(from New York) Only the cross on the roof withstood the flames that have ravaged classrooms, offices, furnishings and walls. All is left of the “Cardinal Newman” High School are a few planks: it was devastated by blazes on the same day of the liturgical celebration of the Cardinal to whom the school is entitled. The kindergarten burnt down as well as the roof, while part of the gym adjacent the elementary school was damaged. Monsignor Robert F. Vasa is the bishop of Santa Rosa, California’s diocese that was most heavily hit by the wildfire disaster. 23 people have died since the fire broke out, while 250 are reported missing. “Our diocese has been hit hard, and is in an ongoing state of uncertainty. Most of the 17 wildfires that are devastating the region, are concentrated in three of our counties”, he said in a message to the faithful. Strong winds are headed north-east, after having fanned the flames that burnt over 160 thousand acres of land, mostly in California’s wine country, and destroyed some 3500 structures. Figures released by the Forestry and Fire Protection Department are dramatic, and so is the estimated number of displaced persons: 50thousand, expected to increase by the hour.
“In the city they estimate that 1500 homes and businesses have been lost –added Monsignor Vasa – but the parishes are miraculously safe. A significant portion of Newman High School has been destroyed, I cannot estimate how much since the area of these schools is still in a mandatory evacuation zone.” The bishop was unable to go to the chancery since it remains in the mandatory evacuation zone. He moved his studio into his car.
“I drive for hours trying to visit evacuation centres, I have managed to visit the Cathedral and Finley’s community shelter. I have met many people who are in shelters and who have no home to which to return. The sense of great helplessness is palpable.”
Monsignor Vasa tries to console first those who lost their dear ones, and he embraces the suffering of those who have lost their homes, or businesses, or places of employment.
The city is covered by ash and the air is filled with white-grey smoke that blankets the mere red ball of the sun. The bishop had to comply with travel restrictions imposed by firefighters, but through the vicar he managed to contact all affected pastors who assured him on their health conditions. “All are safe”, he said with relief, especially after having learned that the local pastor of the area of Oakmont was told to evacuate the church. There is ongoing fire danger and Monsignor Vasa fears the number of casualties and property damage could increase. He commended all the caregivers “who have reached out so generously to the brothers and sisters in need” risking their own lives.
“They are doing their utmost – the prelate said -. Men and women have arrived from all the nearby counties to serve us all. They have a difficult task ahead of them and I know that their patience has been direly tried, since short-term solutions cannot meet the needs of families and of all evacuees currently hosted in the shelters. I thank them for their professionalism and I invite them to persevere.”
When asked what can be done to help the diocese, the prelate answered in clear terms: “I appreciate your prayers and we are grateful for them, but at the same time I ask you to help all those who lost everything they had in Sonoma, Napa, Lake, Mendocino, Calistoga, Clearlake, Willits, Ukiah, Windsor, Oakmont and Yountville. So many communities were hit and it’s impossible to name them all, but I pray that nobody loses hope.” The prelate invited to give emotional support as well and money donations “and your own home if you are inspired to do so.”
“Imagine yourselves and your families going through what thousands of people are going through right now, and act accordingly.”
On the Facebook page of the diocese people are posting their thoughts, videos, prayers, and they start to respond to the bishop’s appeal. But the wildfires continue to blaze, burning land and homes, despite the relentless efforts of hundreds of firefighters who arrived from across California. “There have been severe fires in the past, but this is one of the most massive wildfire ever”, said the Governor of California Jerry Brown.