Wildfire Refugees Spent 2 Weeks Housed At Santa Cruz Baptist Church NPR's David Greene talks to Drew Cunningham, lead pastor of the Santa Cruz Baptist Church, which took in families seeking refuge from the CZU Lightning Complex fire in Northern California.

Wildfire Refugees Spent 2 Weeks Housed At Santa Cruz Baptist Church

Wildfire Refugees Spent 2 Weeks Housed At Santa Cruz Baptist Church

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NPR's David Greene talks to Drew Cunningham, lead pastor of the Santa Cruz Baptist Church, which took in families seeking refuge from the CZU Lightning Complex fire in Northern California.


Well, let's talk more about these fires. In California's Central Coast, near Santa Cruz, residents are slowly returning to their homes now or returning to whatever's left of them. The CZU Lightning Complex Fire has burned for a month there, destroying over 900 homes. When Heather McDougal (ph) and her husband evacuated their home in Davenport, they just didn't expect it would be this bad.

HEATHER MCDOUGAL: We walked away from the house, and we left it standing there with its lights shining bravely so that the firefighters could find it. And they never came. Nobody came to any of our houses.

GREENE: Days later, they returned to their street, and they couldn't find their house.

MCDOUGAL: You know, we were walking up the hill and kind of looking and looking as we went up the hill, and it just wasn't there. You could tell that our house had almost burned and exploded because all the beams were laying outward from the middle.

GREENE: McDougal's mom and her brother lived in the same ridge, and their houses are gone as well.


GREENE: Eighteen miles away in Boulder Creek, Mike Brock (ph) recorded this video while rummaging through the charred remnants of what was once his house.


MIKE BROCK: It's crazy 'cause the kitchen was right above the office. So that's the stove. But then this is the office chair.

GREENE: The last time Brock saw his house was in August, when a helicopter was flying overhead, and his daughter came running. She was panicked.

BROCK: My daughter - she's 8 years old - came running up to the house, and she said, the helicopter man is telling me that we have to evacuate. And we were very sure that she didn't know what the word evacuate was.

GREENE: Brock and his wife got their three kids into the car and they left. Now a month later, all of their possessions have been destroyed. A close friend, a pastor at a nearby church named Drew Cunningham, offered some help.

BROCK: Yeah, Drew reached out to us pretty quickly, offered to buy clothing and food and just anything we needed.

GREENE: Drew Cunningham is the lead pastor at Santa Cruz Baptist Church. He converted his church into a shelter to help people. And he joins us on the line this morning. Pastor, thank you for being here and taking some time for us.

DREW CUNNINGHAM: Glad to be here.

GREENE: So I know - I guess this sounds like some glimmer of hope because there are some families who are leaving your church and starting to return home. What are you hearing from them?

CUNNINGHAM: Yeah. So in relief efforts like this, there's often three phases that we work through - the first phase being triage, the second phase being kind of stabilization, and the third phase being rebuilding. And it's looking like we are close to the end of the triage phase, getting many of the families plugged back into longer-term solutions or many even back into their homes.

GREENE: Can you talk about - when these fires initially were breaking out, you had families arriving at your church. I mean, were they able to bring any supplies or anything, or they were just coming empty-handed, looking for some kind of shelter?

CUNNINGHAM: Most of them came empty-handed. Some of them had a little bit longer to grab things out of their homes, but most of them didn't. Our first phone call came in at 1:30 a.m. on August 18, and it was a family of eight who just said, we were evacuated. We have nowhere to go. Can you help us? So we said, sure, come on down. We'll set up air mattresses in the sanctuary, and we'll meet you there.

GREENE: I've seen some photos, I mean, of the mattresses and tents. And I know, as these families have been in your church for a couple of weeks, you were sleeping in your office every single night.

CUNNINGHAM: (Laughter).

GREENE: I mean, what have nights been like as you've been watching these families try to process this?

CUNNINGHAM: Yeah, so my associate pastor Tyler and I rotated, every other night, sleeping up in our offices and just making sure everyone was taken care of. The whole time, we were serving breakfast and lunch and dinner and kind of spending 24/7 up there, taking care of people, making sure that kids were entertained and making sure that parents were prayed for and cared for.

GREENE: Is there a moment or an image or something that stands out to you from these last few weeks?

CUNNINGHAM: Yeah. One of the nights that I was sleeping in my office, I could hear through the wall - there was a family, another family of eight, in one of our Sunday school rooms. And I could just hear the dad of the family singing songs with his kids and playing "Battleship" with them. And so I got to tell him the next morning just how encouraged I was and how good of a dad he was, trying to bring normalcy to the kids' lives, whose lives have been so disrupted - and so just amazed at how he was doing what he needed to do to care for his family.

GREENE: Well, we'll hope for the best for all the families you've been serving, and we really appreciate your time this morning.

CUNNINGHAM: Absolutely.

GREENE: That's Drew Cunningham. He's the lead pastor of Santa Cruz Baptist Church.

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