A Calvary Chapel Pastor Who Loses His Home in an Oregon Fire Reaches Out to Neighbors
Story by Tim Hoelle
Photos courtesy of Calvary Chapel Lincoln City, OR
In the aftermath of a devastating fire and losing his own home, God led a Calvary Chapel pastor to help his neighbors, practically and spiritually. “I realized this would be a way to show the love of Christ to our neighbors if we could also help them,” emphasized Corey Rivera, associate pastor of Calvary Chapel Lincoln City, OR.
By wildfire standards, the Echo Mountain Complex Fire near the Oregon coast in September 2020 was fairly small, covering about 2,500 acres. But for residents of Otis, OR, and other communities in the path of the raging inferno, it was anything but small. “The official count of structures destroyed stands at 293,” Corey offered. “The thought is that east winds, as high as 80-90 mph, blew down one or more trees. At least one of those trees hit a power line sparking the fire, and east winds of 30 mph or more blew consistently for at least five or six hours.”
Otis, OR, resident Mike Cady initially felt hopeless after the Echo Mountain Complex Fire in September 2020 that destroyed 2,500 acres and burned down 293 structures. Mike now is hopeful after receiving help, according to Corey Rivera, associate pastor of Calvary Chapel Lincoln City, OR. Corey himself lost his home to the fire.
About four years ago, Corey and his wife Claire felt the Lord calling them to help his father-in-law grow a small Calvary Chapel in Lincoln City, so they moved from Southern California. He came to Oregon to lead worship but has since been ordained as an associate pastor. “When we came here, we were educated about earthquakes and possible tsunamis since we live on the coast,” recalled Corey. “But wildfires on the coast are very rare. We see 90-130 inches of rain annually, and it’s wet here eight months of the year. Fire really wasn’t a big concern.”
A Harrowing Experience
On the night of September 7th, as Corey and his family went to bed, there was smoke in the air. “It’s very common for the Central Valley to have fires, and you can see or smell smoke much of the summer, so we didn’t give it much of a thought,” admitted Corey. He remembers being in bed by about 11 p.m. The situation would become serious in just a few hours. “About 1:30 a.m. we were awakened by knocking on the windows and shouting,” said Corey. “Oregon State Police and local fire marshals were telling us to get out right now.”
Jael and Elisha visit their home near Otis, OR, after the Echo Mountain Complex Fire.
Corey and Claire piled seven kids in the car, ages 6 months to 13 years. They had just enough time to gather a few laundry baskets, filling them with whatever clothes and personal possessions would fit. “It would have been eight kids, but our oldest was recently married and not at home,” Corey reflected. Their plan was to drive to his mom’s house, outside the fire zone, to spend the night. Darkness mixed with smoke made visibility difficult and driving hazardous. By the time they were nearing his mom’s house, he realized they could not make it; there were too many large trees down and the roads were blocked. They backtracked a bit and made it safely to Claire’s parents’ house.
“We were grateful for being safe, but it’s not a big house and that night we had kids sleeping anywhere they’d fit,” Corey recounted. The next day was disconcerting. Corey remembers an eerie red haze instead of sky, almost other-worldly. Smoke was hanging in the atmosphere so thick that dusk-to-dawn security lights were on throughout the community. Very few people were outside, and no one had any solid information about the extent of the damage, injuries, or fatalities. “We would later learn that there were zero casualties, which is a miracle in itself,” marveled Corey.
A local church provided free tacos, on-site, for the fire victims.
Calm in the Storm
“The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD.” Job 1:21b
By Day Three, their son—also named Corey—was having a difficult time. His mom suggested that he read the Gospel accounts about Jesus and the disciples in a boat during the storm. “He read it, then prayed about it, and later that day told his mom that God told him to trust Him, and that [our] house had burned down,” reported Corey Senior. “Within a few days, a friend who was a police officer was allowed past the fire lines and brought back photos showing [our] house was gone. But he was just confirming what God had already told our son. That was a special blessing, God encouraging our son.”
Calvary Longview, WA, offered assistance and led a service during the first week of cleanup.
No one was allowed to go to Otis for three weeks, and when they were permitted access, they found what they expected—their home was totally destroyed. Their insurance coverage would provide $5,000 for cleanup, but estimates were closer to $30,000. The very high cost was due in part to the fact that most of the structures were older homes, and asbestos and other chemicals were released into the environment, an issue no one was really thinking about. Environmental cleanup protocols drove the cost up significantly. Adding to the problem was the fact that Otis caught on fire at the same time as larger fires taking place elsewhere. FEMA, individual counties, and various disaster relief organizations were busy in other parts of the state, so Otis was pushed to the back of the line, according to Corey. That meant that companies capable of doing the work quickly were also able to charge top dollar.
Corey relayed, “Because of my job, I had access to some heavy equipment, and I was pretty sure I could find some help, so we decided to do the cleanup ourselves. As we were working on our property, I realized this could be a way to show the love of Christ to our neighbors if we could also help them. So, we posted an offer to help clean up on Facebook.”
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort those who are in any trouble, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. 2 Corinthians 1:3-4
This view of Command Center 83 on the North Pony Trail shows the devastation caused by the fire.
God at Work
A church in Washington State saw the post and offered a small team of men who had experience with similar cleanup operations. Several neighbors responded to the offer of help. More people volunteered. Corey was encouraged as he surveyed the progress being made. But not everyone was on board. “The Department of Environmental Quality, the local sanitation company, and county solid waste all said No,” related Corey. “They had concerns about citizens handling asbestos and other hazardous materials, as well as acting as contractors without being licensed and insured.”
Corey and his team continued to pray, and God continued to move. Problems were resolved one by one with the various state and local authorities. More people responded. Corey increased their efforts on Facebook and God confirmed that this was the path He wanted them to take. The list of families asking for help grew to 19. More churches sent volunteers, and additional local businesses joined the effort.
Volunteers Douglas Bernhardt and Jesus Eliosa help to haul away debris.
“As we were setting up the command center, we looked at Ephesians 2:10: For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them,” shared Corey. By the time the project was in full swing, hundreds of volunteers, six different organized relief groups, 20-plus churches, and a 501(c)(3) came alongside their effort. The county gave them a grant, as did Lowes, Home Depot, and Habitat for Humanity. As of the first of December, there were 67 homes on their list for cleanup help.
In addition to sharing the love of Christ through this tangible work effort, God answered prayers regarding souls in the community. “Several neighbors have come to our church; one made a profession of faith,” Corey declared joyfully. “Other churches that came to help also led people to the Lord. Ty and Malinda Small (head of a local non-profit) have been influenced by and for the Lord.” The Smalls were very encouraged when Corey started advertising and talking about the cleanup. They saw hope in the effort.
The Calvary Chapel Corvallis, OR, men’s group took up a collection for the Rivera family.
The Smalls are now working full-time as volunteers helping to coordinate the work that remains after Corey went back to his job. He still is involved as time permits. Twenty-two of Corey’s 23 neighbors have plans to rebuild, and Corey estimates at least 80% of the town will rebuild. “We still see hope in a variety of situations and in the lives of the people here,” affirmed Corey. “God is still working.”
Corey and his wife Claire on their first visit home after the fires were put out. They narrowly escaped with their seven children and few possessions on September 7. Despite their own loss, they followed God’s prompting to help his neighbors recover from their losses as well. “I realized this would be a way to show the love of Christ to our neighbors if we could help them,” Corey explained.
On their first trip back home, Clyde and Jazzmynne Tucker discover what’s left after the fire destroyed their home.
All verses above are quoted from the New King James Version, unless otherwise noted.
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