By Kim Mailes, American Red Cross public affairs volunteer
For Frieda Ingram, right now “home” is a cot in the American Red Cross emergency shelter in Reno, Nevada. Despite being evacuated from the South Lake Tahoe when wildfires approached her apartment, she’s all smiles and maintains a positive attitude. This is just another bump in a long road that’s been filled with obstacles.
“I’m so grateful for the Red Cross,” she said. “I know I’ll be safe here until this is over.”
By Barbara Wood, Red Cross Public Affairs Volunteer
It’s been more than two weeks since Josephine Hernandez and her six children had 30 minutes to pack their car and to evacuate the looming Caldor Fire, but on Sept. 1 as the family awaited news that they could return to their Pollock Pines home, the children joyfully played on a lawn at the Green Valley Church Red Cross shelter in Placerville.
Hernandez and her six children spent the first two nights after their Aug. 17 evacuation sleeping very close together in the family’s Suburban. Then they heard about the shelter that had been opened at the Green Valley Church in Placerville. After a few more nights in the church parking in two borrowed tents, the family was moved into a classroom at the church.
“It’s been terrible,” Hernandez said. “More than a challenge.”
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.
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.
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.”
Los Angeles-based Red Cross volunteer Carmela Burke recently completed her deployment to the Carr Fire in Redding where she assisted the public affairs team. While there, she got the chance to interview Terry Zeller, a resident whose home burned in the fire.
But thanks to the help from firefighters and the support of friends and neighbors, Zeller said, “All is not lost.”
Auburn, Calif., June 30, 2016 — The American Red Cross in partnership with El Dorado and Placer counties Office of Emergency Services have established two evacuation shelters for residents who have been affected by the growing Trailhead Fire.
Placer County Evacuation Center:
Gold Country Fair Grounds – Sierra Building
1273 High St, Auburn, CA 95603
There are two shelters available to provide a secure place to stay for both evacuees and their pets.
The shelters are separated due to the health and safety of our shelter guests. Red Cross is providing shelter, food, snacks, water and emotional support.
El Dorado County Evacuation Center:
Golden Sierra High School
5101 Garden Valley Road, Garden Valley, CA
This shelter is being staffed by Red Cross volunteers and managed by the El Dorado County Health and Human Services. The County is also providing a small animal pet shelter at this location. All large animals need to be transported to 1100 Cold Springs Road, where El Dorado County Animal Services has arranged for accommodations.
The Red Cross is not providing hotel vouchers for evacuated residents, however, we’re encouraging everyone to find comfort at one of our shelters where they can find a safe place to lay down, blankets, food, water and snacks.
Disasters like this create more needs than any one organization can meet. The Red Cross works closely with government and community partners to coordinate efforts.
A public meeting will be held tonight. Fire staff will give an informational update and answer questions from the public. American Red Cross will be present as well.
Trailhead Fire Public Meeting:
Thursday, June 30, 2016
Golden Sierra High School
5101 Garden Valley Road, Garden Valley
About the American Red Cross: The American Red Cross shelters, feeds and provides emotional support to victims of disasters; supplies about 40 percent of the nation’s blood; teaches skills that save lives; provides international humanitarian aid; and supports military members and their families. The Red Cross is a not-for-profit organization that depends on volunteers and the generosity of the American public to perform its mission.
The Gold Country Region serves a twenty-four county territory including Alpine, Amador, Butte, Calaveras, Colusa, El Dorado, Glenn, Lassen, Modoc, Nevada, Placer, Plumas, Sacramento, San Joaquin, Shasta, Sierra, Siskiyou, Stanislaus, Sutter, Tehama, Trinity, Tuolumne, Yolo, and Yuba counties.
As you know, our friends and neighbors in Amador and Calaveras counties endured a relentless series of devastating wildfires this past summer. Today, our work continues, where Red Cross staff and volunteers continue to collaborate to ensure residents have the extra assistance they need to rebuild, not just as individuals but as a whole community, too.
Click HERE to read a six-month Stewardship Report that provides a first-hand look at your generously donated dollars at work, detailing our continued support and recovery efforts in the community.
Thank you for your support and commitment to help those affected by these wildfires. Your generosity makes the hope of recovery possible at a time when people need it the most.
Gary Strong, CEO American Red Cross Gold Country Region
Below is a video that resumes our work over the last six months.
On January 22, local American Red Cross volunteers joined about 20 other organizations and more than 100 Butte Fire survivors at the “Rebuilding Calaveras: A New Beginning” open house, sponsored by Calaveras Recovers, held in Mountain Ranch, CA.
Attendees were offered free expert advice on home building such as, tips on how to hire a qualified contractor, how to build fire and flood resistant homes, reforestation, and much more. Red Cross volunteers were on hand to distribute information on home fire preparedness, how to develop a fire escape plan, backpacks with fire safety information, and Disney coloring books for children.
Debbie Calcote, Disaster Program Manager, Butte Fire Recovery, was impressed and pleased with the enthusiastic attendance at the open house, in spite of the rain. She said, “It poured the whole evening, but that didn’t deter those who wanted information.”
Code Red, an emergency notification service, provided attendees information on how to sign up for the valuable service that allows emergency officials to notify residents and businesses by telephone, cell phone, text message, email, and social media regarding time-sensitive general and emergency notifications.
The Butte Fire was fully contained in early October 2015. The fire destroyed nearly 500 homes, more than 300 outbuildings, and burned nearly 72,000 acres. And unfortunately, two people were killed. Recovery from this level of destruction will continue for many years. The American Red Cross will continue to support recovery efforts through community work and as active members of the Calaveras Recovers Team.