Muriel Harsh has lived in the Northern California community of Lake Shastina for nearly four decades, but only twice has the 95-year-old had to evacuate her home and move into a Red Cross shelter because of a wildfire – last year in July for the Lava Fire and this year for the Mill Fire.
On September 3, Muriel sat in a borrowed wheelchair, wrapped up in Red Cross blankets, and talked about her beloved home she hoped to soon return to.
“I’m anxious to go home,” she said, and was especially worried about her elderly cat she’d left behind with food and water because it was too old to travel.
Muriel said she has views of Mt. Shasta from windows in her home and until recently loved to get out and hike in the area.
Muriel’s son Sonny, who lives with her in Lake Shastina, said he got a warning that an evacuation was imminent on his cell phone on Friday soon after the fast-moving fire started. Not much later, a sheriff’s deputy knocked on their door and told them to go.
Sonny took a suitcase he had packed for a weekend visit with a friend, but Muriel left with only the clothes she was wearing. They spent one night in a motel before moving to the Red Cross shelter opened at the Karuk Wellness Center in Yreka. When they got there Red Cross nurses loaned Muriel a wheelchair to use.
Both said the Red Cross has been taking good care of them while the await word on the fate of their home.
It was all hands on deck for firefighters in Humboldt and Trinity counties over the weekend.
Twelve fires began Friday, August 5, sparked by thunderstorms that moved across the region. Due to efforts of firefighters, eight fires remained active, earning the name Six Rivers Lightning Complex.
(When there are two or more wildfires burning close together in the same area, they are often called a complex and attacked by firefighters under a unified command).
Firefighters from hundreds of miles around rolled into the region to help fight the fires. Among them were the Shingle Springs Band of Miwok Indians’ Red Hawk Crew of 19 firefighters. The crew from El Dorado County traveled six hours to report for duty.
The 19 firefighters were on the fire line when the fire took an unexpected run and destroyed their two crew transport vehicles. Fortunately, the vehicles were far from the crew and no one was hurt.
Personal items, food, tents, sleeping bags, as well as equipment and gear needed to continue fighting the fire had been in the transport vehicles and were all destroyed.
The crew was left with only the clothes on their backs.
They were in the forest with no transportation out and nowhere to stay.
That night, after walking to a U.S. Forestry Service ranger station, the group could only find lodging an hour away but still had no transportation.
When the American Red Cross was made aware of the firefighters’ situation, they reached out to offer the firefighters a safe place to sleep.
Arrangements were quickly made to transport the group to the Red Cross shelter in Willow Creek.
“I am very proud we were here to be able to assist the firefighters,” said Red Cross shelter manager Angi Irmer. “In a sense, they were also evacuees and lost what personal belongings they had with them. They were so gracious and very thankful for our help.”
“The Red Cross really saved our butts and we can’t thank them enough,” said Chris McClendon, Fire Lead of the Red Hawk crew. “We got beds and help as soon as we walked in.
“They set us up in our own little area in a gym and we were able to sleep all night. We were really well taken care of. The next morning, we met some of the evacuees and got to talk to them. They seemed pretty grateful we had traveled so far to help them. That felt pretty good.”
The 19 firefighters were waiting for a bus to take them home to El Dorado County so they could regroup, restock their equipment, replace lost personal items, and get ready to redeploy to the fire, if needed.
With all that happened to them, they’re ready to go back.
“We go to this neck of the woods multiple times a year,” McClendon said, “So we’re ready to help, if needed.”
Bob Dunham and Patty Girdner evacuated from Yreka and got acquainted through their stay at the Red Cross shelter in Weed. Neither had been in a situation of needing to shelter away from home previously, so they had no idea what to expect when they got there.
Bob and Patty both said they have been “blessed and amazed” by the care they have gotten from the Red Cross volunteers.
Bob, who has lived in Siskiyou County for 44 years, was not in an area of town that was under a mandatory evacuation, but the unpredictability of the situation and his health concerns affected by the smoke brought him to the shelter.
While he was at the shelter, Bob’s dog, Scooter, was being cared for at the Rescue Ranch dog shelter. His growing up as a military dependent and going through earthquake drills when he was a kid in Japan and Hawaii taught him to be prepared always to “go on a moment’s notice.”
Patty was in a similar situation as Bob. She said she would love to be a volunteer when she gets back on her feet, health-wise. Patty said she is very grateful for the support she has received at the Red Cross shelter.
“I’ve never seen the over-abundance of giving like this. I want to volunteer and give back.”
Both Patty and Bob repeatedly expressed how much they appreciated having the shelter available. Both could often be seen trying to help out in some way around the shelter.
Bob said, “I’m happy for what little I’ve been able to do around the shelter.”
“We’re all in the same boat. Everybody has come together,” said Patty. “We are all helping each other.”
As Bob and Patty talk about their evacuation experiences, they remain hopeful and eager to get back to their homes. They both noted, “It’s all about perspective,” that “choosing to live in Siskiyou County means choosing to live with the possibility of wildfire.”
Bob said, “Everyone encounters disasters. Each area has its own kind of potential disaster. How you get through it is with the relief from the Red Cross and other organizations – the people showing up just to make donations was unbelievable. To be hands on with the Red Cross…you guys are wonderful.
“It’s the heart and empathy that makes people want to be Red Cross volunteers and do the amazing things you’re doing here.”
You can support Red Cross disaster relief efforts by making a financial donation at redcross.org/donate.
Deidra Cazneaux’s deployment with the California Gold Country Region of the American Red Cross to the McKinney Fire was her first, but it wasn’t obvious.
The McKinney Fire in Siskiyou County displaced some 2,000 residents in late July. That’s when Cazneaux looked straight into the face of the disaster and went right to work.
“I just walked into the shelter kitchen and took over,” she said.
In her days at the shelter, Cazneaux always did her job with a smile, chatting with each evacuee and even advocating for them to ensure partner agencies who provided meals were offering nutritious options.
Shelter manager Bill Hart described Cazneaux, saying, “Deidra is an incredibly positive force in the face of controlled chaos.”
In recognition of her work at the shelter and her positive attitude while on the job, Cazneaux was presented with a Red Cross Disaster Cycle Services challenge coin.
“It’s always been in my heart to serve people,” Cazeneaux said, adding: “It’s an avenue for me to be who God wants me to be.”
The American Red Cross is busy 365 days a year, 24 hours a day turning compassion into action.
When Siskiyou County’s McKinney Fire broke out, the Red Cross was called upon to open an evacuation shelter in Yreka. Within just a few hours, the doors were open.
Once evacuation orders were issued in Yreka, the Red Cross relocated the shelter to the Weed Community Center.
Barbara Leper, 78, and her husband are at the shelter in Weed because they are once again under the threat of losing everything all over again. “Last year we had to run for our lives when our home in Happy Camp burned to the ground in just a few minutes,” Leper said.
The Lepers have lived in beautiful Siskiyou County for nearly 30 years. Regardless of the continuum of wildfires, they are planning to stay put in the Weed community. “We just love it here, it’s our home,” Leper said.
The Red Cross was there for the Lepers last year. Leper shared how the Red Cross helped them along with temporary housing and the essential items they needed.
“The Red Cross kept helping us along the way,” Leper said. “We received another $500 gift certificate in December for food and gas.”
Jesus Soberano, his wife, Chantel, and their two children pulled up at the Red Cross shelter in Weed, Calif., days after evacuating their Fort Jones home during the McKinney Fire.
The family was staying at a nearby hotel but Jesus said it’s getting expensive.
Chantel said she will likely need a heart transplant soon and that being outside, breathing the smoky air was less than ideal.
The Soberanos went inside the shelter to see what assistance the Red Cross could provide.
Minutes later, the family emerged with comfort kits full of toiletries and a tiny Red Cross teddy bear for Shasta, the youngest.
“This is great,” Jesus said, watching his daughter clutch her new furry friend. “Thank you.”
A Red Cross volunteer reminded the family that they don’t have to stay at the shelter to receive help. Should they need it, snacks, meals, drinks and even a little neighborly conversation are available anytime.
A big thank you to Cowabunga Ice Cream Truck out of Valley Springs for delivering some frozen sweet treats to our shelter in San Andreas this week.
During a wildfire, when our shelter guests have lost so much, something as simple as ice cream can sure boost their spirits!
Cowabunga’s owners posted on Facebook: “A great night visiting evacuees and volunteers in San Andreas. Next stop Amador! Passing out free ice cream for those who have been displaced and those that need a smile on their faces. Fun night.”
Thank you for caring, Cowabunga!
For information on how you can support the American Red Cross during times of disaster, visit redcross.org/donate.