Holy Smoke: Compassion and love during the Getty Fire

By Carol Bamesberger, Red Cross Disaster Spiritual Care Regional Advisor 

I hear so many stories of bravery, resilience and faith in the face of disaster. This story, that Mary Sevilla, CSJ, shared with me from the Getty Fire that burned in October of last year has stayed in my mind, and I wanted to share it with all of you. It is a story that highlights how vulnerable we are to wildfires every day in Los Angeles. It happened last year, but it could happen tomorrow. 

Mary’s story: 

“I live at [Mount Saint Mary’s] University and was awakened by the sound of sirens and the smell of smoke at 2:22 a.m. on Monday, October 28, 2019. I jumped in the car (pjs and all) and drove down the hill with the flaming hillside to the right of me [by] the Carondelet Center, home of the Sisters of St. Joseph, which is located on a mountaintop just below Mount Saint Mary’s University. 

I went straight to Carondelet Center where we have [about] 82 sisters,who are infirmed or handicapped in some wayreside. I joined the other sisters and night staff to help the sisters get into wheelchairs and to their walkers. We brought everyone together in a large community room where the fire chief told us not that it was not possible to evacuate, because the roads were blocked down below us with all the neighbors evacuating. He promised though that they would keep our building safe.

And he and his team of firefighters did just that.

Flames came right up to our building in some areas, but the firemen put them out.There is only one road in or out of our facility, Bundy Drive. It is narrow and winding and the road had to be kept clear for emergency vehicles and other needs.

We are safe now, and life is returning to normal in small increments. I have spent many hours assisting those who were traumatized by the incidentworking tohelp keep them calm. The sisters have expressed great gratitude that I was there to help them, andI feel so supported by the American Red Cross.

was grateful Sister Mary Sevilla shared this harrowing, touching story with me. I have had the pleasure of working with her many times, as she is a member of the Red Cross Disaster Mental Health team and a candidateintraining for the Disaster Spiritual Care team. She is the first one to step up if help is needed, as she did without hesitation in her story. To the 80 some sisters she helped that night in late October, she is truly blessing. 

The elderly sisters residing there were faced with incredible fear and confusion. Waking from a sound sleep, their quiet gentle life was invaded by smoke, sirens and noise. Because of the high winds, the fiery embers rattled against their doors and windows.  Some of the sisters huddled in fear. The brave firemen circled their convent and protected them.  

Despite the firestorm, these sisters were comforted, blessed and well supported by members of their community. Each day, they had prayer and communion service along with the songs that brought joy to their hearts and souls. Their fears were replaced by laughter and joy as they spoke of gratitude.  

The firefighterspolice and forest service workers became their guardian angels and continue to be to this day, as the small fires continue to break out around their convent. 

Sister Mary shared one last visual with me about that frightening day: the many burnt trees and brush outside of their building. In the center of their patio stood a statue of the Blessed Mother on a tall stand. Though the entire patio area sustained damage from the fire, when the dust settled, the statue still stood, untouched, with no damage or ash.  

We are grateful to have Sister Mary and all the volunteers who support the Disaster Mental Health and Disaster Spiritual Care teams as a part of the Red Cross family. 

As we head into wildfire season, we are asking new and returning volunteers to join the Wildfire Reserve team. If you are interested, update your profile in Volunteer Connection or if you are a new volunteer, sign up to be trained as a Local Disaster Responder.   

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