Thy Fire to Refine

How California’s Wildfires Have Sparked Embers of Faith

In California, it’s that time again. Like a nightmarish version of Groundhog  Day, fire season has once again reared its hellish head. And the 2021 season is looking grim. The combination of a less-than-average snowpack, forecasted higher-than-average temperatures, an influx of people into remote areas, and the typical monsoon season has Californian officials worried. It was hard enough to recover from the 2020 fire season, the most damaging season ever, which burned nearly 4.4 million acres. Another record-breaking season would be unthinkable.

But the effects of the wildfires go far beyond material possessions turning into ash and charred metal. According to Patricia Watson, a psychologist at the National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, “10 to 30 percent of wildfire survivors develop diagnosable mental-health conditions, including PTSD and depression.”1 Add to this the hodgepodge of personal, logistical, and financial difficulties that wildfire victims typically experience and you get a picture of how bleak things can get. In situations like these, finding ways to experience a little bit of a “balm in Gilead” becomes crucial to weathering the storm.

Hungry and Ye Gave Me Meat

On November 8, 2018, California experienced it’s most devastating, single wildfire in recorded history— the Camp Fire. The fire wiped out the city of Paradise, leaving 88 people dead and destroying 18,804 structures. Everyone suffered horribly, including members of my own church, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Church). In fact, of the 1,399 member homes that were located on the Paradise ridge, only six remained completely intact. People had no choice but to start over.

The response from the community was encouraging. The Church opened its facilities in Chico, California, and—for the first five days—served 750 people a day with food and clothing. Local community leaders kept busy organizing clothing and food donations and finding places to house the victims. Many in the community began referring to the Church’s storehouse as “the grocery store without a cash register.”2 Countless other things were done to serve these newly homeless individuals.

Serving the evacuees gave the community a perfect opportunity to practice the Lord’s parable that he taught in Matthew 25: “For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger and ye took me in.”3 On certain occasions, we may encounter individuals who stand in extreme need. God asks us to step up and look after our fellow citizens. He wants us to be temporary redeemers for the destitute and distressed. Not only does this service help recipients feel love and light, but it also elevates the spiritual well-being of the giver. In fact, without service, our spiritual growth would be severely limited.

More Prayers Please

In September 2005, Hurricane Rita, the most intense cyclone that had ever been observed in the Gulf of Mexico, was headed straight to Houston. Elder Stanley G. Ellis, a leader in the Church’s North America Southwest Area, was asked to lead the emergency response effort. As the storm approached, a major question on Elder Ellis’ mind was whether to issue an evacuation order for all Church members. Ultimately, he felt inspired to ask all the organization’s local leaders and member families to prayerfully consider the situation and receive their own inspiration for what they should do. As the events played out, it became apparent that God knew what was best for each family.

Church leaders in one area, for example, knew they were directly in the hurricane’s path and advised all members to evacuate. The local leader and his wife evacuated to the house of his sister. But then the hurricane veered and was heading in their direction again. Many would consider this a stroke of bad luck, but it turned out that this leader helped his sister prepare for the hurricane. They actually arrived at his sister’s house in enough time to help her get ready for the storm. When it hit, the damage to her house was minimal.

In the case of Elder Ellis, he felt that he should not evacuate. He and his family waited out the storm. Not only did they safely weather the storm, but they assisted other people in the area.4

I’m certain that many quiet prayers were offered up to God when the Camp Fire engulfed Paradise. One such prayer came from Brynn Chatfield, an active member of the Church. Brynn recalled that after she and her husband Jeremy had finished loading the car and picked up a local community member off the side of the road on their way out, for 45 horrifying seconds, hot flames brushed up against both sides of the vehicle. Brynn was worried that the heat would pop the car’s tires. She did the only thing she could—she offered a prayer. “Heavenly Father, please help us. Please help us to be safe. I am thankful for Jeremy and his willingness to be brave.”5 The passengers made it out of the fire safely. Experiences such as these remind me of the scripture “the effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man (or woman) availeth much.”6

Kevin W. Pearson, a Church leader in the Northern California area, related how story after story was relayed to him of individuals experiencing miracles, allowing them to escape the fire’s path. Certainly, many of these individuals must have offered up prayers similar to Brynn Chatfield’s. The power of prayer goes far beyond anything we can understand.

Fire’s Corruption

Moth and Rust Doth Corrupt

When Jack and Janet Reisner lost their home to the Tubbs Fire in Santa Rosa in October, 2017, it reminded them of a truth—when we leave this life we can’t bring along our material possessions. It was as if the fire had given them an experience that all who die comprehend once they get to the other side of the veil, only the Reisner’s were allowed to go on living. Jack got the main point. “But when we leave this life you don’t get to take those with you. The fire reminded us that moth and rust doth corrupt. Fire corrupts too.” He continued, “Things changed. Life didn’t change. I’m still the same person. Life’s going on.”7 It seems that God may allow us to plunge into bitter experiences so we can be reminded of eternal truths, even if it means going through something as drastic as losing all of our belongings.

Allan Darrimon, another victim of the Tubbs Fire, took heart during this trying time. Having spent the first 32 years of life without God’s influence, he said he would have felt more panicked had he not had the companionship of the Holy Ghost and held an eternal perspective. “Staying connected with Heavenly Father through the Holy Spirit and using the guidance and advice of our brother Jesus Christ is everything” was just one of the thoughts he shared as he was being interviewed.8 With so much taken away from him, some people may not have blamed him had he remained embittered from the tragedy. Yet, Bishop Darrimon spent the whole week tending to more heavenly matters—the people in his congregation who were also victims of the fire—and making sure their needs were met.

Beauty for Ashes

I remember several years ago when I lived in Texas that a man who held a major level of responsibility in our congregation confided in the Bishop and me that one of the primary reasons he returned to church was because his house had almost burned to the ground. Apparently, the experience had been so jolting that he looked deeply into his own life and determined he needed to be closer to God. Him attending church was a wonderful blessing for the congregation. He started down a road that would change both him and his family for the better.

In the book of Isaiah, we read, “Behold, I have refined thee, but not with silver; I have chosen thee in the furnace of affliction.”9 Stories like the Chatfield’s, Reisner’s, and Darrimon’s remind us of the spiritual refinement that can result from a literal furnace of affliction. These families, along with many others, may have lost most of their temporal possessions, but they were reminded of certain truths that will serve them and bless their lives immeasurably into the eternities. It’s a holy exchange.


  1. Jacob Stern, “A Mental-Health Crisis Is Burning Across the American West,” The Atlantic, July 2020.
  2. Sarah Jane Weaver, “Hope in Paradise: What Latter-day Saint victims of devastating California fire are doing  to move forward,” The Church News, Jan. 12, 2019.
  3. Matt. 25:35
  4. Stanley G. Ellis, “Natural Disasters: We Don’t Have to Be Afraid.” The Ensign, Aug. 2012.
  5. Sarah Jane Weaver, “Hope in Paradise: What Latter-day Saint victims of devastating California fire are doing  to move forward,” The Church News, Jan. 12, 2019.
  6. Jm. 5:16
  7. Tad Walch, “Hunted by fire: How members of one LDS ward survived California’s firestorm,” Oct. 15, 2017,
  8. Tad Walch, “Hunted by fire: How members of one LDS ward survived California’s firestorm,” Oct. 15, 2017,
  9. Isa. 48:10