January 18, 2022
An urgent need for homes in Washington, California: can MDS volunteers answer the call?
Wildfire survivors in Okanogan, Washington and Paradise, California—some of them living in sheds, some in cars—need homes. Can Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS) volunteers finish the homes they’ve started?
Some of these survivors have been waiting for more than three years.
In Okanogan, MDS, working with the Okanogan Long Term Recovery Group, committed to building four homes, and would like to start another four, said MDS Project Coordinator Kevin Dorsing.
The project is scheduled to run from January through March—and many of those weeks don’t have a single volunteer signed up.
The need is urgent, Dorsing said. “Most of these are people who worked all their lives to build a house; some of them pieced houses together over five or ten years,” he said. “They are at a stage in life where they were trying to retire and live on what they had—and this fire came through and they lost everything.”
Dorsing is referring to the Cold Springs Fire, which burned 189,923 acres and 78 homes in north-central Washington in September 2020.
“People are living in little sheds,” said Dorsing. “We have people living in cars. People just have no option.”
He is urging volunteers to help finish these homes.
With accommodations for 12 volunteers per week—including a large fellowship hall where people can socially distance—a bunkhouse, and an adjacent hotel with two apartment-style suites as well as individual rooms, groups can work within the MDS COVID safety protocols.
Though there is snow on the ground, Okanogan does get stints of warmer weather. “It depends on the week,” said Dorsing. “If we get a warm stretch, we do outside work. In colder weather, two of the houses are enclosed and we do have heat in them.”
The scenery is beautiful, he added. “You’re in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains,” he said. “On the weekends, there are great opportunities to go snow skiing and tubing.”
“Most of these are people who worked all their lives to build a house; some of them pieced houses together over five or ten years. They are at a stage in life where they were trying to retire and live on what they had—and this fire came through and they lost everything.”
— Ken Dorsing, MDS Project Coordinator
Waiting more than three years in Paradise
Some residents in Paradise, California have been waiting almost three years for homes after losing everything in the Camp Fire, in November 2018. MDS is building four new homes, with two nearing completion—if enough volunteers sign up to help.
“We can complete two homes in the next few weeks if we get enough volunteers,” said MDS Project Director Robert Unrau. “The other two are not quite that far along.”
On Jan. 17, crews started another new build, adding up to five homes now underway. It’s a leap of faith, given that some volunteer slots in the coming weeks have yet to be filled.
“Two of our homeowners are living in travel trailers, so we see them regularly,” said Unrau. “All the homeowners are living in some kind of temporary quarters.”
After a cold snap, the temperatures in Paradise have been almost springlike, added Unrau. “Last week we were in the high 50s (14C).”
To accommodate volunteers, the project is using five duplexes originally built for a retirement community, so volunteers have enough space to feel safer amid the fluctuations of the COVID-19 pandemic.