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Don Branum, U.S. Air Force

The Waldo Canyon fire burns in the Pike National Forest between the Air Force Academy and Woodland Park, Colo., June 25, 2012.

Colorado Springs fire bypasses church

2:00 P.M. ET June 27, 2012

Members of Wilson United Methodist Church believe their building has survived the wildfire that threatened the Mountain Shadows neighborhood of Colorado Springs.

Aerial photos and reports from an eyewitness indicate the church is out of harm's way, at least for now, because the fire has receded from the immediate area to the foothills, said the Rev. Nani Arning, minister of education at Wilson, on June 28.

"Today, there are no red flag warnings, so the wind is very low," she said. "They're really working hard to get things under control."

The home of the church's new senior pastor, in an evacuation zone, also is believed to be undamaged. But at least one church member lost a home and others were waiting to hear about the fate of their properties, Arning said.

The Waldo Canyon fire has burned some 18,500 acres to date. In a June 28 news conference, Colorado Springs Mayor Steve Back reported that hundreds of homes had been destroyed. President Obama is scheduled to visit the area on June 29.

More than 100 church members and clergy colleagues, including Denver Area Bishop Elaine Stanovsky and District Superintendent Melanie Rosa, gathered June 27 for a 7 p.m. prayer vigil at First United Methodist Church in downtown Colorado Springs.

"Just being able to be together was wonderful," Arning reported. "It was a great place to feel tons of support and to know there are people around the world praying for us&ellipsis;not just us, but the community as a whole."

A day earlier, when the Wilson staff saw flames come down the mountain ridge, they knew they would have to evacuate the church.

The Mountain Shadows neighborhood already had received a pre-evacuation notice around 1 p.m. on June 26, said Arning, a deacon who has served there for more than five years.

They could hear the C-130 military air tankers put down fire retardant in the area around the church. "They (the planes) were even shaking the walls a little bit," she told United Methodist News Service.

Then, the situation went from bad to worse. "From our church office doors, we looked out about 4:15 and we saw the fire hop the ridge," she said. "It went very, very quickly down the ridge. That's all pine trees up there."

When the mandatory evacuation order came some 15 minutes later, the staff was ready. Earlier in the afternoon, staff had packed up a few things of important symbolic value the cross and Bible from the altar, a memorial book and some framed photographs and historic items. Church records are stored off site in the Internet "cloud."

"We just chose what we felt was most important if something happened to the building," Arning explained.

Richard Brown, the Colorado Springs fire chief, has called the wildfire that blew into the northwest section of town "a firestorm of epic proportions." Among the more than 32,000 residents already evacuated from their homes is the Rev. Dave Hiester, Wilson's new senior pastor.

Hiester bought a home in the Mountain Shadows area. "He's been in town for five days," Arning added. "He actually hasn't started his new appointment with us."

Arning, who lives 10 miles from the church, isn't directly affected by the evacuation order, but, like others, has to live with closed windows in a home with no air conditioning. "As you can imagine, the air is smoking," she said. "There's lots of ash flying in the air."

The 210-member congregation already has lost a piece of its history to the Waldo Canyon fire. When the congregation first started 20 years ago, Arning said, it met next door in the church building at the Flying W Ranch. The ranch burned to the ground Tuesday. The land for the Wilson church was donated by the ranch's owners, Russ and Marian Wolfe.

The congregation has used Facebook to keep in touch with church members and offers of assistance are coming in. "The faith community has been very welcoming," Arning said.

The United Methodist Committee on Relief gave a $10,000 grant June 25 to the denomination's Rocky Mountain Annual (regional) Conference to respond to wildfires in Colorado, said the Rev. Tom Hazelwood, director of U.S. disaster response.

Some local congregations are providing help in communities near other wildfires burning across Colorado, including the High Park Fire near Fort Collins and Loveland; the Weber Fire near Mancos; and the Little Sand Fire near Pagosa Springs. On June 25, a grass wildfire burned more than 35,000 acres near Last Chance.

The Rocky Mountain Conference disaster response team, coordinated by Gary Haddock, will work with UMCOR on fire recovery efforts, such as clean-up, rebuilding and aid assistance.

Four pallets of health kits, containing 672 kits each, have been sent to a distribution center in Fort Collins to help the victims of the High Park Fire, the conference reported.

"Please keep these evacuees, families, firefighters, churches, and others involved in the firefighting efforts in Utah, Wyoming, and Colorado in your prayers," Haddock wrote in a recent email."They need it and we still have a long way to go before it really gets 'safe' and we're through all this."

In New Mexico, about 225 residences, mostly second homes, were affected by the Little Bear wildfire. United Methodists and other volunteers have formed a long-term recovery group and UMCOR has been asked to provide leadership on case management.

Donations for response to the wildfires can be made to UMCOR's U.S. Disaster Response.

*Bloom is a United Methodist News Service multimedia reporter based in New York. Follow her at http://twitter.com/umcscribe.

News media contact: Linda Bloom, New York, (646) 369-3759 or newsdesk@umcom.org.