by Bill Rudge
“When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze.” Isaiah 43:2
Out of the Ashes
In the days following Bill and Karen’s escape from the devastating Southern California Fires (see the September 25 blog for the incredible account) Bill served as a Red Cross chaplain at several evacuation centers and the sites of burned homes. Many of his books and audio messages were given to fire victims who requested and received them gladly. Bill heard many amazing stories and had hundreds of exciting ministry opportunities. The following are a few excerpts from his journal.
Friday I was sent as a chaplain to Scripps Ranch – one of the most devastated areas from the fires. As well as ministering to fire victims, I also ministered to workers from various agencies at the center who were helping the fire victims. Secretary of Homeland Security, Tom Ridge, showed up for a major media event. I had opportunity to share with the liaison for the mayor of San Diego and a security agent for Tom Ridge, who approached me.
But for the Fire
Todd and Lynn, from Santee, had been displaced by the fires along with the rest of us who were at Rich and Sunday’s. On Saturday at 5 a.m., we received a call from Lynn that her husband had not come home from w ork the previous night. Todd last called her on Route 52 (about 10 miles from their home) about 6:30 p.m. on Friday. Clayton and Rich went looking for Todd in Clay’s cruiser while Sunday (Todd’s sister) and Louise (their mother) were looking for him on their own. Several hours into the search I picked up Lynn and, following prayer, we met up with Clay and Rich. Clay pulled me aside and mentioned that a car fitting Todd’s description was hit on Route 52 last night, and totally destroyed by fire, with no report of the driver.
Clay told me Todd could be dead, and not to tell Lynn, but to keep her occupied. Clay and Rich went to the site of the burned car and found Todd lying face up on the ground about 20 feet down the hillside. Had the heavy brush (chaparral) not burned off in the fires, they would have never seen him. He had been badly injured and was within moments of death. An article and radio broadcast, Miracle On a California Highway, on our website shares his miraculous story. I visited Todd at the Surgical Intensive Care Unit at the hospital before and after assignments with the Red Cross.
Short Stories from Harbison Canyon
On Sunday from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., the Red Cross has me go with a crisis intervention team to Harbison Canyon, a community where over 300 of the 496 homes were completely destroyed. I listen to their stories, provide food, water and clothes, pray with, counsel and encourage over 100 people today. All of them are deeply appreciative and I too, am greatly encouraged by their attitudes.
Mark, a pastor I meet there, lost both his home and his church, but enthusiastically proclaims the Lord’s faithfulness.
Another person – a woman – has been living on the street for the past year, since she and her husband divorced. All four of her children have been living with her ex-husband. Her clothes and belongings which were being stored at a friend’s house, burned in the fire. I convince her to get some financial assistance, then volunteer her time helping at the evacuation center for the rest of the day. The other Red Cross workers say that was the most helpful suggestion I could have made. She became a different person.
A 3-year-old sits crying with red, swollen eyes from the smoke. She shivers in the cold evening air. Her mother has brought her and three other children to wade through the assistance application process. I am able to find warm jackets for each of them.
Then a nurse, Sherry, staffing the Red Cross station, takes a liking to me because I bring her people who need medical help. She asks me to eat with her during break at which time I ask her if she has a religious background. She tells me that she has a Catholic background but is no longer interested in Christianity. After sandwiching our conversation with non-religious talk, I interject how I also was raised in a mainline church, but that coming to know Jesus was the greatest thing that ever happened to me. It is the right opportunity to share with this Red Cross nurse and several others. They are very open because I am sharing in a non-confrontational way. Just by asking questions and sharing general things about my own background leads to their asking questions, which create ministry opportunities.
The nurse I met there, has written several times to let me know how she was encouraged and her life touched during our conversation and to thank me for the additional books and audio messages I have sent to her since then. She has kept in touch with my wife and me throughout the years.
The following day I am stationed at the Red Cross Center in Lakeside. Wildcat Canyon in Lakeside was another canyon area where the fire and wind combined to form a wind tunnel effect. Tragically, most of the people who died were from Wildcat Canyon. Several of the survivors gave me the following report:
About 2 a.m. on Sunday, they awoke to horns sounding from fleeing vehicles. Most said they had no warning as the fire quickly came upon them. With no electricity and 70 mph winds, they had to flee through darkness and smoke-filled air, making it virtually impossible to see as they drove out. Some did not make it and were consumed by the flames.
Many people describe fire tornados – fire spinning just like a tornado. They describe tumbleweeds catching on fire; the wind throwing them ablaze into the air a couple of hundred feet. Wherever one landed it would ignite and spread the fire.
I am the only Red Cross worker at Lakeside Center dealing with the hundreds of people who are coming in response to a Buddhist group distributing money to the victims. About 20 Buddhist workers are there giving out $500 checks to anyone who has lost a home. Over 200 families are represented, resulting in hundreds of people standing in line under the hot sun. I give out water and food, listening to their stories and encouraging them.
When the Buddhists are done with their work, I hand several of them my book, Faith Through the Fire, as well as pamphlets with my testimony. They ask if they may keep them and when I say, “Sure,” they are deeply appreciative and bow as they thank me. I am asked if I might be interviewed on camera for a program that will be aired on nationwide television in Taiwan – which I am happy to do. The interviewer asks what I am doing there, where I am from and about my organization. During the ten-minute interview I share about traveling the world, then give an overview of the ministry.
Ping Yao and Jennie, two Buddhist workers (see photo) follow me to my car where I give them books and copies of my testimony. Upon receiving these materials, they are so excited that they take footage of the covers to air on their program! We are confident that God touched many lives through the books and testimony on Taiwanese television.
Nicole is another who has lost her home. As I offer her counsel and try to arrange for food, clothes and financial aid, she tells me her story with tears flowing down her face. She works at Albertson’s grocery store and has a 15-year-old daughter and a 17-year-old son. She lost everything when her apartment burned to the ground along with all the contents. There was no insurance; she was staying with friends. Her 17-year-old son was so distraught he ran away four days after the fire and she has not heard from him since. Her biggest fear is the uncertainty – not knowing what to do or where to go.
A firefighter comes up and thanks me for giving my time to help the people in his city. “No, ”I respond, “you are the one to be thanked for risking your life to put out these fires.”
I Know You
I approach a woman and offer her water and snacks while she waits in the hot sun to get financial aid. She looks intently at me and says, “Aren’t you Tabitha’s father? I heard you speak at my church.” Then she offers her own story – how she and her husband had lost everything in the fire. She is overjoyed to have, so unexpectedly, run into me, knowing I have come so far.
Shortly after, a young woman looking my way says, “I know you! I heard you speak and I have all of your books and love them!” Her name is Susie and her husband, Dave. Susie relates that hearing me speak was the best thing that ever happened in their Christian walk. She tells me that all my books were lost in the fire, but is ecstatic when I say I have replacement books in my car – for her.
Wayne looks like a skinny, old-hippy, mountain man and Susan looks like a flower child from the 60s. They invite me to go to the bar where all the bikers hang out – at least where it used to be. They still meet at the remains of the bar to drink beer and whiskey. She tells me to be sure to bring some beer and whiskey.
I spot a man who looks rough and approach him to offer water and food. As he tells his story, I find he was an Army staff sergeant stationed in South Korea before retirement. He is most interested to learn that I had ministered to our military in South Korea several years ago. I asked if he is going to church. He says he is not, but that all of his family members are encouraging him to get back with the Lord and start attending church again. I say, “Tell your family that God sent a person all the way from Pennsylvania to meet you and tell you that it’s time for you to give your life back to the Lord and get back in church!” He smiles and assures me that he will do so.
Donna and Larry are staying with his brother Keith. Larry and Keith have not talked with each other in almost 10 years – primarily because they are both busy with their own lives. Now that Donna and Larry have lost their home, they are staying with Keith and his wife. Larry and Keith are having a wonderful time staying up until midnight, every night, talking and reminiscing about the past. Donna says to me, “Out of the bad, comes the good.”
Richard lives with his daughter and her husband and their four daughters. Joe, Richard’s daughter’s father-in-law, also lives with them. They have lost everything. They give an amazing account of how they escaped with no evacuation warning whatsoever. Hearing the horns of fleeing vehicles, they saw a wall of fire 200 feet high nearly on top of them! Richard says that since the fire, he hasn’t told anyone the things he is telling me. With tears in his eyes, but with deep thankfulness that he and his family are alive, he relives some of the horrible events.
Joe adds that they had only a few minutes to get out of the house and into their vehicles. He was trying to hose off the house when Richard screamed at him, “Joe, you are going to die!” Joe says those words stuck in his head; the heat so intense that his shirt nearly caught on fire and was steaming hot when he got into the vehicle. While speeding down the mountain from Wildcat Canyon through smoke, he passed three vehicles which had people inside who were incinerated.
Joe continued on, traveling 60 mph in their motor home. He swung around a corner to see, in the smoke, flashing lights and two fire trucks. When he slammed on the brakes, they locked up. He began sliding, certain he would hit the fire trucks and go up in flames. Instead, one fire truck happened to be pulling forward while the other was backing up! He slid right between them. Richard has no insurance and all he has are the clothes on his back. No clothes at the center fit him so I give him two of my shirts from my car. He is deeply appreciative.
At the End of the Day
… I went back to the Red Cross headquarters to report in. The Mental Health desk was right next to the Spiritual Care desk. In spite of the noisy room, one of the national directors of Mental Health overheard my report. He told me several accounts of first-hand (incredible) experiences over the years in dealing with people in other national disasters. He said, “There is no other explanation than that a Divine Being intervened.” I replied, “Maybe we need to switch you over from Mental Health to Spiritual Care.” He listened intently for several more minutes as I spoke of my faith in God.
Back at Lakeside on Friday (November 14) I dropped by to see how that center was doing. On Wednesday, with hundreds of people there, I had been the only Red Cross worker and the only chaplain. This day, there were five Red Cross workers and only about seven people needing help. I spent Saturday (November 15) at the Crest Emergency Relief Center. A woman said that out of the nine family homes in Crest, five were tot ally destroyed with only two left undamaged. Her own home and those of her two daughters were destroyed.
Eric (see photo at right) was a 47-year-old man whose house had burned many years before, when he was in junior high school. His wife had divorced him in 1995 and now he had lost everything again in the fire that destroyed the house he was renting. He also lost his vehicle restoration business and four of his rare model cars were completely destroyed. Like so many others, he had no insurance. I told him that if I was in his place, I would begin the quest to discover if there was a God, if He was trying to get my attention and what He wanted me to learn through all of this. I gave him my audio message Knowing God.
My next encounter was with two women who seemed devastated. After talking to and praying with them, I asked what insight or lesson had they gained. One of the women said, “I am getting my life right with God and spending more time with my family.” I replied, “You have gained far more from your loss than you ever would have gained if the fire never occurred.” They both agreed.
I talked to dozens of others, including a well-known pastor of a very large church who was working at the same Red Cross Station. And Ed, a friend of the ministry, drove down from Oceanside to assist me in any way needed.
On Sunday (November 16) I attended church services in a tent in Harbison Canyon conducted by Mark, the pastor who lost his church and home in the fire.
John was a 72-year-old man from Portugal, living alone since his wife died five years previously. He thanked me 10 times for the help I provided. Because I had a badge that said, “Chaplain”, he thought I was Mr. Chaplain.
Scott, a retired Marine, suffered partial loss of his house but had a great attitude. His parents had been killed in a car accident when he was 11. He was put in an orphanage, but his younger brother and sister were adopted. His youthful anger led a judge to give him the option of going to prison or enlisting in the Marines. He said the Marines provided the discipline he needed and he is doing great. It was hard for him to say goodbye to me – and even harder when I told him I would be returning to Pennsylvania in a few days.
I also had the opportunity to share and minister to several Red Cross workers who were exhausted and emotionally burned out.
On Tuesday (November 18), before leaving for Pennsylvania, I went to Harbison Canyon to the burned down bar where people still met to drink. No one was there so I left some Courage to Stand Alone and God In The Storm audio messages.
It was a privilege to have served with the Red Cross and have such awesome opportunities to help, encourage and minister as a chaplain for two weeks to hundreds of people at several evacuation centers and also at the sites of their burned homes. So many more stories to tell.
There were also Christian organizations and churches such as Samaritan’s Purse, Billy Graham Association and Horizon Christian Fellowship who provided hundreds of local volunteers and equipment as well as others from out of state who assisted the fire victims in every way possible. As Christians we were able to offer both humanitarian aid and hope through Jesus Christ.
I was greatly encouraged by the victims’ courage, determination and attitude in the midst of such tragic loss. In spite of the heart-wrenching stories of devastation, there were many amazing accounts of divine protection and personal victories. Many testified of renewed faith, restored relationships, changed lifestyles, lessons learned, and new and rearranged priorities. For many, their gains were far greater than their losses. Out of the ashes came many people refined through the fire.
In the Aftermath
Following 9/11, a window opened temporarily in New York where you could talk to anybody about Jesus. So too, in California, this same door opened and virtually everyone I met was receptive to hearing about faith in Jesus Christ.
Everyday for weeks I had flashbacks in the daytime and dreams at night of the sights I saw, faces of the people I met and the stories they told me.
Also for weeks, because of the smoke and debris I inhaled, I spit up black phlegm; my lungs did not stop hurting and I was unable to get a full breath of air in my left lung until nearly four years later. Less than six months after our experience in the California wildfires (March 2004) Karen was diagnosed with cancer. I wonder if the trauma and stress of the fires and smoke did not contribute to it? (Fourteen years ago the oncologist gave her five years to live.)
Over the years, we have heard from many people who were victimized by the fires; of how the Lord has, and is, working in their lives. One woman now pastors a church; a couple who lost their baby served as missionaries to Africa; Todd, miraculously recovered, has two sons. He and his wife faithfully support BRM; Sherry the nurse, wrote every Christmas as she was able for many years. Here is one such letter:
Hi Bill, Just want to thank you so very much for the book and newsletters from your ministry – loved seeing the pictures of you and the memories it brought. Actually came at a perfect time as I am usually pretty “up” but had been feeling “down” – lifted my spirit greatly! I “re-listened” to the CD you had given me at the California wildfires. I felt a real bond with you from the minute we first spoke – guess God was trying to tell me something. I have been going to church pretty regularly for about two years. May God keep you safe in your travels in His work. Sherry L., San Diego