"It's just weird. Occasionally in winter, you'll have days with this cool thick fog that comes on the city, and you get used to driving in fog," Smith said. "But this isn't fog, it's smoke."
Catholics in both Oregon and California are facing the loss of homes, property, and possibly loved ones to the fires, Smith said, while Church-sponsored charities gear up to assist both with immediate needs and in the long-haul recovery to come.
"I do know that there's been some wonderful charity in some of our parishes where they're organizing to take people in, to care for people, to provide a place for them to evacuate," Smith said.
"As always in a major tragedy or crisis like this, you sometimes see the worst in people (like looters), and then you see the best in people," Smith said. "Suddenly the neighbor who you just sort of said hi to you, now you're trying to help them in a way that you wouldn't have done before. These things bring out a lot of the inherent goodness in people to help support one another in moments of crisis." Deacon Rick Birkel, executive director of Catholic Charities of Oregon, told CNA that it was too soon to know the full extent of the damage of the fires, as some of the worst-hit areas were still inaccessible by government agencies.
"In some of the worst impacted communities we haven't even been able to get in," he said. "The National Guard, Red Cross, no one has been able to even get into those locations yet, it's still too hot." "There is this grave concern that we're going to find mass casualties and we're preparing for that possibility," he added.
Birkel said as with most crises, the wildfires were going to have the worst impact on the poor and the vulnerable.
"The people who are being impacted by the fires are very diverse, of course, but you still have the farm workers out working in this weather...they're some of the most vulnerable people not able to shelter, they're out working," he said. Prior to the fires, Catholic Charities had been working on the streets to serve the homeless, "which now is just so much harder, but also so much more urgent because all these people sleeping outside are already vulnerable and now...the only way they're going to get off the street is through the emergency room," Birkel said. Catholic Charities has been partnering with agencies such as the Red Cross as well as local parishes to provide food and shelter during the fires, Birkel said. In both the short and long term, one of the biggest needs is going to be housing, he added, and so they are raising funds for a privately-funded emergency shelter as well as for longer-term housing solutions. "Housing is the critical, fundamental intervention that people need when things get really bad, whether it's COVID or fires or whatever," he said.