Teams bring help and a prayer

Helfand is a Times staff writer.

When they respond to disasters, chaplains from the Billy Graham Rapid Response Team usually encounter throngs of desperate victims.

So the evangelical Christians were surprised Monday as they searched deserted, mountainous neighborhoods of Anaheim Hills and Yorba Linda that had been charred by the Freeway Complex fire.

The chaplains were awed by the panoramic views from Orange County’s sloping suburbs, but struck by the absence of victims and eager to apply their ministerial hands.


The seven men, led by a retired police chief from North Carolina, had received just 15 requests for help since their arrival last week, their third deployment to Southern California since 2003 in response to wildfires.

A much larger contingent of chaplains received several hundred requests for help during last year’s Witch fire in northern San Diego County.

“Everybody is so well off in these neighborhoods,” Keith Stiles, the team’s deployment manager, who flew in from Charlotte, N.C., said of the Orange County areas. “They have support systems, insurance. It’s not like when we were on the Gulf Coast.”

Despite their intentions and an impeccable pedigree -- they take their name from the world-famous evangelist -- the chaplains found themselves treated like intruders Monday by some they encountered.

In one Anaheim Hills neighborhood, Stiles, 56, politely introduced himself to two men and a woman who were talking near a burned-out home on Morningstar Drive.

“We’re insurance people,” the two men told the chaplain.

“And I’m agnostic,” the woman said.

Stiles mentioned that a sister organization, Samaritan’s Purse, would lay sandbags free of charge to protect fire-damaged homes against the oncoming rain.

“You’ll have to check with the homeowners association,” the woman said before walking away with her dog.

The rapid response team got its start after the terrorist attacks of September 2001. Part of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Assn., which is run by Graham’s son, the Rev. Franklin Graham, the team relies on a network of more than 2,800 volunteer chaplains across the country; most are dispatched to disasters within about 200 miles of their homes.

The chaplains -- ministers, firefighters, retired police and others -- pray with disaster victims and hand out Bibles. They work alongside Samaritan’s Purse, which sends volunteers to clear debris from disaster sites and sift ashes for homeowners hoping to reclaim jewelry and other valuables.

Both organizations sent people to Louisiana and Texas in the wake of hurricanes Katrina and Ike. Both had teams on the ground in San Diego last year and during the area’s 2003 wildfires.

So far this year, the rapid response team has worked at 30 disasters, including tornadoes in Tennessee, Virginia and Georgia and floods in Iowa and Wisconsin.

The chaplains also responded to the deadly shootings at Northern Illinois University last February and at Virginia Tech in April 2007.

The chaplains are accustomed to responding to disasters in some of the nation’s poorest communities, places where people have no home insurance, if they own homes at all, and where victims are desperately in need of food, shelter and other essentials.

Anaheim Hills and Yorba Linda presented a different, and unexpected, challenge.

On Monday, Stiles and fellow chaplain Ray Thompson of Laguna Niguel started their day at The Cascades apartment complex in Anaheim Hills, which had lost several units to the fire and looked like a burned-out ghost town.

The men showed up at the leasing office, where insurance adjusters and apartment complex administrators fluttered about with paperwork in hand.

“We just wanted to let you know we’re here,” Stiles told one of the complex managers.

“If you want to come back a little later,” the man responded.

“God bless you,” Stiles answered.

The two chaplains continued their rounds and found a couple of apartment residents to join them in prayers.

A short time later, they were on their way to Yorba Linda to meet up with a team from Samaritan’s Purse.

On Aviemore Drive, they finally found what they had been looking for: fire victims who wanted help.

Stiles and Thompson approached Vivian Vargas, 42, standing with her sister and a close friend outside the blackened hulk of her former home. The remains were surrounded by houses that somehow had survived the blaze.

Vargas explained that she was a single mother of three and that she couldn’t reach anyone at her insurance company.

Stiles asked if Vargas wanted a Samaritan’s Purse crew to sift the ashes for valuables. She replied that volunteers had stopped by the day before and left a Bible.

Stiles and Thompson prayed with the women. As the men departed, Vargas said, “They’re good people.”

Then it was on to Jim McElroy’s home down the block.

When the chaplains arrived, Samaritan’s Purse volunteers were already sifting the remains of McElroy’s home. Among the items McElroy, 44, hoped to find was a prized Sammy Sosa baseball coin to match one for fellow baseball star and home-run hitter Mark McGwire.

Before the volunteers broke for lunch, Stiles and Thompson pulled everyone together outside what had been McElroy’s front door. Standing in a circle, they clasped hands, lowered their heads and closed their eyes, the rubble of the home and charred slopes in the distance framing the scene.

“Lord,” Thompson said, “please hold up Jim and his family in this catastrophic event. We pray you show him your presence. Father, continue to give him strength.”