While the town of Yarnell, Ariz., tries to piece itself back together after last month's devastating wildfire, United Church of Christ congregations in neighboring communities are ready to lend a helping hand. The fire, started by a lightning strike on June 28, killed 19 firefighters from the Granite Mountain Hotshot crew and destroyed more than 100 homes before it was fully contained on July 10. Ever since, area congregations have been busy raising money, gathering supplies and organizing volunteers, and are committed to long-term recovery efforts.
"We've all been a little shell-shocked by the deaths of these brave men, by the deep grief and sadness of their families, and by the loss of so many folks who have no home to go back to," said the Rev. Jane Cheek, pastor of First Congregational Church UCC in Prescott, Ariz., located about 30 miles north of Yarnell. "This is such a small town and the immediate outpouring of assistance from the outside world has been huge."
Members of First Congregational UCC decided to focus their efforts on helping the people of Yarnell rebuild their homes. They held a pancake breakfast fundraiser on July 6, and, combined with their sister church, Casas Adobes Congregational Church UCC in Tucson, have raised almost $4,000 for the cause. Many members have also organized the collection of household items and clothing and have volunteered at local donation centers. The group has been in contact with leadership in Yarnell to see what items are most needed. Practical things like heaters, air conditioning units, and yard and household tools have been in highest demand, Cheek said.
The congregation is also encouraging people to donate to the Arizona Community Foundation, which is matching dollar-for-dollar gifts to its disaster relief fund. The organization has so far raised more than $960,000 to support long-term recovery efforts, including relief for displaced families and individuals, animal welfare, environmental needs, community clean-up, rebuilding and more. For those who want to help in a different way, Cheek has received letters and emails from UCC members throughout the country expressing sympathy, prayers and support.
"The support from our denomination has been amazing," she said.
Like any disaster relief effort, Cheek knows it's best for the group to wait and see where their time, money and supplies are most needed before sending anything or anyone to Yarnell. While they wait for direction from Yarnell leadership, the group will continue to organize, prepare, and display the banner on the front of their building that calls for "prayers for those who lost, and for those who still fight."
"We have taken the approach of ‘wait and see' where our funds and time can be best used in the near future, when things settle down a little and we can make connections with folks who need direct assistance," Cheek said.