Trial by fire: When the good work of the Red Cross hits home

By Macy McClung, AmeriCorps member

My experience during the Northern California wildfires in October 2017, specifically within my new role at the Red Cross, changed my life. I woke up one morning in Houston, where I had been assigned to the Hurricane Harvey relief efforts in my AmeriCorps role as a Red Cross worker. I learned on social media that my home town in California was burning. I called my parents and woke them up, prepared them for what could come next, and arranged to leave Houston immediately.

Photo of Macy McClung and Allison Donine

Macy McClung, left, is shown with Allison Donine.

I flew into San Francisco with $40 in my pocket and no sure way of getting to Santa Rosa. I didn’t know what was happening on the ground, and my phone only worked intermittently. Luckily, I befriended a woman on the plane in the seat next to me, who agreed to drive me from the San Francisco airport to the Red Cross office in San Rafael where I would meet up with my manager.

When I arrived, my manager and I exchanged hugs; we didn’t know if our Santa Rosa office building still stood or not. We immediately set to work planning the actions for processing local community volunteers the next morning. After working 12-14 hours a day for three days on this team, I got the call that my family would have to evacuate. I drove home at 10 p.m. to help with the evacuation, and it was the first time I went far enough north to see the devastation. I hadn’t gone home yet because I didn’t know if I could handle it.

As I pulled into our driveway, I could see the fire starting to come over the foothills behind our house. Our neighbors were marshaling their farm equipment and fire hoses and loading up their animals on trailers. I watched my mom have nothing short of a breakdown because we had no way to bring our horse out of the property should the fire come our way. We were all saying goodbye to our lives as we knew them because we knew this could have been the last time. After many hours of organizing, gathering, hugging and crying, we evacuated our property and stayed evacuated for 10 days.

During those 10 days and beyond, I worked in various positions in Red Cross disaster response, including Casework and Staff Services. While doing casework, I met with many individuals who had lost everything. They escaped the fires with nothing but clothes on their backs and sometimes not even shoes on their feet. In this casework role, Red Crossers from all over the country showed me their capacity for advocacy and desire to help my community heal. As a person working the disaster response operation while evacuated for 10 days, I am endlessly thankful that I was able to help with community relief efforts in such a direct way. I was able to accomplish what I expressed as my hope to my supervisors in my interview for this position: “Be an asset to my community and connect people to resources, as I am a local person and can offer a lot to this role throughout my term.” I never thought I would be given the opportunity to fulfill this dream so quickly; it was truly trial by fire.

Eventually, we were able to move back into our house, untouched by the fires. In retrospect, I think it was an act of fate that I joined AmeriCorps as a Red Cross worker and was able to act in a time of crisis. I don’t know what I would have done had that not been the case.