“We want all of them to know that we are here to support this neighborhood, support this community, support this state… we are going to make sure that we take care of every last person.”
While Joe Spaccarelli is the program director of the home fire program in the Greater New York Region, in his spare time he enjoys helping his fellow community by deploying to national disasters, including this year’s Northern California wildfires.
Joe highlights the importance of helping every single person during their time of need and discusses how challenging it has been helping people during a Covid environment. In addition, Joe really wants those impacted by the wildfires to know that they have some of the most passionate volunteers out there willing to help.
Thank you to New Yorker, Joe Spaccarelli, for lending a hand in the 2020 Northern California wildfires!
Longtime Trinity County resident and Marine Corps Veteran Jim Bruffett lost his home in the recent fire and saw footage of his 1952 Marine Corps Jeep burning. Bruffett is grateful that the Red Cross was able to acquire a hotel room that allowed him to stay with his dog. Through his heartache, he remains hopeful of the future and is excited to welcome a new granddaughter in the upcoming months.
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.”
Bill Hart has the kind of voice that makes you feel like everything is going to be OK. This is ideal for a man in his position—Spiritual Care Lead for the American Red Cross Gold Country Region as we provide comfort and care to people displaced by the wildfires in northern California.
He has filled the Disaster Spiritual Care (DSC) role for the Gold Country Region of the Red Cross since September 2016. “Spiritual care is one part of a three-legged stool, along with mental health and health services. Together we form individual disaster care. We try to look at the mind, body and soul and provide care to all of those areas.”
Bill has been very active responding to the fires and earthquakes that happen across California, notably spending 89 days working on the Camp Fire response and currently providing support to disaster relief operations in northern areas of the state. “Wildfire response has become kind of a specialty,” he said. “In a wildfire, when everything is burnt down to ashes, recovery can feel insurmountable. We want them to start telling their story and moving towards hope.”
Bill’s path into the Red Cross is a windy one. After a couple of personal losses involving a family member in hospice, Bill recognized that primary care givers do not often get much support as they are losing loved ones. Finding a group that provides exactly that kind of care led Bill to become a hospital chaplain, and from there a chaplain that serves the armed forces. A Methodist minister, he met a Red Cross spiritual care volunteer through a mutual pastor friend who asked if he might be interested in volunteering as a Red Cross spiritual care provider.
A local to northern California, Bill lives in a small town in the Sierra Mountains about halfway between Sacramento and Reno. He has been ready to evacuate himself in years past, especially when the Bear River canyon was on fire within a few miles of his home. “It got pretty exciting for a while. They managed to keep it contained to the canyon, but we were all loaded up and watching it carefully,” he recalled.
The American Red Cross Spiritual Care team is trained to recognize the signs that someone may need assistance. They will look for someone who might be hoarding snacks at the shelters, or who is turning their cot area into their home. Agitation, pacing, isolation, anger, crying are also key indicators they watch for. “To do this job, you have to be ready for people to swear and yell at you and blame you for all their problems, and let them know we’re still there for them. But it’s really about getting to know the client. At the beginning of the operation we’re looking for the obvious signs. But then we get to know people and see how their moods may change. And people will come find us.”
Building relationships underpinned by trust is key to making a positive impact on people who have evacuated their homes. “Spiritual Care is in the shelters all day, every day. We don’t wait for people to come to us. We’re out in the shelters and spend mealtimes with people, or recreation time, and we’re constantly circulating around the grounds and other areas where people might be gathering, like the laundromat. And we start to get to know people, so they recognize us and we start building trust.”
A key time to be present with people is when they make the first trip back to their home after a wildfire. Bill says that people often stay in a shelter because they can’t go back home because there’s nothing left. “They often have a little spark of hope that somehow their house was spared, and that spark doesn’t go out until they’re standing in the middle of the ashes of their house.”
One case that really stands out to Bill is that of a ninety-two-year-old man standing in the middle of his driveway, surrounded by the remains of his home after a catastrophic wildfire. He had moved into that house four years previously with his wife who then passed away from cancer. Having outlived his spouse and children and then losing his home to a wildfire, he worried that there would be nothing on earth left to prove he had ever existed.
With fires burning regularly across the state, Bill has seen some of the same faces in Red Cross shelters after different evacuations. “I encountered numerous individuals who have repeatedly evacuated the last couple of years, and several that have just about finished with rebuilding. Some know they’ve lost their new homes. I’ve remembered some, some remember me, all remember the Red Cross was there when they needed us. One man I met in Redding the other day was pretty sure he’d lost his home again but stopped by [the shelter] to try to make a cash donation to help others*.”
As important as physical comfort often is in spiritual care, COVID-19 precautions have made it nearly impossible to provide a shoulder to lean on, a hug, or a hand to hold. “People will reach towards us to be hugged, and it’s very difficult to say no because we’ve worked to get them to open up. We don’t want to maintain social distancing. We want to be there to hold your hand and be a shoulder. But we just have to keep everyone safe.” Bill explained that for a while the spiritual care team tried to work over the phone, but it was just not as effective as face to face. The connection between volunteer and evacuee is much more robust when they are in-person.
Most importantly for Bill is that people affected by disasters don’t let the word ‘spiritual’ keep them from seeking care. “We’re not the religious group that people might think of. We’re there for everybody. If it’s not something that we can help with, we find someone who can. We’re just there to inspire hope.”
*We are incredibly grateful to members of the public whose generosity and impulse to help lead them to attempt making cash donations. To ensure financial transparency and responsible use of the donor dollar, we cannot accept cash donations and ask that all donations be made online at redcross.org/donate or by texting REDCROSS to 90999.
When disaster strikes, the Red Cross and partners are quick to respond by providing evacuees with motel lodging, food and other support. However, once sheltered and safe, the common concern among evacuees is, “What do we do now? What’s next?”
There are often many questions about how to take the next steps needed to rebuild their homes and their lives.
Many of those questions can be answered at a Local Assistance Center (LAC).
LACs are opened to assist people with recovery from disasters and provide a wide variety of services in one place. County, state and federal agencies, as well as nonprofit organizations, are available to assist residents with accessing information about homeowner’s insurance, steps to rebuilding their homes, community and social services, replacing vital records that may have been lost, and a number of other services.
The American Red Cross is an active participant at LACs and provides mental health services, health services, emotional and spiritual care, plus Individual Assistance funds for clients whose homes were destroyed or damaged.
For those who are allowed to return to their property to search for belongings, we also hand out wildfire kits that include heavy work gloves, tarps, rakes shovels, masks and other items needed to search through rubble.
Evacuees lined up early on September 22 at the LAC in Oroville which was opened to assist people affected by the North Complex West Zone. Many had recently evacuated from their homes in Berry Creek, a small, isolated community in the hills about 20 miles up the mountain from Oroville.
The look of disbelief was clear on the faces of the people lined up to receive help. The Red Cross had provided motel lodging and meals to many in line, but they were housed in cities across the region and had lost contact with others from their community.
They used the time in line to catch up with neighbors from Berry Creek and shared stories and information about what was still standing in their community. They grieved the loss of their little town as they learned of destroyed buildings and businesses.
Evacuees told stories of leaving their homes in the middle of the night with little warning. One man recalled having to lie in a creek while the fire storm burned over the top of him. Others told stories of rescuing people who were stranded with no transportation.
Rickie described his hilltop home as “tranquility at its finest” and apologized for crying. He and his uncle were only alive because they took shelter in a 5,000-gallon water tank on his property while the fire burned through. His home was destroyed, and Rickie was interested in gathering information from agencies at the LAC that will help him learn how to rebuild is home and his life.
Nyda, a long-time resident, spoke of leaving the home her father had built 50 years ago and described the beautiful woodwork and stained glass in the home. The home is gone now, but Nyda is relieved to still have a water supply and is hoping to rebuild. She was unsure if her insurance would cover the total cost of rebuilding and hoped to get some answers and guidance during her visit to the LAC.
As they left the LAC, evacuees indicated that many of their questions had been answered and they felt more at ease that they would be able to eventually get back on their feet. They picked up wildfire kits from the Red Cross truck and returned to their motel lodging, ready to take the next steps necessary to move forward with their lives.
It is due to the generosity of donors that the Red Cross can assist people during some of their darkest days. The Red Cross and communities across northern California thank our donors for their generous support.
If you would like to support Red Cross disaster response efforts, please visit redcross.org/donate to make a donation.
Early in the morning on September 9, Mary Dorman received a call from the emergency services manager in the city of Gasquet. The city had just been ordered to evacuate due to the Slater Fire. Eighteen miles away in Crescent City, Mary was ready to help.
Mary is no stranger to the American Red Cross. For 13 years, she has served through many iterations of her county’s Red Cross board chapters, the most recent being the transition to the California Gold Country Region.
Mary credits her upbringing overseas and her mother, who believed in service for others. She began volunteering in 2007 and became a board member for the then Del Norte County Chapter. “At the same time, I had also just opened my State Farm agency, so helping people when disaster strikes is in my bones,” Mary said.
About a half an hour after the initial call, the Temporary Evacuation Point at the Del Norte County Fairgrounds was up and running, ready to assist clients. Red Cross volunteers registered nearly 300 clients, who had to remain in their cars due to COVID-19 safety precautions.
The team placed 136 clients in hotels and served over 150 meals that first night.
Mary credits the quick mobilization to community partnerships with the Red Cross, Del Norte County Office of Health and Human Services and CERT.
“It was a team effort,” she said.
Elk Valley Rancheria and local restaurants donated meals and helped collect monetary donations, raising nearly $3,000. When a client who lost his home had car trouble, local car dealership Coast Auto Center provided services at no cost and got him back on the road.
“We’re small but mighty up here in our rural Red Cross communities,” Mary said. “At the end of the day, it’s about taking care of each other.”
“When people are going through disasters, when you find you have no home, all you have are the clothes on your back, it’s a grieving process. I have family and friends who lost everything in the Camp Fire. My husband was born and raised in Paradise,” Mary shared. “Suddenly, you do not have control, you don’t know where you’re going to spend the night, you don’t have a toothbrush! You don’t have anything!
“And here comes people with that magic red vest that say, ‘I care and you’re going to be okay – here’s a toothbrush.’ That, to me, is the best of the human spirit. That’s how we’re supposed to be with each other.”
“For me, no one does that like the Red Cross does,” Mary added. “The Fundamental Principles are very near and dear to my heart, just from my own personal experiences. Again, being born and raised overseas, I’ve seen people go through good times and I’ve seen them go through bad and the best of humanity. We take care of each other. I want to be part of the solution. That’s important to me.”
If you have the time, you can make a significant impact as a Red Cross volunteer. There are jobs for everyone, regardless of your background, skills or how much time you have to give. Review our most urgently needed volunteer positions at redcross.org/volunteertoday
Since September 8, the American Red Cross California Gold Country Region and more than 200 Red Cross volunteers have been assisting those impacted by the devastating wildfires in Northern California.
Regional CEO, Gary Strong, and Northern California Chapter Executive Director, Nuriddin Ziyadinov, talk about picking up the pieces, with the help of our partners, and helping those who desperately need it.
Mary Ford said today’s lunch delivered by the American Red Cross to her evacuation hotel room would be a celebratory one.
Her son was alive.
And she was lucky to be able to report back to friends that she was alive, too.
“That’s the best thing that’s happened out of this whole mess,” Ford said, welling up with tears.
When fires swept through her community of Berry Creek, Calif., in early September, Ford received the alarm on her phone to evacuate. This wasn’t like the other warnings in the past weeks or even past years. These were flames scorching straight toward her home.
In the hurry to leave, she grabbed what she could for the next few days, still thinking that she’d be able to return soon to the home she built and powered off-the-grid for the past four decades. She had a new cell phone she was just getting used to and her van had enough gas to get away from the encroaching smoke and heat.
A few days in, it became clear this fire wasn’t like the others, not for Berry Creek or numerous other communities all along the West Coast. Scraps of updates on fire and damage came her way from friends, though no word of her son, also a resident of that same community. For rest and resources, Ford came to a Temporary Evacuation Center and received evacuation lodging at a hotel, like more than 2,000 other people nightly by mid-September through the Red Cross and state agencies in California.
Ford’s move into a hotel was nearly two weeks ago. On Sept. 20, Ford – with wise eyes and a giving voice – remained unsure on the status of her home and property, where she raised her family in “a beautiful place in the woods, in the hills, by a creek but up the highway from everything you need.” With a self-professed “hippie” spirit, Ford lauded Red Cross volunteer Mike Woods for the day’s lunch delivery, macaroni and cheese with ham and a side of fruit. And she proclaimed that it was a joyous meal during an anxious time, as Butte County Sheriff’s deputies had helped her connect with her son for the first time hours prior. Between the Red Cross, first responders, the hotel staff and her neighbors, Ford said she’s felt a stronger spirit of community even as the physical structures of her own neighborhoods remain in doubt.
“Everybody’s really come together,” Ford said. “That’s something I’ve known for a long time but now it’s real to me. … It’s like faith,” she said, later adding, “All of these places, we’re in this as one.”
Mary herself was roaming after the fire. She stayed in a van for the first few days, thinking evacuation orders may be lifted, that the damage may miss her street. Meanwhile, friends were reaching out to try to find “Merry Mary,” as she’s casually known to friends. Mary, dealing with pain from her work as a home healthcare provider, found her way to a Temporary Evacuation Point opened early on in the evacuations in Butte County. From that contact, she was able to resituate into a hotel, one where many of her Berry Creek neighbors were also staying. And once there, Red Crossers were able to connect Mary with those loved ones, unsure of her whereabouts. (Find out more about our Safe & Well reconnection resources here.)
As for where and what is next for Berry Creek, the place she built and made her own, with family and friends since the early 1970s? Ford is buoyed by recent reconnections though she has also received difficult updates. A beloved kitten, Nickelodeon, perished, as did a rooster and chickens. In pictures shared among neighbors from a firefighter who had been into the affected community, Ford can make out a shed that was once her daughter’s playhouse and a pile of items to disposed of in winter. Other than that, from her property, she said: “As far as I know, that’s all that’s down there.”