SANTA ROSA, Calif. — Like tens of thousands of other evacuees, Wilbert Johnson woke up to a phone call. Unlike most, he didn't flee to shelter as the incinerating inferno hurtled toward his Santa Rosa neighborhood.
Instead, the devoted 67-year-old auto parts salesman set out to find his wife of six years.
Johnson told the story of his search Sunday after three Mormon congregations worshipped together at a chapel that now has sheltered dozens of the disaster's 100,000 evacuees throughout the week.
A sales manager at an auto parts store, Johnson wasn't worried about Gladys, who was recovering at a rehab facility after a bad fall, until he turned on the TV while he prepared to evacuate. Their home sits 700 yards from the edge of the now-desolate Coffey Park neighborhood.
Then he saw a report that the Hilton Hotel was on fire near his wife's facility. Johnson immediately knew she would be moved.
"I gotta go find my wife," thought Johnson, the music director in the Peterson Lane Ward of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Gladys' name wasn't on the early lists of people at evacuation centers, so Johnson drove to the veterans building. Refugees were arriving faster than the center could process their names, so volunteers encouraged Johnson to look in each room. He didn't find Gladys, who had broken two ribs, ruptured her spleen and suffered a concussion when she fell a month ago.
Johnson hurried crossed the street to the fairgrounds pavilion. He searched everywhere. No Gladys. Next up was the Finley Community Center.
"I went room to room," he said. "Finally, when I got close to the last room, I recognized some staff members from her facility. I said, 'Where's Gladys?' They said, 'We'll take you.'
"The first thing she says is, 'Where have you been?'"
Life and death in Northern California for those hunted by 16 wildfires this week depended on a wake-up call.
After Sunday's Sacrament meeting, Wilbert Johnson thanked the Relief Society president who called to say, "There's a fire."
Susanne Skabelund spoke in the meeting and expressed guilt. Her friends knocked on her door for a long time before finally rousing her. She in turn banged the metal knocker on another home, but decided those neighbors weren't home. She left with her family, but when she returned to grab some papers, she saw the neighbors leaving.
"I felt so bad," said Skabelund, a member of the Brush Creek Ward. "They were there, and we left. They didn't hear anything. They didn't come. I just thought, 'What if? What if the fire had come?' I knocked on their door, and I didn't get them out."
She experienced a spiritual wake-up call, too.
"The Lord's going to be calling on us to be helping to rebuild, helping to love each other, helping to pull everyone in," she said. "We just can't be in that kind of a deep sleep that we don't hear and that we don't listen and that we don't go and reach out when we need to and when he needs us to do because that's what we are, we're his hands here.
"I just pray that I'll be listening. I want to hear his voice, and I want him to guide me."
The call that woke Jim and Catherine Gibbons came from their cat, Alexander. They are not Mormon, and live in Bennett Valley, but the two retired clinical psychologists found refuge from the Presley Fire on Monday night at the Yulupa LDS Ward building in Santa Rosa. On Wednesday, the Tubbs Fire forced them to evacuate across town to the Stony Point Ward's meetinghouse.
They've slept on "a very comfortable mattress" on the floor in a classroom across the hall from the chapel ever since. They expressed gratitude for the week they've spent among the Mormons who have supported and fed them.
"It's a kind of generosity and concern you'd expect from family that really loves and values you," Catherine Gibbons said, "and that's very unexpected and reassuring to receive."
As they wait to return home — their house is safe, but blockaded — they spend time each day outside with Alexander. Catherine checks Jim's blood pressure regularly. She has appreciated the soup one church member brought each day, calling it comforting nourishment. Jim has enjoyed the big breakfasts, which have included French toast, bacon and sausage.
One member took them to her home for showers.
"If Mormonism teaches service, it's taught with caring and love, and it comes through a lot," Jim Gibbons said. "One feels so much grace. It fills the atmosphere."
Catherine Gibbons' professional eye observed that LDS children are encouraged to participate in service.
"That fosters a sense of self-worth and a feeling of contribution that young people often don't get," she said.
"I've noted everyone has a good sense of humor, too," she added. "This is a very weird experience. This is way out of the norm. In the midst of this ordeal, humor is an appropriate medicine, and it's been helpful and appropriate to the situation."
They also enjoyed songs arranged during meals Sunday by Wilbert Johnson.
With 40 deaths, so many displaced and more than 330 square miles scorched by 16 fires, despair would be natural, but LDS leaders said they have been encouraged by those most effected and urged them to avoid fear and dejection.
Elder Carl B. Cook, a General Authority Seventy, spent the weekend in Sonoma and Napa counties, and presided over stake meetings in both valleys Sunday morning.
Elder Cook told a story he once shared in a worldwide church conference about feeling overwhelmed a week into his call as a general authority. He was staring at the floor of an elevator in the Church Office Building in Salt Lake City when someone else got on.
"What are you looking at down there?" the person said.
"I recognized the voice," Elder Cook said. "It was (LDS Church) President (Thomas S.) Monson. He was kind of a character, because he was pointing at the floor and he just kept searching, 'What was it you were looking for down there?'"
Then, President Monson moved closer to Elder Cook and pointed up.
"He looked into my eyes and said, 'It's better to look up.'"
"When we have trials and challenges and our life is turning out differently than we anticipate," Elder Cook added, "yes, we can feel sorry. We can look down. We can wonder how we're going to do hard things. But a prophet teaches us to look up to our Father in Heaven, look to him for strength, look to him for direction. I just sensed today as I sat here that President Monson may say, 'It's better to look up. Fear not. Have faith.'"
As 11,000 firefighters made headway on the fires Sunday — two of the biggest fires are 50 percent contained — Mormons throughout the region fasted and prayed for those who lost loved ones and homes, and those who are displaced.
Napa Stake President Cory Judd encouraged members to be generous in their giving as they fasted for two meals that day.
"This (recovery) effort will put a demand on our fast offerings," President Judd wrote in a letter to stake members. "The welfare program of the church is amazing and very effective at meeting the needs of the Lord's children. Fast offerings are the essential way the program works."
Fairfield Stake President Jamie Edmond shared the email with his stake, which joined the fast.
At the Stony Point building, more than 270 people gathered for Sacrament meeting. The Sacrament prayer on the bread was in Spanish, for those from the Laguna Spanish-speaking ward. The prayer on the water was in English, for those from the Stony Point Ward and the Peterson Lane Ward, which was hit hardest by the fires.
The attendees watched a live stream of the stake meeting, which was held in the Yulupa Ward building.
Santa Rosa Stake President Gary Kitchen, who had to evacuate his home a second time Saturday morning, wore a borrowed shirt, borrowed tie, borrowed pants and regular work shoes.
"It's been a truly humbling week," he told the congregation, referring to the 50-plus stake members who lost homes. "We are happy to report that as of today, we are all safe. That is tremendous good news for our stake."
Despite the ashes and the difficulty, he said, Christ's "peace is different than the world's peace. I think a lot of times we think of peace in our lives as ease, as comfort, as lack of noise and disruption. The peace he offers is an eternal peace. That peace is available to us even in times of disruption and noise and difficulty."
Lord in your story
Another speaker, Judy Stephens, imagined future stories comparing the famed Chicago and San Francisco fires of history with this week's events, which California's governor said this weekend may be the greatest catastrophe in state history.
"We will probably be written up at some point as the Great Fire of Santa Rosa, of Sonoma County, of Napa County, but it will be counted for us also, in spite of it, for the great good that came after the fire," said Stephens, a member of the Bennett Valley Ward.
She also referred to President Monson.
"I marvel at President Monson, his goodness, his charity, his love and his service," Stephens said. "And I feel mindful of his spirit with us today through these beloved brethren who are here to counsel us and to inspire as we go forward in a great cause."
Elder Paul H. Watkins, an Area Seventy, said the best family history stories are about nobility, "the stories where somebody normally would have done one thing, but they did something else, something better, something more noble."
"These experiences that we have can turn in our favor, grace us, amend us, grow us to being what it is Heavenly Father wants us to become, what we wanted to become before we came here."
He said Northern California Mormons all have a new story, and he made a suggestion to them.2 comments on this story
"The Lord is in your story. Find him there. Search your heart to find where the Lord has blessed you. You're still here. There was something to be learned and taught that will grace you and feed you. There will be principles that come out of your story for you and those generations that follow you."
Wilbert Johnson has already begun.
"God is in my story because I listened to the prophets, who said, 'Be prepared,'" he said. "I had food, water, batteries and lanterns. I was thinking of an earthquake, not a fire, but I looked up.
"Always look up and listen to prophets."