By Patrick Scriven
When Kathy Bryson volunteered to support the disaster response to 2018’s Woolsey Fire outside of Los Angeles, she didn’t know that 2020 would bring with it the opportunity to apply her experience closer to home.
Gathered at a Disaster Assistance Center set up by Los Angeles County at the Conrad Hilton Foundation building with volunteers from the California-Pacific Conference of The United Methodist Church among numerous other organizations, their early response team was on hold due to county and state regulations. A fellow member used the time to start building ash sifters — simple wooden boxes with a chicken wire or mesh screen — designed to help recover lost items that may have survived the flames. Each morning, people eager to retrieve something they had lost quickly claimed the available ash sifters.
Serving as Disaster Response Coordinators for the Pacific Northwest Conference, Kathy along with her husband Dana, closely monitor reports of wildfires across Northern Idaho and Washington State. They were already helping to shepherd a United Methodist response to the Palmer Fire near Oroville, WA, when hot, dry conditions coupled with high winds sparked a historic fire event across Washington on September 7th. Among these fires was one that mostly destroyed the towns of Malden and Pine City in the Palouse region.
Kathy shared that she woke up in the middle of the night soon after, remembering the ash sifters from her time spent in California. The following day she reached out to her pastor, Rev. Mark McMurray, about the possibility of a pilot project to provide ash sifters as part of the United Methodist response to this season’s fires. Kennewick First UMC’s church council quickly considered and approved a plan to support this Pacific Northwest Conference pilot project. Cheney UMC was also willing to take on the project. The ash sifters were now in production.
The first batch of fifteen sifters accompanied Kathy on a trip to Malden packaged with gloves, goggles, a mask, and EPA safety guidance. Another batch made their way to Wenatchee First UMC, ready to supply a planned resource center in Omak in response to the Okanogan County fires.
Sifters and stories shared in Malden
Spokane Valley UMC pastor, Rev. Mike Graef, was eager to be a part of the response to those who lost so much in the fires which tore through Malden. Crediting the influence of Rosalee Mohney, a lay member of his church, he shared that he knew he “was supposed to move my feet there.”
After attending an early community meeting following the devastating fire, Graef brought a batch of sifters to the Multi-Agency Resource Center held at the temporary Malden City Hall last weekend. He discovered that while people appreciated the sifters, they really want to talk.
“It’s deeply impactful to see the changes in people’s faces in the three times I’ve been to Malden. As Spokane Valley UMC layperson Steve Hasner and I set up our UMCOR table, there were even a few smiles. The real gift was some of the people that came and took a sifter stayed and talked for 10-15 minutes. As they told their story and shared their pain, you begin to see in 3D what it’s like to get the very first steps under you, after you’ve lost everything.”
Rev. Graef was also moved to see Carlene Anders, who worked closely with United Methodist Volunteers in Missions “Rebuild” teams after the Carlton complex fires, at the meeting. Now Mayor of Pateros, Carlene Anders held the full attention of the community meeting – “it does take years, but you WILL get through it.” After speaking, Anders spent more than an hour speaking with community members, letting them vent, giving them perspective, comfort and counsel.
Avoiding the Second Disaster
Immediately after a disaster strikes, it is natural for people to respond as they see and hear images and stories of the ordeal. Disaster response experts are quick to note some challenges that commonly arise due to this. Well-intentioned, but often unneeded, donations of things often flood in for survivors after news coverage of a disaster. After an earthquake struck Haiti in 2010, a box of Frisbees arrived from a donor in Germany. Stories abound of people cleaning out their closets and dumping off their excess to ‘do some good.’
Whatever the intention, this type of generosity works at cross purposes, diverting critical resources toward managing a makeshift Goodwill of unneeded things. Meeting specific requests, or giving money, is far better than anticipating what the need might be from afar.
Because of their experience and training in recovery efforts, the Brysons were well-positioned to anticipate a community need before it was named. Still, Kathy was quick to identify the ash sifters as a pilot project and careful to offer it humbly.
“We didn’t want to assume that the sifters would be useful and needed in this disaster just because they had been in California. Those first 15 sifter kits went fast in Malden. The Whitman County Emergency Manager recognized how much people wanted the sifters and immediately asked us to produce another fifty for the next meeting.”
As the Church continues to learn the importance of being engaged in relational dialogue with those communities it aspires to serve, the same approach is valuable in the world of disaster response. Training and experience are essential elements in anticipating needs. Still, even then, some humility in offering assistance will go a long way toward making sure that we serve in ways that bring both hope and dignity.
To learn more about our disaster response ministry in the Pacific Northwest Conference and future training opportunities, please contact Dana and Kathy Bryson at (509) 539-2978, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Patrick Scriven is a husband who married well, a father of three amazing girls, and a seminary educated layperson working professionally in the church. Scriven serves the Pacific Northwest Conference as Director of Communications and Young People’s Ministries.