“We do love you. We do pray for you. And we’re so grateful to those of you who are caring for each other,” Elder Ronald A. Rasband of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints told fire survivors in Santa Rosa, California. Elder Rasband and other Church leaders, including Sister Joy D. Jones, Primary general president, were in Northern California over the weekend to visit with members who were impacted by the recent wildfires.
“I pray the Lord will bless you to know you’re not alone,” the Mormon apostle told the congregation. “Not only are you surrounded by those who love you here, [but] that you might know that literally the whole Church is praying for you.”
“My heart is full,” said Sister Jones, who lived in Santa Rosa for 14 years with her husband, Robert, and their family before they moved to Utah. “It has been difficult to watch the devastation that has occurred. We are humbled to be in your midst.” She was joined by her husband for the visit.
The Primary president told the congregation Friday night about the recent passing of her 36-year-old son, Trevor, who was one of their three oldest children raised in Santa Rosa. He died of cancer, leaving behind a wife and five children.
Sister Jones said the experience of losing her son strengthened her faith. “The trials you have been called upon to endure these past weeks and in the time to come are an opportunity for your spiritual growth,” she told the congregation.
“We’ve been so buoyed by the love and the support of those locally and churchwide,” said Veronica Darrimon, wife of local Mormon bishop Allan Darrimon. “I just feel incredibly grateful.”
The couple lost their home several weeks ago as fire swept through the Coffey Park neighborhood of Santa Rosa. Elder Rasband, Sister Jones and their spouses visited with the Darrimons and other families who lost their homes in the devastated neighborhood during a Saturday morning tour of the area.
“When something like this happens, we all need one another,” Elder Rasband told the residents as he walked through the ashes to see firsthand what was left of their homes. “The old adage ‘no man is an island, no man stands alone’—that thought has come to my mind here this morning as I’ve seen how these wonderful brothers and sisters who have lost every earthly possession have just loved being with each other and look to each other for love and comfort.”
“Our plan is to just take a breath,” said Veronica Darrimon. “We’re not in a rush. We want to be wise in this process. This isn’t our skill set, so we’re trying to learn and collect the information from the experts around us and just take a pause and just appreciate what we do have.”
She said they have found an apartment to live in for now because it will be about two years before they can rebuild their home. “First, we have to have all the toxic waste removed from this area.” That means Mormon Helping Hands won’t be rushing in to help residents clean up their neighborhoods as they have done with other natural disasters, including the recent hurricanes and earthquakes in Texas, Florida and Mexico. Crews from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) were working in the neighborhood on Saturday.
The EPA teams methodically inspect and remove possible toxic items from each property before declaring it safe. Owners such as the Darrimons can then begin searching the ashes for recoverable family heirlooms.
Members Tim and Jenny Sjoden also lived in the Coffey Park neighborhood. Jenny has stayed strong for her family. “It’s like Novocain. I’m worried when it’s going to wear off, and then the pain is going to kick in. … I haven’t allowed myself [to think about it].” She spends 8 to 10 hours a day “trying to do the logistics of everything,” which has included paperwork.
“Our home is where our family is,” added Tim. “One of the hardest things for me to do is get in my pickup at the end of the day, and go to leave the yard, and not know where I’m going. I’m not going home anymore. That’s the hard part.”
Jenny continued, “It doesn’t matter if we’re sleeping on the floor of the church, friends’ couches, wherever we’re at—that’s our home.”
“In the eternal scheme of things, may I just say the home that many of you have lost … is not the home that you were seeking ultimately,” said Sister Jones at the Friday night meeting. “Yes, you must have a temporal shelter, again, a place you call home for you and your family,” But, she said, our eternal homes can be found in heaven.
“I feel in my heart to promise that things are going to get better,” said Elder Rasband. “Somehow, someway, doors are going to open, windows are going to open. Even the windows and the doors of heaven. It may not all be temporal. There will be other kinds of blessings—spiritual, mental, emotional. But they will come, I so promise.”
It could take years for Northern California to recover from the wildfires that have consumed 8,900 structures, mostly homes and businesses, and claimed 43 lives.
Sunday morning, the Church leaders traveled north to the agricultural community of Loma Rica for a special sacrament meeting.
Ian Peitz, a rancher in Loma Rica and first counselor in the local Mormon bishopric, was awakened early one morning by blowing wind that knocked something over outside his home. Peitz woke up his family so they could evacuate. He said they barely made it out in time as flames came within 300 yards of his house. His nine-year-old daughter was concerned about her friends’ houses as they made their escape.
“We lost about 400 of the 435 acres that we have; every outbuilding. We lost five barns, three wells, pool house, a gathering place where we had all our family reunions … but all the three houses on the ranch remained, which was a true blessing,” he said.
After the meeting, Elder and Sister Rasband shook hands with congregation members who stood in a line to meet them before dinner was served in the meetinghouse. The Primary children also sang a song to Sister Jones during her visit to Loma Rica.
Aleah is a graduate of Southern Virginia University, where she studied English, Creative Writing, and Dance. She now works full time as a marketing and product manager, writer, and editor. Aleah served a mission in California and loves baking, Lang Leav poetry, Gaynor Minden pointe shoes, and Bollywood movies.