Volunteers and Staff of the California Wildfires – Part 3

The Faces of a Disaster Response Operation

By Catie Ballenger, American Red Cross Public Affairs

Trained American Red Cross volunteers are working around the clock in California to help people impacted by the massive wildfires which have forced whole communities from their homes. Who are these incredible people who generously give of their time and talent in the face of disaster? In this series, we will introduce you to many of them. For part one of this series, click here. For part two, click here.

Name: Dick Ditore

Home Region: Southern California

Deployment Focus: Distribution of Emergency Supplies

Deployment Length: 9 days

Dick Ditore volunteered with the Red Cross for four years and each of those years, he has deployed. The 2021 California Wildfire response is his third deployment.

“I love deployment because it is so hands-on and even though you meet people at the worst time of their lives, you can make a connection and possibly help them right away,” said Dick.

Dick had to drive over a closed mountain road over Donner pass to make his delivery on time.

Dick’s most significant memory of his recent deployment was driving an Emergency Response Vehicle from Sacramento to Reno, Nevada. Many roads were closed due to wildfires stranding him on the freeway for over two hours.

He knew he had to reach his destination to deliver emergency supplies. He was able to obtain permission to reroute through a closed mountain road over Donner Pass and made his delivery on time.

“Red Cross volunteers never quit until we get the job done,” Dick said, proudly.

Dick tells new volunteers to “jump in, the waters fine! It has been great for me.”

In fact, that was exactly how his volunteer career with the Red Cross began.

Dick’s Emergency Response Vehicle

I called the local chapter office to find out about volunteering and they asked if I could go to Texas to support Hurricane Harvey relief the next day. I said, ‘yes.’ It was baptism by fire” explained Dick.

Dick likes having the opportunity to give back. In addition to doing disaster work, Dick also delivers lifesaving blood to hospitals one shift a week.

Name: Des Church

Home Region: Northwest

Deployment Focus: Disaster Mental Health

Deployment Length: 10 Days

Des Church loves to help others in times of crisis, which she had ample opportunity to do on her most recent deployment to the California Wildfires.

Des Church stands in front of the staff shelter in Lassen county.

“It warms my heart to do little things to help ease others’ stress. Sometimes it’s giving a listening ear as people retell their experiences, other times it is rocking a baby, entertaining a child to give parents a break, loving on a family pet or just giving a simple smile!”

Des pulled double duty on her California wildfire deployment as a Disaster Mental Health manager from the field.

She explained, “In addition to the management part of this response, I was working at the Lassen Community College and Lassen High School shelters.”

At the time of her deployment, the Lassen County shelter was the largest, providing refuge to roughly 50 people inside and about 150 people staying outside in tents and campers.

“We had a variety of age groups and needs, especially mobility issues. However, the people staying with us were resilient. Many had experienced shelter moves more than once as the Dixie Fire kept spreading.” 

Des enjoys a Friday Funday treat for volunteers.

Des recounts her favorite mission moment from the deployment. “Every day, I’d visit with an elderly man, Larry. He was concerned about his growing facial hair. He was bothered by the feel of his whiskers and he took great pride in his appearance. I pointed out that the comfort kit he’d received had a razor in it. He wasn’t a very verbal gentleman, but he made it known that he wasn’t accustomed to using a regular razor. He was more comfortable with an electric razor. I immediately made that request known to the shelter supervisor, who added it to his Walmart list. This simple purchase, I am convinced, made Larry’s whole year! The next day, he proudly gave me a big smile as he showed me his baby soft chin. Red Cross proud!”

Des encourages new volunteers to consider deployment.

A fire red sunset one evening outside of a Red Cross shelter.

Her advice is, “Be prepared and be flexible! Every deployment is different, but variety is the spice of life. Leave your baggage at home so you can be there for the clients in their time of need. You will have long and tiring days but intrinsic rewards! Have fun and do great work!”

Des is honored to be associated with the Red Cross and to work with the other volunteers.

“We may start as strangers, but we quickly form a team with a common focus. I love that about Red Cross. We are trained in our areas of expertise and brought together like different puzzle pieces to form a great team!”  

Volunteers like Des and Dick make up 90% of the Red Cross workforce, responding to more than 60,000 disasters every year. Large disasters like the California wildfires, hurricanes, floods and tornadoes are increasing in frequency and intensity. It’s critical to have a trained, ready volunteer workforce to make sure we can provide comfort and support to anyone who needs aid after a disaster. Join us to make a difference in our community and help someone in need after a disaster. Learn more at redcross.org/volunteer.

Evacuating a Second Time is Harder than the First.

August 20, 2021

By Catie Ballenger, American Red Cross Public Affairs.

Ruben Garcia, his father Baltzar and mother Maria, longtime residents of Greenville, California, quickly packed their most precious belongings and rushed from their home. Dixie, the second largest wildfire in Californian history, was on the warpath and they were in its way.

“We were scared. They told us to leave and that we were in danger. It was extra hard on my mom,” explained Ruben.

Ruben and his father sit in the sunshine in front of the shelter.

Wildfires are incredibly unpredictable, so when the winds shifted direction, changing the course of the fire, the evacuation order was lifted, and the family was allowed to return home.

“Our home is everything to us, so when we were told we could go back, we were so relieved,” said Ruben.

When another evacuation order forced them to relocate again, the  Garcia family took refuge at the American Red Cross Shelter in Quincy, California.

“My mother didn’t want to leave a second time. Both my parents have a hard time getting around and the first evacuation was difficult for them. Mom just didn’t want to do it again,” explained Ruben. “It was hard. We left hoping this wouldn’t be the last time we saw our home.”

Ruben and his family have been in the shelter for about two weeks. Baltzar and Maria both have limited mobility and English is their second language.

“Staying at new places makes them anxious. But both Mom and Dad have felt very comfortable here,” Ruben said.

Ruben helps his father set up his new cell phone.

Everyone is welcome at a Red Cross shelter. The Red Cross does not discriminate based on nationality, race, religious beliefs, class, disability, political opinions, sexual orientation or gender identity. To support individuals like Ruben and his parents during natural disasters, specially trained Red Cross volunteers help assess physical shelters for accessibility. They coordinate any shelter modifications or items that may be needed, ranging from walkers or wheelchairs to sensory kits or interpreters.

Thankfully, the Garcia family home was not destroyed by the fire.

“Our house is still standing. There might be smoke damage but we can go home once it is safe.” Ruben and his parents are grateful. “I didn’t know that the Red Cross could help us like they did. They even got us a ride so we could go to the assistance center.”

A Red Cross volunteer chats with Ruben outside of the Local Assistance Center in Quincy, Calif.

Many of the residents at the Quincy shelter require specialized transportation or do not drive. The Red Cross arranged transport to the Local Assistance Center, a centralized location where the Red Cross, local organizations and government agencies provide information and recovery assistance resources. It was here that Ruben and his parents were able to replace lost identification documents and file insurance claims.

This is a heartbreaking situation for families who have lost everything. Trained Red Cross volunteers continue to help them cope as they await news about whether they will have a home to return to or when they can return. Volunteers have already made more than 5,000 contacts providing emotional support, health services and spiritual care for people who’ve been evacuated.

The threat isn’t over. Elevated to critical fire conditions and extreme heat are still spreading across the west and experts say there could be an above normal threat of wildfires through September. The Red Cross will continue to support individuals who have been affected by the devastating wildfires, like Ruben, Baltzar and Maria, until we are no longer needed.

Home is Where the Heart is.

By Catie Ballenger, American Red Cross Public Affairs

August 19, 2021

“Horrible. Horrifying. Unimaginable.” These are the three words that Johnnie Brookwood used to describe the wildfire that drove her out of her home in Greenwood, California. The Dixie Fire, California’s second-largest wildfire in modern history, forced the community to evacuate Wednesday, August 6, 2021, destroying the tiny Northern California mountain town.

Johnnie sought refuge at the American Red Cross shelter in Quincy, Calif. Here she has a safe roof over her head, access to hot meals and relief items. Trained Red Cross volunteers are on hand helping evacuees cope as they await news about whether they will have a home to return to when the fires subside. Volunteers are also replacing prescription medications, eyeglasses or critical medical equipment, like canes and wheelchairs, that were left behind in the rush to get to safety. A Red Cross health services volunteer was even able to connect Johnnie with a local dentist who provided much-needed dental care.

“I don’t know what I would do if I couldn’t stay here. I am so stressed, I can barely remember if I have been here for two weeks or two months,” said the 76-year-old woman. “Everyone is so nice here; sometimes I forget I have lost my home. This has become home. Home is where the heart is.”

Johnnie has indeed made her Red Cross cot into her home. She surrounds herself with the things that she loves, wildflowers, rock collections and her artwork. She enjoys welcoming people “inside her home” to offer them candy and show off her prized possessions. Johnnie tries to always keep a smile on her face.

“Things are bad enough, so I stay as cheerful as possible,” she said. “I think it keeps everyone’s spirits up.”

Like many shelter guests, Johnnie still cannot believe that “this devastation happened” to her and her neighbors. “At first, I didn’t think the fire would affect us at all. I have lived in California since 1982 and have never experienced anything like this,” said Johnnie. “Surely Greenville won’t burn, but then it did.”

Johnnie has called the Red Cross shelter in Quincy home for over two weeks. She knows each volunteer by name and they, in turn, have learned how to keep a smile on her face.

“My colored pencils were no longer sharp enough to color with,” Johnnie noted. “A Red Cross volunteer noticed I hadn’t been working on my art and when she found out about my pencils, she went out and bought me a pencil sharpener. I am grateful to the volunteers. I am grateful to be here, and I am grateful that I am alive.”

Johnnie will stay until she is allowed to go back to the wreckage that once was her home. After that, she doesn’t know what will happen.

Red Cross teams will stay in the community as long as needed, helping those affected by wildfire to begin recovery. Caseworkers will be assigned to follow up with evacuees to continue to support them in the weeks ahead to ensure they are connected to available resources.

Volunteers have been here since early July and will continue to support people like Johnnie affected by the dozens of fires that have forced tens of thousands across multiple states from their homes. 

Volunteers and Staff of the California Wildfires – Part 2

The Faces of a Disaster Response Operation

By Catie Ballenger, American Red Cross Public Affairs

Trained American Red Cross volunteers are working around the clock in California to help people impacted by the massive wildfires which have forced whole communities from their homes. Who are these incredible people who generously give of their time and talent in the face of disaster? In this series, we will introduce you to many of them. For part one of this series, click here.

Name: Carmela Burke

Home Chapter: Los Angeles

First Deployment Focus: Community Partnerships

First Deployment Length: 18 Days

Second Deployment Focus: Government Operations

Second Deployment Length: 9 Days

Carmela Burke is interviewed by the news during the 2013 memorial service for Yarnell 19 granite Mountain Hotshots.

Carmela Burke served 28 days on the Red Cross California Wildfires Disaster Response Operation (DRO). She deployed twice, back-to-back, first focusing on Community Partnerships and next as a Government Operations representative. Carmela’s day-to-day centered around communication, making connections and filling any gaps during the disaster response and recovery.

Carmela was raised to care for others. “It was just what my family and classmates did,” she said. As a Red Cross volunteer, she has deployed more than 35 times, including to the 9/11 recovery efforts in New York, operating the public hotline during Hurricane Katrina and flying into New York before landfall for Superstorm Sandy. 

During the pandemic, Carmela virtually deployed several times. While not responding in the face of disaster, she is an instructor for the International Services International Humanitarian Law (IHL) Dissemination Program and is a caseworker for the Restoring Family Links (RFL) Program. 

Carmela Burke’s workspace for her virtual California Wildfire Deployments.

Carmela said, “It is normal and admirable to want to help the moment you see tragedy.” However, she encourages people to consider volunteering for the Red Cross before disaster strikes. “Become a trained Red Cross volunteer before an emergency so you can quickly help when needed.”

Name: Donna Davis

Home Region: External Relations

Deployment Focus: Western New York

Deployment Length: 13 days

Donna Davis

As a former emergency services dispatcher and military aircrew, Donna Davis always went where there was a need and hasn’t stopped serving others, even though she is now retired. “As long as I am able, I will continue to respond where I am needed. Some day I may be the one that needs assistance and can only hope someone has it in their heart to help,” said Donna.

While deployed by the Red Cross to the California Wildfires, Donna worked in the Command Center to ensure that Government Operations, Public Affairs and Community Partnerships had what they needed to get their job done and facilitate streamlined information sharing.

As a volunteer since 2011, Donna has deployed 20 times. By far, her favorite deployment memories are seeing old friends and making new ones. “We are most certainly a family,” she said. Donna tells anyone who is considering volunteering with the Red Cross or thinking about deploying for the first time, “This can be the adventure of a lifetime. There can be joy. There can be heartbreak. There can be exhaustion. There can be boredom. This can be the most frustrating job you will ever love, but the payback can be enormous. You will know you made a difference.”

Name: Jan Fulfs

Home Region: Chicago and North Illinois

Deployment Focus: Disaster Health Services

Deployment Length: 13 Days

Jan Fulfs is heading home after her deployment.

As a nurse, Jan Fulfs is a caretaker at heart. In addition to owning and operating a home health agency in the northern Illinois area, she volunteers with the American Red Cross as a Health Services team member. “It is not often that we can truly make a difference in someone’s life. These disasters are devasting. If I can give just a little relief, an act of kindness, restoration of dignity to just one person, then I feel my time and energy have been well worth it,” said Jan.

Jan recently traveled to California to provide care for those affected by the wildfires wreaking havoc across the state. Working on the Disaster health team, she assisted evacuees with transfers, oxygen, personal care, ambulation and emotional support.

While working at the Susanville shelter, early one morning, Jan noticed an evacuee with her walker moving from the bathroom back to the dorm. “She looked at me and said ‘I’m tired’ and sat down on her walker seat. I asked, ‘Would you like me to wheel you back to your bed?’ She said ‘yes’. After we had entered the dorm, she suddenly went limp and quit breathing,” Jan said.

Jan Fulfs working from the Colorado Wildfire headquarters in Sacramento

Jan’s nursing instinct prompted her to quick action. “I was all by myself, so I began to yell for assistance. While waiting, I began mouth to mouth. After about five breaths, the woman started breathing again but did not regain consciousness. The paramedics arrived to take her to the hospital and once she was stable, she returned to the shelter.” The evacuee explained her situation to Jan. Because of a problem with her heart, she loses consciousness often but typically doesn’t stop breathing. “The woman told me she thought I had been placed in that shelter just for her. I’d like to think that, too.”

Red Cross disaster volunteers, like Jan, Donna and Carmela are an important part of our team. Join us to make a difference in your community and help someone in need after a disaster. Learn more at redcross.org/volunteer.

Volunteers and Staff of the California Wildfires – Part 1

The Faces of a Disaster Response Operation

By Catie Ballenger, American Red Cross Public Affairs

Trained American Red Cross volunteers are working around the clock in California to help people impacted by the massive wildfires which have forced whole communities from their homes. Red Cross workers are on the ground providing shelter, food and comfort. Behind the scenes, Red Cross staff coordinate logistics, conduct disaster assessments and assist in recovery.

Who are these incredible people who generously give of their time and talent in the face of disaster? In this series, we will introduce you to many of them.

Sean Grady

Region: Greater Carolinas

Deployment Focus: Shelter support

Length of Deployment: 12 days

July 2021- Sean Grady, Red Cross volunteer, organizes the dining area in the shelter he is working at. Photo provided by Sean Grady

Sean Grady, a Red Cross volunteer who calls the North Carolina Smoky Mountains home, recently gave his time and talent to provide not only a shelter but a temporary home to wildfire evacuees in Chester, Calif.

As soon as Sean arrived at the shelter, he got right to work. He was asked to work a few night shifts and agreed with a smile! “The nurse working at the shelter asked me if I would work overnight, 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. She needed a man who would work with male clients who had health issues and might need help during the night. So, of course, I told her I would be glad to,” Sean said.

The first night, Sean and fellow volunteer Holly Ebdon cleaned and organized everything. The following morning, one of the evacuees came to Sean and said, “What you did is amazing! This was a shelter. Now, it’s a home!”

Sean has been with the Red Cross since early 2014. He spends much of his volunteer time responding to house fires with the local Disaster Action Team, helping families with immediate needs following a fire. “I receive so much gratitude from the people I help. That is why I volunteer,” said Sean.

Sean encourages any volunteer who is considering deployment to do it at least once. “It is hard work and long hours, but especially, if you are on the front lines, you get to see the effects of our work right in front of you and you will receive the deepest gratitude.”

Name: Bill Dorman

Home Region: Central and South Texas

Deployment Focus: Mass Care Lead (Shelter support)

Length of Deployment: 15 Days

Bill Dorman, Red Cross Volunteer, Central and South Texas Region

Bill Dorman is not a stranger to rushing from his home to stay out of a wildfire’s devastating path, making him an excellent mass care volunteer. He lives in Austin, Texas, but he and his wife spend summers in Sonoma County, Calif. “Last summer, my wife, my brother-in-law who uses a wheelchair and I had to evacuate due to wildfires,” Bill said.

Most of Bill’s deployment was spent at operation headquarters, planning, organizing and leading the mass care team. However, he did get a chance to work directly with evacuees at the Local Assistance Center in Doyle, Calif.

In the 16 years Bill has been with the Red Cross, he has deployed 40 times. (Yes, you read that right, 40 deployments in 16 years!) He contributes his tenure to the camaraderie between Red Crossers. “My best Red Cross memories come from working with dedicated volunteers from all over the county,” said Bill.

As a deployment veteran, the advice he gives to first timers is, “Be ready for a seemingly chaotic experience. Be patient. Be flexible. And most importantly, remember that it is not about you.”

Name: Elizabeth Alvarez

Home Region: Arizona New Mexico El Paso

Deployment focus: Logistics

Length of Deployment: 18 days

Elizabeth Alvarez, a Red Cross volunteer of 4 years, was one of the many responders who deployed to the Campfire disaster response in California’s Gold Country in the fall of 2018. This summer, she returned to Gold County to work logistics for the 2021 California wildfires. “My Campfire deployment memories are still very powerful in my mind, so I empathize strongly with my colleagues and the people in this region. I was very motivated to do my part to support them,” said Elizabeth.  

During this summer’s wildfire response, Elizabeth supervised several first timers. She said, “I was so excited to see how committed they were to support our mission, how eager they were to learn and how quickly they came up to speed. They showed the best of the Red Cross spirit. They were flexible, as they were pushed beyond their comfort levels and rose to the challenges. They were here for the right reasons and demonstrated how lucky we are to have such a talented, skilled and dedicated workforce.”

As a seasoned disaster responder, Elizabeth’s team was in good hands. She has deployed 11 times to different parts of the country, helping those impacted by wildfires and floods, hurricanes, and tornadoes.

For Elizabeth, trust is essential in a disaster response operation. “If you’re willing to trust your colleagues to support you and you support them back, you will receive more than you originally asked for,” she said.

Volunteers like Sean, Elizabeth and Bill make up 90% of the Red Cross workforce, responding to more than 60,000 disasters every year. Large disasters like the California wildfires, hurricanes, floods and tornadoes are increasing in frequency and intensity. It’s critical to have a trained, ready volunteer workforce to make sure we can provide comfort and support to anyone who needs aid after a disaster. Join us to make a difference in our community and help someone in need after a disaster. Learn more at redcross.org/volunteer

Red Cross Comes to the Aid of One Family After Two Home Fires

Story by John Blomster/Photo by Matthew Foor

Leroy Dennis and his daughter stand outside their Oroville motor home which sustained severe damage after an accidental fire.

Leroy Dennis thought the worst was behind him after his family recovered from a devastating fire that left his Butte County home in ashes.

Sadly, he was wrong.

Shortly after relocating his wife and two children to Oroville, Calif., a freak motor home accident nearly identical to the first sparked a blaze that nearly destroyed their new home and displaced the family a second time.

In each case, the American Red Cross provided a critical safety net by putting the family up in hotels and providing vouchers for food. The organization’s support helped put them in the position to rebuild their lives.

“Both times, the Red Cross has been a really great help, not just for me, but for other folks in the community as well,” Dennis said.

In 2019, the Dennises were living on a farm in Bangor, Calif., among a loose collection of trailers scattered about the property. Leroy owned a motor home, and one day he commissioned a mechanic to perform some routine maintenance on it.

The vehicle backfired, sending flames across the dry ground and instantly igniting the buildings. The residents barely had time to react, and in a year in which the water table was particularly low, they could barely muster a defense.

“Everything caught on fire so fast, and we just didn’t have any water to put it out,” Dennis said.

Having lost everything and with nowhere to go, the family connected with the Red Cross, which lined up lodging and food services. Each month while they recovered, the family was able to visit the Salvation Army and local churches to pick up packages of food.

Fast forward to December 2020. The Dennises had put the pieces back together, and again, Leroy was having motor home trouble.

He turned to an acquaintance in the neighborhood for help.

As the amateur mechanic popped the hood, Leroy headed back to his house before a commotion turned him around. He emerged to find the motor home ablaze, and the flames quickly spread to his walls and roof. Residents tried in vain to fight the fire with an extinguisher and hose.

As it turned out, the mechanic had been using a type of flammable starter fluid that ignited unexpectedly. By the time the fire department extinguished the blaze, Leroy’s house had been damaged so badly that it would be uninhabitable for months.

Once again, the family was without a roof over their heads. Once again, the Red Cross helped find them one.

In a year in which the COVID-19 pandemic has compounded even the simplest issues, losing one’s home is certainly up there with the worst of them.

It is a testament to the family’s resilience that they have been able to bounce from these two major tragedies, and today they are continuing to recover, restore and rebuild their lives together.

“It was just so crazy that both of the fires happened the way they did,” Dennis said, “I’m grateful to the Red Cross for the help they gave us.”

For information on how you can prepare for home fires, visit RedCross.org.

May’s High Priority Volunteer Positions

The California Gold Country Region needs to fill the following volunteer positions as soon as possible. If you know someone who may be a great fit for one of these opportunities, contact CA Gold Country Volunteer Services at goldcountry.vol@redcross.org.

Do You Know Someone Who Should Fill One of These Volunteer Positions?

The workforce of the Red Cross is 90% volunteer-driven. From time to time, key volunteer positions open up that are critical to us carrying out our mission throughout the region.

Each month, we will post the highest priority openings here. If you know someone who may be a great fit for one of these opportunities, contact CA Gold Country Volunteer Services at goldcountry.vol@redcross.org.

Volunteer Karen Smith Celebrates 55 Years with the Red Cross

By Stephanie Gaito, Volunteer

In tough times, we all need stories to inspire us to keep pushing through challenges.  

Karen Smith recently celebrated 55 years as a Red Cross volunteer.

Karen Smith’s lifetime of community service is one such story.

A resident of Fair Oaks, Calif., she recently celebrated a 55-year span of volunteering with the Red Cross.

The retired registered nurse has used her professional skills and compassion for others to impact local families and individuals for decades.

She started her career as a neurosurgery intensive care nurse at Los Angeles County General Hospital, now known as Los Angeles County + USC Medical Center.

In 1964, Karen left her position to care for her growing family when her oldest son was born. Her desire to continue helping others pushed her to seek alternative volunteer opportunities that would support her schedule.

Her search led her to the Red Cross.

Smith received this pin to commemorate her 55 years of service.

Karen began teaching local Mother Baby Care classes which walked new parents through newborn care essentials such as breastfeeding and bathing.

After relocating to the Sacramento area, she continued her Red Cross volunteer work even after she returned to her nursing career, working flu shot clinics and first aid stations at state and county fairs.  Karen has been administering the flu shot for 25 years and has seen first-hand how accessible health care can positively impact a community.

“Fifty-five years is a great accomplishment,” said California Gold Country Region Volunteer Services Officer Jennifer Campbell. “We value the lifetime she has given for others.”

 These days, Karen is working to helping to administer the Covid-19 vaccine.

“Part of my job is not just giving the shot, but making the patient feel comfortable,” she said. “What I like about it is being able to talk to people and explain to them what we are going to do. It gives me joy to see them happy that they have done something for themselves.”

When asked why she volunteers, Karen said, “I would never think of walking away if there was something I could do to help.”

With those inspirational words, we thank Karen Smith for her decades of service to help alleviate human suffering and to inspire hope in her community.

California Gold Country Region Looks Back at 2020