SAN BERNARDINO COUNTY, CALIF. — It’s six o’clock in the evening as Daniel Magallanes, a Knight of Columbus from St. Juan Diego Council 13469 in Adelanto, Calif., arrives at base camp for a briefing about the ongoing El Dorado wildfire. He is part of the second shift that will fight the blaze throughout the night until ten in the morning.
Even though Magallanes is a seasoned veteran — he has been a firefighter for 16 years — this year, like every year, is different.
“The year has been more intense,” Magallanes said. “Even with my experience, it has gotten scarier for me because I think of my family.”
The job has taken Magallanes away from his wife, Gabriela, and their four children for periods of weeks, and the hardest is the uncertainty of whether he’ll see them again. Not everyone leaves the work alive — Magallanes’ friend Charlie Morton went missing around 8 p.m. on Sept. 17 while battling the El Dorado Fire. His body was found the next morning.
“A lot of time where we’re fighting the fires, there’s no cell service, so I can’t call my wife to let her know I’m okay,” Magallanes said. “It’s hard for all of us, not just for the firefighters on the line, but for the family members at home not knowing if they’ll hear from us or see us again.”
Whenever he approaches a work site and the fear begins creeping in, he takes a breath and says a prayer with his rosary.
“There’s nothing that I can do except leave it in the hands of God, and it calms my nerves,” he said. “I have that faith in God that he’s going to get us out of there.”
LEARN MORE ABOUT MAGALLANES’ STORY OF FAITH.
Magallanes spent 14 days in the inferno of the El Dorado and Dome Fires in California. The former has burnt nearly 19,000 acres in the Oak Glen area, while the latter has destroyed 40,000 acres in the Mojave Nature Preserve.
Those two wildfires are among others that have spanned the western United States, ravaging millions of acres and displacing tens of thousands of people in Oregon and California. This includes at least four California Knights who have lost their homes.
Members of the Knights of Columbus are no strangers to helping people affected by disasters. Whether it’s hurricanes, earthquakes, fires, floods, or tornadoes, Knights are often among the first to help with recovery and the last to leave. Last year, the Supreme Council gave more than $1.3 million to disaster relief, with an additional $3.5 million donated directly by local councils and assemblies. This year, the Knights have raised more than $730,000 for disaster relief, donating $150,000 to the Diocese of Lake Charles to help with in the aftermath of Hurricane Laura.
In California and Oregon, Knights have provided shelter and supplies to evacuees, and set up a fire relief collection.
One of those shelters is run by Joseph Scarite, a member of St. Frances Cabrini Council 9679 in Yucaipa, Calif. A retired firefighter, Scarite was tapped to be his parish’s emergency preparedness coordinator, a role he’s served for nearly a decade. When the El Dorado Fire reach the city’s boundaries, the Red Cross asked him to shelter nearly 40 people from Trinity Youth Services — a residential, foster care program for abused, neglected and abandoned children — at the parish center at St. Frances Cabrini Church.
“I wasn’t expecting to do a shelter,” Scarite said. “We never planned for it or trained for it.”
But Scarite didn’t panic. He reached out to his brother Knights and a women’s auxiliary group, who morphed the center into a shelter, obtaining enough cots, blankets and toiletries to accommodate at least 50 people.
Among those helped were children from Trinity Youth Services, who prior to the fire, hadn’t been outside the youth facility since March due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Scarite and the Knights helped make them feel at home at St. Frances Cabrini Church by preparing food, providing clothing and setting up activities.
“They came with no clothes,” Scarite said. “We had to start from the basics for them and build it up.”
Scarite only recently joined the Knights of Columbus. After working with the Knights on this project, Scarite felt like joining was a “calling.”
Meanwhile, nearly 1,000 miles away, Ed Diehl — grand knight of St. Anthony Council 2439 in Sublimity — was running a distribution site for wildfire victims. He had helped convert the Knights’ event space into a multi-agency resource center to host FEMA representatives and social workers, because the fire presented an “unprecedented situation and it called for unprecedented response.”
Diehl referred to the site as a “general store” of sorts — even though everything is free — with “basically everything that you need to get back up and going.”
“We have a lot of families that were evacuated, and a lot that lost their homes, and many of them didn't leave until the last minute,” he said. “They're coming for clothing. They're coming for children's toys, personal hygiene products. They're coming for infant supplies, cleanup equipment, tents and camping gear, because a lot of them are living in tents. Pet food. It really covers the gamut.”
Sublimity is part of the Santiam Canyon community, an area that has been consumed by the Beachie Creek Fire, burning more than 190,000 acres. Diehl and the Knights worked with local businesses, as well as Lowe’s and Home Depot, to stock the site’s shelves. Evacuees can walk down the aisles of the facility and grab the supplies that they need.
“You start down the aisle, you've got all your infant care, baby formula, personal hygiene, but there's volunteers there that help them,” Diehl said. “This is a pretty stressful time for a lot of these families, as you can imagine. And those kids left, you know, all their toys are burned up. So it's pretty cool to see them go up to the toys and smile and play around and dig through the pile.”
Although the fires aren’t fully contained, Diehl, as well as the other Knights, are devoted to continuing to serve their communities in their own respective ways.
“This is what Knights do,” Diehl said. “We serve our community.”
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Originally published in a weekly edition of Knightline, a resource for K of C leaders and members.
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