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Burned Palm Trees and Miracles: The Great Fire of Thermal, CA

Osceola Refetoff, Sunstar Resurrected Palm Grove, 2016 (primary)
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Thermal, CA fire
Remains of the Fruitland fire, dawn, Thermal, CA, 2016. | Osceola Refetoff

High & Dry surveys the legacy of human enterprise in the California desert. Together, writer/historian Christopher Langley and photographer Osceola Refetoff document human activity, past and present, in the context of future development.

“All things are possible, if only you believe.”

— Gospel song sung by Elvis Presley and others

The rumor went around that the fire in the fan palm grove belonging to the Jesus Is Salvation Church began with a lightning strike. Pastor Ruben Martinez tells me it may have been an electrical short in a work shed on the property. So the fire wasn’t caused by a vengeful God from the Old Testament to punish the unfaithful. On the contrary, evidence suggests that it was the faithful.

The scene is apocalyptic with the rooms, walls and floors of the burned house intact. As Osceola goes through his normal contortions of composition, I struggle to understand the architectural design of one of the destroyed buildings. Fire ruins take on a desultory, chaotic impression — melted and twisted steel, Daliesque chairs and furniture, blackened-face tile. Now, useless intention obscures their utility of structure.

Thermal, CA fire
Charred property at Grapefruit fire site, Thermal, CA, 2015. | Osceola Refetoff

Osceola shoots the rising sun and cloud bank through a window that frames the torched desert scene. Then he scampers into the ovoid swimming pool that stares like a blinded Cyclops from the flame scorched earth. There is a beauty here, a disaster porn element that seduces through its purposelessness of consumption, an intense oxidation. There is no god of fire here. There is the peace that is attained through exhaustion and destruction. Human hope has disappeared in depletion then impoverishment. Can faith bring back hope? 

Talking with Pastor Ruben, he made the origin of the fire as being mundane and not supernatural very clear. He also explained that he had bought the property with the palms years before, with intentions to sell for a higher profit and utilize the money  for the construction of a needed new house of worship. 

Pastor Ruben Martinez of Jesus Is Salvation Church, Thermal, CA
Pastor Ruben Martinez of the Christ Is Salvation Christian Church, Thermal, CA, 2016. | Osceola Refetoff

As I walk through the grove of fan palms (Washingtonia), there is a stately beauty about the planting. These are mature trees. The fire has burned off most of the detritus that palm trees accumulate. Now, instead of the rough outer covering of the trunks, they are smooth, tessellated with fire-caused soot intensifying the contrast on the surface. This will probably disappear with time and the palm trees will be returned to health and salability.

Cal Fire captain Lucas Spelman said at the time of the fire, “It’s dry out there, the trees got less water this year. The palm trees are dry and they’re carrying the fire.” It had been first reported as half an acre but spread quickly in the record 119 degree heat. One nearby neighbor, Francisca Berdugo, stated, “I see a big mushroom in the sky and flames.” Eventually, roads in the area of Grapefruit Boulevard and Avenue 58 were affected and traffic was diverted.

Thermal, CA fire
Entrance to Grapefruit fire site, Thermal, CA, 2015. | Osceola Refetoff

Pastor Ruben meets me at the site. The initial evaluation determined that the trees were gone and his church suffered a loss of $4 to $5 million. Now there is peace in the grove, the birds are happily chirping, and all is right with the world. The palm grove is full of life. At first Pastor Ruben is reticent, evaluating my motivations. But soon after, he tells me his story with calm yet steadfast enthusiasm.

He and his wife Margarita are the senior and founding pastors. They have been married more than 40 years. In 1985 his mother was dying of tuberculosis and the doctors were unable to heal her. He got down on his knees in the restroom and prayed, promising God that if he saved her, he would follow him and his teachings the rest of his life. His mother lived another 20 years. 

Pastor Ruben has been a child actor in movies, business owner, auto mechanic and investor. He is now retired, working full-time for the Lord. He and his wife were moved to start the Jesus Is Salvation Church in 1996. It started small but now has a building on Harrison Street in Thermal and at a different site. Ruben dreams of a big, new church.

Thermal, CA fire
Partially intact building at Grapefruit fire site, Thermal, CA, 2015. | Osceola Refetoff

“We bought this with a purpose to sell the palm trees and make over $25 million to build our new church on Church Street here. And now these trees were gone, and you can’t insure palm trees. Usually when crisis comes in, that’s when we pray to God and we see the glory of God manifest and he’ll calm the storm.”

Pastor Ruben prayed and asked the members of his congregation with the most strength in their faith to pray too. The palm trees were assumed dead, but the pastor had them watered anyway even though the farmer watering them said it was hopeless and a waste of water. The decision to water was an act of faith in itself. Palm trees are watered through flood irrigation, although drip irrigation is coming into fashion. The palm trees are now obviously coming back, while most of the other trees on the property remain dead except for a few oleanders that line the road.

Thermal, CA fire
First light on dead and recovered trees, Thermal, CA, 2016. | Osceola Refetoff

Pastor Ruben says his church will cling to its faith and find a way to rebuild, or, more exactly, build. The property also had two other single-family homes, both of which belonged to the church. The residents were provided with shelter, food and clothing.  On the church website the pastor posted:

“All of us at Christ Is Salvation Christian Church thank everyone for their thoughts and prayers as we continue to assess the damage from the fire at our palm nursery in Thermal. The church continues to provide clothing and rooms for those families displaced by fire.”

“We especially thank all the Cal-Forestry fire fighters, Riverside County Sheriff deputies, Riverside County Hazmat, the Red Cross, and other organizations who have provided round the clock protection, provisions and updates. We pray in Jesus’ name for speedy and full recovery for those precious servants of Cal-Fire who suffered injury during the fires.”

Thermal, CA fire
Sunrise over burnt-out building, Thermal, CA, 2016. | Osceola Refetoff

It is a simple story. The suspicious, cynical, or pragmatic will say that the palms would have come back, like the oleanders, from their roots. It didn’t take prayer or faith, but nature’s resilience. The faithful will testify that it was God’s steadfast love.
Standing at the edge of the scorched palm grove, the belief of this man and those he pastors have certainly empowered their wills to act, to keep the faith and to make it through another day as the trees recover. One thing is certain: I am assured by the faithful that the new church will get built.

Thermal, CA fire
Burnt-out buildings viewed from empty pool, Thermal, CA, 2016. | Osceola Refetoff

To explore more High & Dry: dispatches from the land of little rain visit or the project's Facebook page. We welcome your questions and comments.

Top image: Sunstar and resurrected palm grove, Thermal, CA, 2016. | Osceola Refetoff



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