It was an all too familiar sight to Kari Guthrie as she saw smoke start to rise up over the hills near her home in Mosquito, California. It was the early beginning of the King Fire, a blaze in El Dorado County which has grown to over 82,000 acres across the drought-ravaged landscape since it first started on September 13.
It was only a month ago when a similar scenario unfolded nearby when Kari was spurred to take action. Another fire, the Sand Fire, was burning down the road and threatening communities. The news reported that the Red Cross had opened a shelter for evacuated residents and Kari decided it was a chance to help those in need.
“I had taken culinary courses and even owned my own bakery, so I thought that may be a way I could help,” says Kari.
She was right! Kari was soon put to work organizing the kitchen and helping to prepare food for evacuees. For four days, Kari led the kitchen staff at the Red Cross shelter, delivering dozens of meals and helping residents endure the uncertainty of the ongoing fire.
When the smoke cleared, Kari decided that helping others through the Red Cross was what she wanted to do. But she wasn’t doing it alone.
“We had a great team of about 30 people in that kitchen, and when it was over we all decided to take Red Cross classes and train as official Red Cross volunteers!”
Now, as the smoke from the King Fire began to quickly tower over the small communities in El Dorado County, Kari received the call. An evacuation shelter was opening in nearby Pollock Pines and her help was needed.
“I was excited to respond because this was my first disaster as a Red Cross volunteer and I was looking forward to putting my training to work.”
At the Pollock Pines Community Center, volunteers and residents began to arrive. Everyone was mesmerized by the rapidly expanding cloud of smoke and endless swarm of helicopters and firefighting planes overhead trying to corral the flames. It was quickly apparent that this was not going to be an easy fight.
As Kari joined with other volunteers to begin coordinating the Red Cross response, her phone rang. The fire was growing quickly and had placed many communities in danger, including her own.
“I had been at the shelter for less than an hour when I received a call that my own home was under a mandatory evacuation! I only had a few minutes to get home and grab a few things.”
Kari returned to her house, picked up her family, dogs, cat, and a few important items and returned to the evacuation shelter…this time as an evacuee.
“It was so scary. I didn’t really know what to do or what was going to happen, but I had all of the important things with me so that helped a lot.”
Throughout the afternoon news reports filtered in, the plume rose in full view of the shelter, and more residents arrived. Seeing her community once again in need of help, Kari made a choice.
“Everyone needed help, and that’s why I became a volunteer. So I took my family down the road to stay with friends and I returned to the shelter to do the work I set out to do.”
Since that moment, Kari has been hard at work leading a feeding operation that has served hundreds of meals to residents as they patiently wait for the opportunity to return to their homes. All this while she remains evacuated and awaits word on the fate of her own home and community.
Her selflessness seems to be a family trait as she has since been joined by her daughter, son-in-law, and two young grandsons, all of whom are pitching in to help in any way they can. Son-in-law Kelly served in Iraq and has used his experience to help set up cots, while daughter Kayla and grandson Carson help out in the kitchen!
When asked why she decided to volunteer, her answer is simple: “to pay it forward.”
“This community means the world to me. When my family was touched by tragedy, the community rallied around and showed us so much love and support. If I am able to give back even a little bit of that compassion, then that’s what I am going to do. The Red Cross has provided the perfect opportunity to do just that.”
As of September 21, the King Fire has expanded to more than 82,000 acres and is only 10 percent contained. Though evacuations remain in place, Kari’s home remains safe.
Thank you for your service, Kari!