November 13-24, fires ravaged areas in and around Paradise, California. Southwest Oregon volunteers from the Red Cross were deployed including our speaker, Carissa Hettich, who worked as a public affairs officer. Almost 14,000 homes in the communities of Paradise, Concow and Magalia were lost.

During the first part of the disaster, Hettich followed Emergency Response Vehicles loaded with shovels, rakes, sifters, bottled water, and work gloves and spoke with residents to hear their stories. Those who chose to stay despite a mandatory evacuation did so in an effort to protect their homes.

Erin, a life-long resident of Malibu, lost her home where she was raising 5 kids. Red Cross mental health workers, pastoral care, emergency response vehicles, and the fire department all assisted Erin and her family. Tens of thousands of volunteers helped in this way.

On day 4, Carissa was reassigned as official liaison for the Red Cross in Chico, CA. She worked at the fire basecamp and attended evening briefings and morning status reports. At the height of the operation, there were 5,600 people working from this camp.

The air quality was hazardous for nearly two weeks before the rains started. Though the rain was welcomed to help the fire suppression effort it also presented its own hazards of mudslides and toxic runoff into rivers and streams.

Many people did not wake up to evacuate and died in their beds. Others had virtually no notice to pack and flee and would become stranded in their car on the road, and some would be forced to walk for help through smoke without any idea which way was safe.

Red Cross established a Safe and Well Program to help register evacuees at shelters and the Local Assistance Centers (LAC) — at any given time there were more than 2,000 people at each shelter waiting to get assistance. The Red Cross volunteers registered 10,000 evacuees with the Safe and Well Program. There were over 80,000 friends and family searches. 2,500 matches were found. Inside the 7 Red Cross shelters, there were message boards for those looking to connect with lost friends and family members.

After pictures were taken and edited, stories had to be written and photo release forms had to be uploaded and tagged to people in the pictures. Hettich often worked until midnight each night getting the latest stories and pictures to National HQ for release on social media and websites.

During disasters, in-kind donations are common but bring with them their own set of issues. During this disaster, a vacant Toys R Us parking lot was just one site where unsolicited in-kind donations were dropped off. No community group “owned” the facilitation of the site and the goods had to quickly be moved into a shipping container before the rains fell. Financial assistance is so much more needed in these disasters than “stuff”. Red Cross does not actively solicit in-kind donations other than bulk items like rakes, water or snacks.

15 people in one grocery store in Chico lost their homes. People from all walks of life. So many people lost everything and had no insurance to recover. Many could not rely on family to help because their family also lost their homes. Some evacuees chose to stay in the parking lots at the various shelters in tents and trailers and received Red Cross services, food, information, mental health inside the shelters.

Hettich reports that the work was physically exhausting, emotionally draining, and it took over a week to get back into the swing of things. There was so much devastation and she is haunted by the many heart-breaking circumstances she experienced up close. Hettich likes to help with at least one disaster a year but otherwise works here with the local chapter.