It was November 8, two days after American Red Cross disaster volunteer John Crepeau of Hollister, California, had returned from spending two weeks helping to feed people in communities devastated by Hurricane Michael. Word came that a wildfire was sweeping through the community of Paradise, California, where his sister lived across the street from his family’s vacation home.
“I’d never seen such destruction,” the 70-year-old retired aerospace quality control engineer said of what he’d seen in Mexico Beach and other Florida communities he had passed through in a Red Cross emergency response vehicle equipped to serve meals on the go. “Mexico Beach was basically eliminated,” he said, with boats strewn across what had been residential streets. “Sometimes I’d see the tile floor left,” and nothing else from a home, he said. “It was pretty eye-opening.”
Those who were there cleaning up their community after the hurricane “were overjoyed to have someone bringing them a hot meal every day,” he said. “They really depend on us.”
Crepeau said that he at first thought what had been named the Camp Fire would be put out long before it reached his family’s and his sister’s homes on the westerly side of Paradise near Chico. “They’ll get it under control,” he remembered thinking.
His sister, who was deadly afraid of wildfires, had left town quickly after learning of the fire, grabbing a plastic tub she had earlier placed by her front door filled with documents she considered important, and her cat, Crepeau said.
Days later, however, he and his sister found out from a Pacific Gas & Electric employee working in the area that their homes were gone. A video shot by a news crew on his street confirmed “there’s nothing there,” Crepeau said.
So, while Crepeau had seen the devastation wrought by a wildfire on some of the six Red Cross assignments he’s been on in the two years since he became a Red Cross volunteer, Crepeau now knew more about what those he’s been helping go through.
“I’d seen that type of destruction” in this summer’s Carr Fire in Redding, Crepeau said, describing seeing former neighborhoods that were now just ash, with an occasional fireplace or the remains of a car instead of suburban streets.
“Now I understand much, much better what it’s like,” he said. “I was there, and I saw the aftermath, but I didn’t feel it firsthand.”
The home where Crepeau’s family had celebrated years of “good family parties and reunions and dinners” and a treasured vintage Volkswagen Beetle are gone, but Crepeau said he feels lucky.
“I still have a home,” in Hollister, he said. “I don’t feel anywhere as bad as I do for my sister-in-law,” he added. “I’m very lucky. I have my family. I have my wife, my kids,” he said.
“It’s bad, but it could be worse, it could be this house.”
Crepeau said he is also following the example of his sister and placing a bin by his front door filled with his important papers. “I’m going through my files,” he said. “We do have earthquakes down here.”
After the experience, “I’m going to be a little more cognizant of being prepared,” Crepeau said. “It’s for real and it can happen anywhere.”
Photos and story by Barbara Wood, American Red Cross volunteer