The images are horrific—photos of homes and businesses ravenously consumed by raging infernos, videos of people fleeing for their lives through the maelstrom of engulfing flames and choking smoke about to overtake them.
Roaring across the landscape at a rate of one football field in length every three seconds, the Northern California wildfires that broke out in early October, incinerating the heart of wine country, are all-too-real to those in the midst of the deadly catastrophe. With entire cities evacuated—and entire neighborhoods destroyed—piles of smoldering or melted debris are all that remains of homes, businesses, and lives.
In 2017 alone, according to the state’s Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, nearly 7,900 wildfires have torched close to 900,000 acres of land—and still counting.
Yet rising out of the ashes is a type of beauty not often seen in the divisive clamor of everyday life. Observes TSgt Ryan Padgett, USAF, an OCF member stationed at Travis Air Force Base, “The wildfires have provided an opportunity for the church to function as God intended it to do. It’s a really cool thing to see, a little touch of heaven even.
Photo courtesy of the 146th Airlift Wing
View from the flight deck of the MAFFS 6, from the California National Guard’s 146th Airlift Wing.
“No one’s talking politics. There aren’t ideological lines separating others. Everyone’s pitching in to help out one another. People coming together in unity to help out one another, working together for a common cause. And in the process, lifelong friends are being forged through the fires that wouldn’t occur any other way. Police, first responders, the community—all are drawing closer together.”
Not a military chaplain but a volunteer chaplain for the Fairfield, California, police department, TSgt Padgett coordinates efforts with local businesses to help fire fighters, police, and first responders in their work. “If you ask most companies, they will step up to help—and will do so on a daily basis. One business is donating coffee and cases of energy drinks at $200 a pop each day,” he said.
He’s also the public relations point of contact for the volunteer effort at Travis Air Force Base, helping raise money and collecting food, blankets, toiletries for shelters and other local churches and organizations coming alongside those who left everything behind in the Napa Valley fires except for the shirts on their backs.
Even with roughly 75 percent of his unit deployed to do relief work in Puerto Rico, which was ravaged by Hurricane Maria in late September, some 40 airmen from different squadrons immediately stepped forward to help when the squadron commander asked for volunteers. From their military experience they immediately developed a plan, assigned tasks in areas of expertise, and pitched in to do whatever needed to be done.
“These airmen just want to serve, whether in their military service or to the community,” said TSgt Padgett. “In addition to helping on the tasks, many of them also gave from their own resources on the GoFundMe page we set up.”
“Listen to others in their pain. If you can, fill a practical need—a glass of water, where a shelter is, a place to get a meal. Those little things make a big difference.” —TSgt Ryan Padgett, USAF
Asked about what he’s seeing and experiencing in the wildfire disaster, TSgt Padgett said, “It’s heartbreaking to see a city of 1,500 homes reduced to rubble.” Among the police and first responders he’s assisting, he said there’s a “serious get-to-work” tone because of the daunting scope of demands upon them.
And on the civilian side, “there’s a profound, deep undercurrent of fear, because ‘wildfires and displacement—those things happen to other people, and now it’s happened to me.’ They’re scared. Everyone knows the fire is there—and they don’t know what to do,” he said.
“Since I was in uniform, a frightened woman in a restaurant was asking me what she should do. One thing I encouraged her to do was to pack a 3-day bag ready to take just in case we’d all be evacuated too.” He and his family themselves have their 3-day packs ready to go.
As a servant leader being the hands and heart of Christ to others in life’s tragedies, TSgt Padgett suggested that helping others is as simple as being aware of the ways you can do so. “Listen to others in their pain. If you can, fill a practical need—a glass of water, where a shelter is, a place to get a meal. Those little things make a big difference.
“As it’s said, people don’t care what you know; they want to know you care,” he said.
When the reaction to help others in a calamity eventually tapers off, what are some ways servant leaders can continue modeling true Christ-like service to others? “Most people walk through everyday life with blinders on,” said TSgt Padgett. “When there’s a clear need, they come off and most people try to help in some way.
“Be that someone who gives a glass of water to someone needing it. Or just walk with them in their pain. Rejoice with them. Cry with them. When you ask someone how they’re doing, stop to listen. Be quick to listen, slow to speak. Be inconvenienced—go out of your way to help someone. It cost the Good Samaritan time and money to help someone (Luke 10:33).”
Asked about the inevitable rejoinder of “where’s God in all this?” when disasters strike, TSgt Padgett replied, “God is not an evil god. He uses unfortunate circumstances to draw us closer together, laying it on the hearts of others to take care of each other. It’s only through being vulnerable in our lives that we can be blessed by Him through others working to help us.
“God’s there if you truly stop to look for Him, in the way strangers are helping strangers. No one is doing this as a show or for a pat on the back. Cups of cold water, as spoken of in the Bible (Mark 9:41), are literally being handed out to share with others. They’re sharing water, the thing they have, because it’s the right thing to do.
“It’s been encouraging to see local churches rally together to help others, living our lives as a family as we are meant by God to live. As it is said, we’re to preach the Gospel at all times, using words only when necessary.”