By Cindy Haverkamp
It’s 8:15 a.m., Sunday morning in the Ohme Gardens, just outside of Wenatchee, Washington. The normally breathtaking view here of the Columbia River Valley is fully obscured by a pervasive haze of forest fire smoke. It is as if the river has simply vanished. The congregants of Wenatchee First United Methodist Church, normally taking in this inspiring view for their outdoor summer services, shelter a few miles away inside their church building, doors and windows closed, breathing in the filtered air of the church’s HVAC system.
Forest fires burning across Washington, Idaho and British Columbia have created such dangerous air quality conditions in central Washington that concerns over missing views and their subsequent effect on tourism dollars have taken a back seat to concerns over public health. With air quality monitors registering particulate conditions in the “unhealthy” and “hazardous” range all week, churches and outdoor venues have needed to get creative about bringing people together when residents have been advised to stay indoors.
Pastor Karen Fisher at Lake Chelan UMC worries for those who must work outside. “This area is known for its agriculture. When the smoke settles in, there is still work that needs to be done…I see people picking fruit and tending what needs tending. I am very concerned about them.”
Wenatchee First’s co-pastor, Rev. Joanne Coleman Campbell relates that “some of the frustration is not knowing until the day has arrived if the wind will have blown us into a clear day or a foul one.” Because of this, plans are in the works to turn Wenatchee First’s youth group trip to Chelan’s Slidewaters Waterpark into an indoor event. Outdoor weddings and family reunions planned for the next few weekends have a Plan B that moves those events into the sanctuary and church fellowship hall.
Church buildings without air conditioning, like 100-year-old First United Methodist Church in Ellensburg are left with fewer options. It’s pastor, the Rev. Jen Stuart asks, “Do we limit singing? Do we not gather for worship? Do we hand out masks?”
The smoke, which Pastor Fisher reports is causing her congregants such ill-health effects as headaches, sore throats, coughing and stinging or watering eyes, is also impacting the mental health of central Washington residents. Rev. Coleman Campbell says that the smoke is “adding to everyone’s sense of gloom” and contributing to feelings of fear and isolation as people feel trapped in their homes. Congregants with kids and dogs told Rev. Coleman Campbell in church on Sunday that they are going “stir-crazy”. One woman loaded her dogs up in the car and just drove around with the windows closed and the air conditioning on just to give them something to do. Coleman Campbell’s daughter, who resides in Winthrop, Washington, has decided to pack up the kids and leave town till the smoke clears. It has been common for Coleman Campbell to hear people speaking ominously that living with wildfire smoke might just be the “new norm.”
LEARN MORE: Click here for a brief discussion of climate impacts in our state see this link from the University of Washington’s College of the Environment.
Raging forest fires and the stronger, unpredictable lightning storms that sometimes cause them, may indeed be new norms brought about, in part, by climate change. According to the Washington State Department of Ecology, “current climate change modeling indicates these conditions are likely to become the norm in the decades ahead.”
What can churches do to mitigate the ill-effects of wildfires? Wenatchee First UMC is doing the right thing by creating alternate plans and ensuring that the air quality inside the church makes it a cool and welcome respite. And together, churches across the PNW are active in responding to those directly impacted by wildfires through projects like Rebuild: Up From the Ashes and through support and participation in the work the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) and United Methodist Volunteers in Mission (UMVIM).
What other roles can our churches play in turning seemingly hopeless new realities into hope-filled opportunities? Can we do more than respond to each natural disaster and adapt our lives to the new normal as if there was no other way? How can we reach into places of lonely isolation and remind people of their God-given power and ability to make the world a less frightening place?
My name is Cindy Haverkamp and I am your new Creation Care Connector in the Pacific Northwest Conference of The United Methodist Church. Even as we cough and wheeze our way (again) through this summer, and hold those most directly impacted in prayer, I’m eager to hear what you are doing (or dreaming about) to make a difference in your community.
Do you have ideas about how to move people toward action for a more hopeful future? Does your church have a successful program to address the new realities of climate change? Drop me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org, leave a comment on this story, or give me a call at the conference office at 206.870.6821.
I’m looking forward to hearing your stories, and sharing some of your great ideas and projects so that they can inspire others!
Cindy Haverkamp serves as Communications Associate for the Pacific Northwest Conference of The United Methodist Church.