On this 2nd anniversary of the Camp Fire in Butte County, we remember the more than 80 lives lost and the thousands of people Red Cross volunteers served.
Check back here this week as we will be revisiting stories of survivors, volunteers and the local agencies supported by the Red Cross so that they may continue to care for Camp Fire survivors in the months and years ahead.
Today, we look back at disaster spiritual care volunteer Cynthia Bellina who forged a strong connection with one evacuee who called her “my voice, my angel.”
Driving into the mountains towards Berry Creek, the world becomes monochrome. Everything on the ground is blackened, broken up by patches of white ash. Where structures once stood—homes, garages, sheds, and outbuildings—there are now scorches of earth dotted with twisted metal and pools of plastic. It’s eerily quiet. With nothing alive in the immediate area and no leaves for wind to rustle, the only sound is buzzing flies to add to the apocalyptic feel of the scene ahead.
Disaster Assessment duo Diane Sargent and Suzanne Reibson are unphased. Having flown into California from Buffalo, New York, this team know what they’re looking for and get right to work.
Assessing what’s known as a “hot spot”, they quickly make their way around the property. The owners have already called the Red Cross for assistance, and Diane and Suzanne are checking for the livability of the house on the address. They also note other properties they pass, trying to make an assessment from the end of the driveway when there is no one to ask if they need further assistance—striving to ensure that no one is left in need.
It’s clear there is no possibility of living in these homes in Berry Creek anymore.
No stranger to destruction, Diane has been a volunteer for the American Red Cross for nineteen years. She joined right after 9/11 after seeing the Red Cross response first-hand. Over 80 deployments later, she is an expert in disaster assessment and mentors Suzanne who has been a volunteer for about three years.
As Diane navigates the rutted dirt roads, Suzanne enters data on the properties they’ve visited when there is cell reception and follows the paper map to track their route through the mountains when there’s not.
Coming down from Berry Creek for a quick gas stop, Diane and Suzanne are already plotting their next route. An elderly woman who is currently living in a tent near her daughter’s mobile home must soon vacate the tent, so she called the Red Cross for help.
And help has arrived in the form of small, wiry, tattooed Diane and vivacious Suzanne with her blue-polished fingernails saying, “Hi, honey! How are you doing today? We’re just heading out to your house, can you tell us where to turn again?”
To help people who’ve lost their homes to the wildfires, visit redcross.org/donate, call 800 RED CROSS, or text CAWILDFIRES to 90999 to make a $10 donation. You can also become a volunteer like Diane and Suzanne by visiting redcross.org/volunteer.
“The Red Cross values our partnership with the legal community and appreciates the assistance and invaluable service they provide to communities,” said Mary Dewitt-Dia, National Partnerships Manager.
From navigating insurance claims to requests for government programs such as FEMA assistance, a coalition of organizations and law firms in North America are ready to help.
“The partnership between Disaster Legal Assistance Collaborative and the Red Cross is so exciting,” said Alexa Villagomez Montlavo, Disaster Legal Services Coordinator at Legal Access Alameda. “We have so many great free legal aid programs available to those impacted by the recent wildfires. It’s one thing to have resources ready for those in need, but by partnering with the Red Cross it’s another way to make sure that the resources are making their way to the people that may need them.”
Janet Snyder of the Alameda County Bar Association said, “I am proud and excited about our partnership with the Red Cross. There is true strength in numbers, and joining forces will allow us to connect more disaster survivors with free legal assistance. We want disaster survivors to know that they are not alone, and that we are here to offer support in their recovery process.”
“Providing FREE legal help after a disaster ensures that low-income disaster survivors receive needed legal assistance,” Mary added. “Problems can often be resolved quickly therefore preventing additional complications.”