Neighbors: Former Fargo pastor prepares for Christmas in Paradise after wildfire levels California town

Dave Bruns' wife, Ginny, was stranded at this Lutheran church in Paradise, Calif., as a wildfire leveled most of the city. Special to The Forum

Someday, being a Christian, Pastor Dave Bruns will know the glory of the heavenly paradise.

Today, he knows the horror of Paradise, Calif. That’s because he lives there and saw the recent massive wildfire that leveled the town.

Dave and his family moved to Paradise from Fargo in 2009 to become the senior adult ministries pastor of Paradise Alliance Church.

He’d been raised on an Iowa dairy farm. After college he served in a Baptist church in Tioga, N.D., for seven years until 1986. Since then, he’s lived in San Bernardino, Calif., earned a theology master’s degree and lived in Fargo, where he was the director of child evangelism fellowship, then pastor of Christian education, at Bethel Church.

Paradise, with a population of about 27,000, is a twin city of Magalia, with a population of about 11,000. The cities are separated by a creek. Dave, 63, his wife Ginny and their children lived on Pentz Road, just south of Paradise.


The whole area has been very dry, Dave, 63, wrote Neighbors. It has had only a quarter of an inch of rain since June; that came in early October.

“It was fall; we had leaves and pine needles dropping on the forest floor,” Dave says. “The trees were dry. Throw in 35-50 mph winds and you had the perfect wildfire situation.”

Nervous as a grasshopper

“I remember first seeing smoke around 7 a.m. that day,” when the raging wildfire was approaching Paradise, Dave says. “I called a friend. He felt we would be OK because the fire was at least 2 miles away. But the wind drove the fire into Paradise in a very short time. I heard later the fire was growing at the rate of a football field in size about every five seconds.

“Folks along Pentz Road were the first residents to begin evacuating. Some barely made it out before their homes began burning. I’ve heard many harrowing stories of residents driving through walls of flames to evacuation routes.

“We lived about 2 to 3 miles south of where the fire entered Paradise. We’ve had fires before and each one was contained and put out, so Ginny and I had this false sense of security that morning. I remember showering and getting ready for work thinking the fire department would quickly get on this fire and we would be fine. I even drove to work.

“However, I only drove about halfway when I saw the ominous black smoke cloud, which appeared like a volcanic eruption, so I knew the fire had already made it into Paradise. And with the winds blowing so hard, I thought it might be wise to head home in case we got an evacuation notice.

“My wife also had gone to work. When she got to the office, they told her the city was evacuating. She attempted to drive home only to find herself in a lot of cars clogging up Pentz Road. She never did make it back to our house. She ended up riding out the fire in the parking lot of the Missouri Synod Lutheran Church.


Pastor Dave Bruns and his wife, Ginny. Special to The Forum

“She and I were in constant communication by phone. She sent me pictures of flames all around her car. I remember thinking I might become a widower that day.

“But praise God the fire went around the parking lot, sparing her. The wind continued west, but not before the Lutheran church burned to the ground.

“In the meantime, I was home packing up laptops, photo albums, important paper files and a suitcase of clothes for my wife. Ever tried packing a suitcase for your wife? That was a first for me. But she actually complimented me for what I remembered to pack when we were reunited later that day.

“But I was nervous as a grasshopper in a Midwest hailstorm because I had to figure out what to take with me and what to leave behind. I had two dogs and a cat to put into kennels in the back of the truck. I took the dogs with me, but the cat was nowhere to be found. But the cat survived and is doing well.“

During all this time, all of Dave’s children were calling him about every five minutes giving him updates on the fire and strongly encouraging him to get out immediately. But Dave says he “felt unsettled about the possibility of losing both his home and his church.

“I was also fearful for so many seniors at our church,” he says. “Some of them have disabilities and do not drive.

“Praise God that all of our seniors made it out except one; she was a dear 87-year-old saint.”


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Praying, crying

“About 10:30 that morning,” Dave continues, “I decided it was time to bug out of my home and head to Chico. I have four children there. It was bumper-to-bumper traffic most of the way; Interstate 99 was a parking lot. It is normally a half-hour drive. I got to my daughter’s home around 2 p.m,” so this day it was about a three and a half hour drive.

“I remember praying and crying with my wife over the phone,” he says. “I also remember crawling along in traffic talking to God and asking him for peace of mind and thanking him for his sovereignty over all the circumstances we were facing.

“No, I did not close my eyes and bow my head while I drove, and there were many distractions. Firetrucks were driving past me in the median and on the shoulder of the road. It was mass confusion, but people stayed on the road and everyone stayed in their lanes.

“We currently are staying with our daughter Kim and her husband Ryan in Chico,” where his other children Brooke, Kris and Dan also live, Dave says.

Thankfully, Dave and Ginny’s home was totally undamaged. In the 30-home development where they live, only three houses were destroyed.

“Our house has a bit of a smoke smell, but I believe that will leave once we get some fresh air flowing through it,” he says. “I have ash everywhere around the house, but that should eventually be washed clean by the rains we are now getting.”

Their church, too, was undamaged other than a few scorched bushes around it. Another nearby church also was spared.


God of hope

Since the fire, Dave says he’s had time to contemplate and pray about many things.

“I have asked God the obvious question: ‘Why?’ But I’m also thanking God constantly for his grace and mercy and for sparing so many lives. The death numbers could have been much higher than they are.

“I’m also reminded of a verse our pastor shared in his sermon last Sunday, from Romans 15:13: ‘May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.’ God is speaking to me through that verse.”

Dave’s congregation now is worshipping with the people in Neighborhood Church, their sister Christian and Missionary Alliance church in Chico.

“We are planning to hold our own service at Neighborhood on Jan. 6,” Dave says. “We are pretty certain we will be worshipping there for the next several months. Cleanup in Paradise will take time and few of us have homes to go back to, so worshipping in Chico makes practical sense for now.”

Above all, Dave says, it should be remembered that God “is still good all the time, but he does allow pain, suffering and tragedy in our lives for good reasons; reasons best left up to an all-wise God to know and work out his way. We humans would mess this process up big time if we wanted only good things to happen all the time.

“I may not understand disasters, but God does. Personally, that’s all I need to know. That truth actually comforts me and provides me with a peace that transcends all understanding.”

Christmas in Paradise

Dave wrote earlier this month that his congregation planned to hold their Christmas Eve service in their own church back in Paradise, as it appeared roads into town would be open and because their lead pastor was eager to have worship services in their own building. If they did, it would have been the church’s first service there since the fire.


They were inviting several other churches in Paradise to join them. Details were being worked out when Dave wrote Neighbors. But one thing was for sure, he said: “It should be quite a celebration.”

As for today (Christmas Day), Dave wrote that “Ginny and I and the kids will all be together enjoying a great meal, opening presents and just generally thanking our God for his amazing grace and mercy through this crazy ordeal we have been through.”

Neighbors trusts that despite all they’ve been through, the Bruns family is indeed having a fine Christmas Day, as it trusts all of you neighbors are, wherever you live, as you celebrate the birth of the savior.

If you have an item of interest for this column, mail it to Neighbors, The Forum, Box 2020, Fargo, ND 58107, fax it to 701-241-5487 or email

Bob Lind
Bob Lind, Neighbors columnist. The Forum

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