Billy Graham Team Assists Calif. Fire Victims

A Billy Graham Rapid Response Team of crisis-trained chaplains was deployed this week to Southern California where "mega" blazes of fire have destroyed more than 800 homes and thousands of acres of land in the last few days.

The Billy Graham response team will focus on bringing hope and comfort to the victims, while Samaritan's Purse, which is being coordinately deployed, will be assisting people physically.

Samaritan's Purse, an international relief organization, and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association both share Franklin Graham as their president and CEO.

"Once again this year, our hearts and prayers go out to our friends in California who are facing the ravages of these fires," said Jack Munday, director of the Billy Graham Rapid Response Team, in a statement Tuesday. "The pain and despair are only intensified by the fact that next week is Thanksgiving and this joyous time of year is filled with so much heartache for the victims."

California has experienced an increase in the number of fires this year compared to previous years.

Some 9,600 fires occurred this year compared to 5,961 in 2007, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection figures. The cost of fighting the fires in 2008 has cost at least $464.5 million.

"We are in the mega-fire era," said Ken Frederick, a spokesman for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management in Boise, Idaho, and a former firefighter with 13 years of experience, to Bloomberg news. "California has definitely been the epicenter of wildfire activity this year."

More than 1.42 million acres have burned in California in 2008, up from 1.16 million in 2007, according to state and federal statistics.

California's fire season is also lasting longer than before. Usually in the past the fire season began in August and ended by Christmas. Now the fire season lasts year round. Experts say the state's severe two-year drought is among the factors contributing to the spike in wildfires.

The Billy Graham Rapid Response trip to California this week marks the ministry's third deployment to Southern California in the past five years. Similar wildfire-related deployments occurred in 2003 and 2007.

During last year's deployment, more than 170 chaplains traveled to California and prayed and comforted about 1,900 people over four weeks.

In addition to the Billy Graham team, fellow Christian disaster response ministry the Salvation Army has its mobile canteens stationed in Southern California to provide hot meals to fire victims as well as firefighters in emergency shelters. As of Monday, the Salvation Army reported that its units remain on duty to provide food and water and will stay on as long as they're needed.

A separate Billy Graham Rapid Response Team is continuing its work with Hurricane Ike victims in Texas.