SANTA BARBARA, CA (December 13, 2017) – Although the Thomas Fire, which has darkened the sky with smoke and dropped inches of ash, has caused much of the city to evacuate, two Covenant pastors in Santa Barbara have remained, saying they believe it’s important to have “a ministry of availability” for other residents who stayed.
“I’m glad I did stay,” said Jon Ireland, pastor of Oceanhills Covenant Church and a local resident for 32 years. Two members of his congregation have had strokes in recent days, and he has been able to minister to them and their families.
“I just felt like I needed to stay for people who might need a pastor,” said Ian Noyes, pastor of Montecito Covenant Church.
Most area churches canceled services this past Sunday, but both Oceanhills and Montecito held worship, although attendance was only 10 to 20 percent of normal.
Both pastors described Santa Barbara as a ghost town. Tens of thousands of people have fled, largely due to the smoke. Earlier this week Noyes called the scene “apocalyptic.”
“Everyone is wearing masks,” Ireland said. “It’s like being in Beijing.”
The smoke has been so thick that midday looks like nighttime. For several days, the smoke hid the ocean, Noyes said.
The smoke and accompanying smell also is seeping into the homes. Ireland said he had to drive to Los Angeles to purchase an air purifier. There were none available locally.
The Samarkand, a Covenant Retirement Community, has not been in immediate danger from the fire, but residents were encouraged to stay inside according to community officials. Masks were distributed to the residents and staff.
The wind that has pushed the fire has decreased, which has slowed the fire’s progress and has died down for the moment. That has enabled the staff to begin cleanup.
As it enters its second week, the Thomas Fire already is the fifth largest in the state’s history. It has stretched more than 370 square miles—an area bigger than Dallas—since it started on December 4. Firefighters have struggled to contain the blaze, which is one of several burning in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties.
The fire has re-traumatized some residents who lost their homes in the Tea Fire that swept through Santa Barbara and Montecito in November 2008. That fire destroyed several hundred homes. At least one currently evacuated family who lost their home in the Tea Fire has told Ireland that they probably will make plans to relocate because they can’t bear to go through the trauma again.
Ireland is a chaplain for the Santa Barbara Fire Department, and he expressed admiration for the work of the thousands of firefighters who have descended on the area.
“They have a system, and they’re organized—but it’s a big fire,” he said.