When Disaster Strikes

Smoke from the King Fire rises across the El Dorado County sky.
Smoke from the King Fire rises across the El Dorado County sky.

It began on the evening of Saturday, September 13. A small fire took hold of the landscape in Pollock Pines, California and began moving from tree to tree in this forested community hit hard by the ongoing drought. By Sunday morning, it was clear that the King Fire would not be going without a fight. Within hours, the fire quickly jumped in size from 500 acres to 1,000 to 2,000.

The billowing smoke put on a dazzling display for onlookers as it “boiled” over the tree tops. A fleet of firefighting aircraft swarmed the skies overhead, bombarding the blaze with everything they had but having minimal impact. The terrain was rugged, the wilderness like kindling, and the wind driving the flames beyond the reach of firefighters.

The dangers well-realized, Red Cross volunteers quickly mobilized to establish an evacuation shelter for the community. With the unpredictable fire threatening the small town, an initial plan to set up operations at the familiar Pollock Pines Community Center was instead moved to the Sierra Ridge Middle School a few miles away on the South side of Highway 50. Out of harm’s way and perched on a hilltop, the panoramic view offered evacuated residents and volunteers alike a front row seat for what would soon become one of the largest wildfires in recent memory.

By Monday, the King Fire had quadrupled in size to nearly 9,000 acres and was only getting started. With 1,500 homes threatened in the area, Red Cross volunteers were working tirelessly to ensure there was enough space, food, and supplies to accommodate the needs at the shelter. While many evacuees made alternative arrangements for places to stay, the shelter served as a gathering place for hundreds of community members to comfort each other and receive updates from fire officials. It was a hub of activity which would not soon subside.

As we focused sharply on the King Fire response, news began to come in from Siskiyou County, the northernmost county in California and our own Capital Region. In the City of Weed, a small town located near the foot of Mount Shasta, the Boles Fire had erupted and quickly tore through this close-knit community. The famous winds which had been an integral part of the town’s history and foundation, had pushed the blaze through the town, damaging or destroying more than 150 homes, destroying churches, damaging schools, and impacting the infrastructure of one of the town’s largest employers. The impacts were devastating.

Helicopter makes a water drop on the Boles Fire in Weed, CA
Helicopter makes a water drop on the Boles Fire in Weed, CA

With the Interstate closed due to the fire, two evacuation shelters were quickly established – to the North at Yreka High School and to the South at Mt Shasta High School. With no time to act and nowhere to go, more than 200 residents stayed in those shelters that first night. The Boles Fire would ultimately consume 479 acres before being fully contained, but the damage had been done in only a matter of hours.

Red Cross Disaster Operations Center in Sacramento
Red Cross Disaster Operations Center in Sacramento

Now focused on two fronts, the Capital Region moved to coordinate delivery of services to these affected communities, separated by 285 miles. Through the Red Cross Disaster Operations Center in Sacramento, volunteers coordinated food, supplies, and staffing for the King Fire shelter which had now moved to its third and final location at the Seventh Day Adventist Church in Camino. At the same time, clean up supplies and additional volunteer support were deployed to Weed.

Volunteers Sharon Andrews, Debbie Gentry-Rao, and Gregory Small discuss needs at the fire sites.
Volunteers Sharon Andrews, Debbie Gentry-Rao, and Gregory Small discuss needs at the fire sites.

Our Capital Region’s highly trained and experienced volunteers and staff were soon joined by additional Red Crossers from around California and neighboring, brought in to assist the ongoing response. While some coordinated the logistics of getting goods, supplies, and personnel from place to place, others embedded with other response agencies to coordinate efforts through state and local Emergency Operations Centers.

Meanwhile, the “boots on the ground” worked constantly to provide for the needs of the communities. Volunteers on both ends of the region worked around the clock to provide safe shelter for residents, prepare and serve food for evacuated families, provide clean up supplies and a helping hand as they returned to their properties, and offer care and comfort for all those in need.

Volunteer Paul Keeton helps members of the Lee family as they go through the remains of their home in Weed.
Volunteer Paul Keeton helps members of the Lee family as they go through the remains of their home in Weed.

On Saturday, September 23, as volunteers surveyed the damaged neighborhoods in Weed, delivering food and supplies to residents at their properties, we opened a service center at the nearby College of the Siskiyous. Those in need of assistance met face to face with volunteers seeking to connect them with any and all services necessary to begin the recovery process. Three days later, other state and local response agencies would join the Red Cross at the same location, providing a one-stop-shop for aid. This Local Assistance Center would close on September 28, however the Red Cross would remain at the site three more days to ensure everyone received the assistance they required.

Red Cross Emergency Response Vehicles deliver supplies to service center in Weed
Red Cross Emergency Response Vehicles deliver supplies to service center in Weed

Similarly in El Dorado County, service centers were established in the towns of Placerville and Georgetown to assist residents who had been affected by the King Fire. Some of these residents had remained evacuated nearly two weeks since the fire’s beginning.

Finally, a much needed break in the weather brought rain across the Capital Region, dousing any lingering embers in Weed and shifting the advantage to firefighters in El Dorado County. It was September 25 – ten days since the Boles Fire began – when the evacuation shelter, which had ultimately moved to the National Guard Armory in Mt Shasta, closed.

Volunteer Pat Day speaks with Weed residents at the Boles Fire evacuation shelter in Mt Shasta. Pat served as the shelter manager.
Volunteer Pat Day speaks with Weed residents at the Boles Fire evacuation shelter in Mt Shasta. Pat served as the shelter manager.

The next day, as fire crews began to turn the corner on the King Fire, many evacuations were finally lifted and residents returned safely to their homes. After 12 days and three locations, the King Fire evacuation shelter in Camino closed. And soon after, having met the immediate needs of the community, the Red Cross service centers in Placerville and Georgetown closed as well.

Volunteers Jenny Anderson and John Gatofalos helped staff a temporary King Fire evacuation center in South Lake Tahoe.
Volunteers Jenny Anderson and John Gatofalos helped staff a temporary King Fire evacuation center in South Lake Tahoe.

The Red Cross response to both the Boles and King Fires spanned for  more than two weeks, from September 14 through October 3. During that time more than 180 Red Cross volunteers and staff provided 379 overnight shelter stays, served 2,800 meals and 3,500 snacks, distributed 170 comfort kits and 2,900 bulk/clean up items, provided 436 health services and 428 mental health contacts, and connected more than 120 people with assistance and services to aid in long term recovery.

Volunteers of Red Cross and the Southern Baptist Convention Disaster Relief set up a kitchen and feeding site for Boles Fire residents.
Volunteers of Red Cross and the Southern Baptist Convention Disaster Relief set up a kitchen and feeding site for Boles Fire residents.

Numerous organizations came forward to help to collect and distribute donated items to the affected communities. Dozens of local restaurants and businesses in El Dorado, Siskiyou, and surrounding counties stepped in to help provide food and other assistance. Organizations large and small contributed support to the relief efforts, and countless individuals from in and around the affected areas came forward to help their friends, family, and neighbors in need.

NOTE – While many resources were focused toward the ongoing wildfire relief efforts, the day-to-day business in our region continued. In fact, during the span of these wildfires, Red Cross Capital Region volunteers also responded to 23 local home fires, providing assistance to 66 displaced residents!

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Gold Country Crosswords

The American Red Cross Gold Country Region serves the Sierra-Delta Chapter as well as the Northeastern California Chapter, a total of 24 Counties from Stanislaus to Siskiyou. We are happy to serve the 4.4 million residents in the state.

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