full-time missionaries throughout the region put away their proselytizing garb, pulled on casual clothes and helped victims of all backgrounds sift for valuables.

"The missionaries have been wonderful beyond words," said Carlsbad California Mission President Stephen M. Studdert. "Many have served [long] hours each day in evacuation centers, yet anxiously return the next day to lift and to love."

A hanger at the old Norton Air Force base was transformed into an emergency shelter for people displaced by fire in San Bernardino.
A hanger at the old Norton Air Force base was transformed into an emergency shelter for people displaced by fire in San Bernardino. Photo: Photo by Associated Press

Elders and sisters from the Carlsbad mission, for example, arrived en mass to help Barbara McCormick, a Scripps Ranch fire victim who is not a member of the Church. "I'm a teacher and I work with a teacher's aide who is a Mormon," said Mrs. McCormick. "She told me her church was here to help. They've delivered."

Elder Christian Garcia, a full-time missionary from the Philippines, took a moment from the filthy labor of removing blistered and blackened kitchen appliances from Mrs. McCormick's home to share his feelings about the fire losses: "Everybody feels so bad about what happened here. It's traumatic."

People continue to look out for one another.

"The LDS welfare system works," said Elder Lynn G. Robbins of the Seventy and president of the North American West Area. "It's the best thing out there. It ought to be the envy of any [charitable agency]."

Contact any stake president or bishop whose congregations have been impacted by the California wildfires. They could fill an hour or two simply talking about the heroism and big hearts of their members.

"During this trial, people from all socio-economic levels have been impacted and all have responded," said Highland California President Kent A. Rex. The line between those who serve and those being served, he added, has been blurred as victims look for ways to assist fellow victims.

Dieter Merkle, left, surveys what was once his Scripps Ranch home. Brother Merkle lost 30 years of journals in the fire.
Dieter Merkle, left, surveys what was once his Scripps Ranch home. Brother Merkle lost 30 years of journals in the fire. Photo: Photo by Jason Swensen
Firefighters from Patrick, Ore. bundle up for cold weather as they prepare for the fire lines in Lake Arrowhead, Calif. on Saturday, Nov. 1, 2003.  Foggy and cold temperatures have helped fire crews in containing the Old Fire in the San Bernardino Mountains. Fires burning in Southern California over the past week have killed 20 people, destroyed more than 3,300 homes and burned about 750,000 acres. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
Firefighters from Patrick, Ore. bundle up for cold weather as they prepare for the fire lines in Lake Arrowhead, Calif. on Saturday, Nov. 1, 2003. Foggy and cold temperatures have helped fire crews in containing the Old Fire in the San Bernardino Mountains. Fires burning in Southern California over the past week have killed 20 people, destroyed more than 3,300 homes and burned about 750,000 acres. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez) Photo: AP
Missionaries clean out burn site.
Missionaries clean out burn site. Photo: Photo by Jason Swensen

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