People across the San Joaquin Valley have been rallying to assist evacuees from the Creek Fire. For one family, the gift of a tent led to a change in outlook.
When Matthew Warner and his family were evacuated from their home in Tollhouse last week, they weren’t planning on camping, but they have three farm dogs that make finding a hotel room difficult.
Like so many other families living in the path of the Creek Fire, Warner, his mother and sister and their dogs left their home quickly on Labor Day after receiving an evacuation order. “We could actually see the horrible glow over the far ridge and we could hear it,” he says. “And we could hear pops, things that sounded like explosions.”
After putting their names on a list for pet-friendly accommodation with the Red Cross, the three of them spent that first night under the stars on a patch of grass outside Clovis Hills Community Church. “You know, just on the ground. We had blankets and everything,” he says.
The next day, Warner says, a parishioner drove by and was shocked to hear they hadn’t had shelter. “She just jumped up and insisted that I let her go get a tent,” he says.
Warner says he tried to talk her out of it, but she drove off, then returned with her arms full. “She brought us bug spray, she brought us washcloths, she brought us ice bags,” he says, tearing up. “Her name is Heidi. God bless you, Heidi.”
Between Heidi’s generosity, and the clothes, food and toiletries provided by the church, Warner says he’s been floored. “Restoring faith in humanity is certainly what this place does to someone,” he says. “It’s exactly how I feel. Like if I had no faith, or if I had only had a little bit, I have 10 times more now.”
Senior Pastor Shawn Beaty says he was happy to help Warner’s family and others looking to pitch a tent. “We were like, ‘well we got some grass,’” he said. “It’s an immediate need we want to reach. We’ll deal with how to get them housed next week.”
Just a few hundred feet away, the church’s front lawn looks like a flea market. Volunteers buzz between clothing racks set up by a side entrance and an enormous tent over tables overflowing with shampoo bottles, diapers, and mountains of bread, peanut butter and Cheerios boxes. It’s all freely available for evacuees.
Beaty says that he saw an opportunity to serve those displaced by the fire when he learned that the Red Cross, whose Clovis North High School evacuation center is located directly across the street, couldn’t accept direct donations of food, water and other supplies from members of the public. “We have a church with a couple thousand people in it,” he says. “We started collecting donations and before you know it…they all hit their own social network for donations, the whole community’s come.”
In partnership with other churches in the area, Beaty estimates they've served thousands of evacuees so far. He says he’s heartened to see so many people coming together at the church, especially since COVID-19 has meant he hasn’t been allowed to hold indoor services for months. “It’s beautiful,” he says, smiling with arms wide. “That’s why we built this place. You know, there’s a big sign here that says ‘Welcome Home.’ And we want that for everyone.”
Nearly a week later, Warner’s family is still living on the patch of grass alongside two other tents. He says it’s okay, and that they feel safe. For solace, he’s finding beauty in the photos he took at their home just a few days before evacuating.