Three Months Later Lessons Learned


This week marks three months since the outset of one of the fast-growing wildfires in California history erupted across Lake County. The Valley Fire exploded to 42,000 acres in 12 hours and, according to experts, moved faster than any other fire in California’s recent history. California officials estimated that the Butte and Valley fires displaced 23,000 people from their homes.  The reality of this extraordinary disaster, coupled with the sheer scale of impact, made the first few hours and days of our response challenging. We can and will do better.

Despite the difficulties, we are proud to have joined the efforts of hundreds of Red Cross volunteers, local community volunteers, local and national organizations, and our government partners who worked tirelessly to meet the needs of those impacted. Together we provide more than 11,000 overnight stays in twelve shelters, delivered 58,000 critical relief items and cleaning supplies, and provided recovery support to more than 1,500 families. Also, we worked with the Salvation Army, the Southern Baptists, community groups and local restaurants to serve 120,000 meals and snacks.

In the first hours and days of our response to the California Wildfires, we recognize that people’s generous offers of help were not met with the appropriate gratitude and guidance they deserved. Having pre-identified partners to handle in-kind donations and community volunteers are basic steps we should have helped lead. Due to the recent national restructuring, our staffing in Northwest California increased from four disaster positions to six and while we lost our local executive, we gained additional support from a new Regional Disaster Officer and five Regional Functional Support disaster positions. Clearly, the staffing changes lead to gaps in our local community relationships. We learn lessons in every disaster, and this was no exception. We are currently working to build more collaborative relationships with community leaders, educate the community about what the Red Cross does in disasters, and train more local volunteers to ready to respond.

The largest of the twelve evacuation centers that we supported the California Wildfires response was the Napa County Fairgrounds in Calistoga. At that location, we had the capacity to provide indoor sheltering for up to 354 residents. If we had come close to that capacity, we were prepared to open another shelter nearby. However, many residents (approx. 1,000) chose to set up individual campsites outside the shelter, so they could access the food, comfort, information and services at the shelter and provided by the numerous community groups present, but still enjoy the privacy of their personal tent, vehicle, or RV.

All those at the fairgrounds were welcomed and encouraged to come into the indoor shelter at all times, whether for an overnight stay, a hot meal, hygiene, medications or emotional support. We also provided comfort kits, which included much needed basic hygiene supplies like toothpaste, toothbrush, deodorant, razors, combs, and female sanitary products to people inside both the shelter facility and camping outside on the grounds. We also worked closely with the fairgrounds, county, and state partners to secure port-a-potties and showers as quickly as possible. This evacuation center was an amazing example of an entire community rallying to meet a wide range of needs with a great outpouring of food, goods, and services.

In the midst of these efforts, we did face challenges as we worked to integrate community resources and volunteer support into our services but we were not relieved of our duties at the Napa County Fairgrounds. Three days into the event we sat down with the Fairgrounds staff, Napa County, and other partners and mutually decided which entity was taking the lead for each of the services on site. From the meeting, we added an experienced site manager, placed a liaison full-time in the County’s command post operated that was set up at the Fairgrounds, coordinated the meals for the entire site, and continued operation of the indoor shelter. The Center of Volunteer and Nonprofit Leadership (CVNL) was designated by the County to handle in-kind goods donations and volunteer management as announced in their September 19 press release.

Although the efforts in Calistoga grabbed most of the headlines, significant work has occurred and continues to occur in the impacted communities of Lake County. Red Cross volunteers from throughout Northern California, including many Spanish-speaking volunteers, worked closely with community leaders to coordinate our efforts and ensure a broad distribution of services. With the amazing partnership of the Middletown Rancheria, Grace Church in Kelseyville, Middletown Methodist Church, Middletown Lions Club, Hidden Valley Community, the Cobb Mountain Lions Club, the Seventh Day Adventist churches of St. Helena, Middletown, and ClearLake, and many others, we staffed and maintained a sheltering presence for several weeks, directly distributed tens of thousands of relief items, served tens of thousands of meals in partnership with The Salvation Army and Southern Baptist Convention, and provided casework and direct assistance to over 1,500 families.

Today, we continue to work with local Long-Term Recovery Groups in Lake and Calaveras Counties to develop and execute long-term plans for recovery. We are also providing two recovery managers to work hand-in-hand with these groups to provide expertise in case management, resource coordination, and recovery planning. We are grateful to those who choose to support the Red Cross and the communities impacted in times of disaster.

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