Masonic Assistance

In the Face of Fire, A Heroic Act of Masonic Relief

By Ian A. Stewart

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After the first fire, Charlie Malear knew the next time, he’d have to be better prepared. His lodge would, too.

This time, they were. And by leaning into the fraternity’s apparatus of Masonic relief services—and creating some of their own—they showed just how impactful a lodge can be in a time of crisis. For those efforts, this fall, Malear and Kern River Valley № 827 were recognized with the Joe Jackson Award, the Masonic Homes of California’s annual honor for outstanding lodge outreach.

The lodge’s actions during the 2021 French Fire were extraordinary, but also necessary, Malear says. That was his takeaway from an earlier crisis, the 2016 Erskine Fire, which had torn through the mountains above Lake Isabella, in Kern County, killing two. Malear was one of 285 residents who lost their homes to that blaze, including five members of the lodge. For the thousands of others who were evacuated, the overwhelming feeling was of confusion and helplessness. “People were sleeping in the school gym, in public campgrounds,” Malear recalls. “That was the start. We knew we had to be ready.”

So, in summer 2021, when fire again threatened the area, Malear and his lodgemates were determined to take action. That they did, offering up their lodge as a refuge for those in need of temporary shelter—and demonstrating the value of a bit of advance planning, as well as thinking on the fly. Says Sabrina Montes, the chief strategy officer for the Masonic Homes of California, the Kernville example shows what can happen when a lodge sets out to make itself a true community asset. “They took such initiative and were so creative,” she says. “Being proactive, getting ahead of the curve—they really raised the bar in terms of being a safe harbor for their community.”

We’re Here to Help

RELIEF FOR CALIFORNIA MASONS AND THEIR FAMILIES

  • Information and referrals
  • Senior communities in Covina and Union City
  • Statewide Masonic Outreach Services for members of all ages and their families
  • Transitions short-term care for neurological and post-surgical rehabilitation (Union City)
  • The Masonic Center for Youth and Families in San Francisco and Covina – with telehealth services now available everywhere
  • NEW! Shared housing for seniors in Covina

Contact us today to access your member benefits and services:

masonichome.org
(888) 466-3642

mcyaf.org
(877) 488-6293 (San Francisco)
(626) 251-2300 (Covina)

Masonic Outreach Services in a Crisis

That started on August 18, 2021, when a small brush fire broke out in the Isabella Highlands to the west of Lake Isabella, pushed east by unusually strong winds and bone-dry conditions. Within hours, the French Fire had ballooned from 50 acres to more than 2,000, prompting evacuation orders. Over the coming days, the fire would grow to 26,000 acres.

The lodge sprang into action. Master Tom McKinney oversaw a phone committee that reached out to each member of the 50-person lodge, as well as several more lodge widows and members of the Kern River Valley № 643 chapter of the Order of the Eastern Star. Ultimately, 12 of them were evacuated— including McKinney and his wife. Just before they left town, McKinney, then 84, helped a lodge widow load up her belongings so she could evacuate to her son’s home in Lancaster.

The phone network helped connect evacuated members to potential hosts outside the range of the fire and smoke. Others were directed to the Masonic Outreach Services hotline, which connects callers with local service providers and, if necessary, emergency funds. “Hats off to Camile Salinas and the Masonic Outreach Services team,” Malear says. “They’re the ones that got us through this.”

Meanwhile, Malear and others turned their attention to opening the lodge to those who’d been displaced. Two members parked their RVs in the parking lot, which was outfitted with a 50-amp electrical hookup. Jeffrey Swartz, the current master of the lodge, rounded up several cots and delivered them to the lodge from his home in Bakersfield, 60 miles away, so that displaced residents could sleep in the air-conditioned lodge room.

A Community Resource

That proved prescient. On August 21, a team of firefighters pulled into the parking lot and asked to camp out at the lodge. The team was pulling all-day shifts and sleeping in tents in the 100-degree heat. The lodge welcomed them in enthusiastically, and that night, between 15 and 20 firefighters slept on the floor of the lodge room. Another member, Anthony Miller—who’d only been initiated into the lodge a month prior—and his wife cooked dinner for the crew, while others showed up to brew coffee and deliver supplies.

Sensing an opportunity to transform the lodge hall into a true community resource, Malear worked with department officials to formally establish the lodge as a temporary CalFire headquarters. Thanks to that designation, in the future, the department knows it can tap the lodge as a command center during another crisis. Says Malear, “We have this beautiful lodge, and for what? For 56 members to enjoy? It’s important for us to open it up to the community.”

Michael Dornner was among those who found refuge there. Along with his wife and brother, he slept at the lodge for more than a week while his home in Wofford Heights was under evacuation orders. “If it hadn’t been for Charlie and the Masons, I don’t know what we would have done,” he says. In the end, Dornner was one of the lucky ones: His home withstood the fire and his insurance claim came to just a few thousand dollars.

For McKinney, the lodge’s actions during the fire were a heartening reminder of the good the group is capable of. “It was a tremendous effort,” he says.

Seth Babcock, the lodge’s junior deacon, was similarly gratified. “Everybody came together to help, and everyone helped,” he says. “I’m proud to be part of that. I’m proud to be part of this lodge.”


For support and information about Masonic Outreach Services,
call (888) 466-3642.

To volunteer with the Lodge Outreach Program,
call (888) 466-3642 or email [email protected]

We’re Here to Help

RELIEF FOR CALIFORNIA MASONS AND THEIR FAMILIES

  • Information and referrals
  • Senior communities in Covina and Union City
  • Statewide Masonic Outreach Services for members of all ages and their families
  • Transitions short-term care for neurological and post-surgical rehabilitation (Union City)
  • The Masonic Center for Youth and Families in San Francisco and Covina – with telehealth services now available everywhere
  • NEW! Shared housing for seniors in Covina

Contact us today to access your member benefits and services:

masonichome.org
(888) 466-3642

mcyaf.org
(877) 488-6293 (San Francisco)
(626) 251-2300 (Covina)

PHOTOS BY:
Alex Horvath/Bakersfield Californian

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