Long recovery ahead for communities hit by wildfires

SANTA ROSA, Calif. — The Diocese of Santa Rosa "has been hit hard" and "is in an ongoing state of uncertainty" because of Northern California wildfires that began the night of Oct. 8, said Bishop Robert F. Vasa.

At least 12 major fires were raging across the region, according to news reports. Of those 12, at least five were zero to 5 percent contained, and the rest were 15 to 70 percent contained. Fanned by warm winds, they devastated a vast swath of North California's wine country and forced 20,000 to evacuate. They left at least 17 people dead, and at least 180 others were missing.

"Santa Rosa is extremely smoky with the sun a mere red ball," the bishop wrote Oct. 10. He also noted that for the many hundreds who have lost their homes, "the sense of great helplessness is palpable."

A CNN report noted how fast-moving the fires are, saying they "torched 20,000 acres in 12 hours." Local civic authorities said factors that contributed to the rapid spread of the flames included dry conditions, high-speed winds and lots of vegetation. More than 17 fires were burning across the state; more than 115,000 acres had burned.

The bishop reported that most of the parishes in the Santa Rosa Diocese were fine but that a Catholic high school and elementary school that share a campus suffered damage. Early reports indicated that "a significant portion" of the high school had been destroyed.

After Cardinal Newman High School officials were able to assess the damage, they reported that the news was better than first thought and that most of the high school's facilities, including the chapel and retreat center, were "unscathed." However, the library, the main office building and portable buildings that housed several classrooms were lost. Another classroom building suffered roof damage and some of its windows were blown out.

The diocesan chancery also was "in the heart of a severely fire damaged part of the city but fortunately was entirely spared," Bishop Vasa stated, but it was being used as an evacuation center and would remain closed to diocesan staff.

"In the city, they estimate that 1,500 homes and businesses have been lost," he continued. "I have met numerous folks who are in shelters and who have no home to which to return. The sense of great helplessness is palpable.

The six-county Diocese of Santa Rose includes four of the counties hit hard by the fires — Sonoma, Napa, Lake and Mendocino counties. Bishop Vasa called on all Catholics of the diocese to help their brothers and sisters who "have been severely impacted by the devastating fires and are in immediate need of your prayers. Please do not hesitate to offer your help though ongoing prayer, donations, and emotional support." 

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