Women get the work done

By Jennifer Sparks, American Red Cross

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.

A Small Celebration of Togetherness, in Emergency Lodging with So Much Lost to Fires

By Justin Kern, American Red Cross

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.

American Red Cross volunteer Mike Woods brings lunch to Mary Ford, who has had to evacuate her home of 40 years in Berry Creek after recent wildfires.

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.)

One of many roadside fire and burning warning signs in Butte County, just downhill from a Berry Creek community that has seen some of the worst from September’s deadly fires.

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.”

Your generosity continues to directly help thousands of people evacuated by wildfires in northern California and all along the West Coast. Thank you for considering a gift to support people in need from the Western wildfires.