Former volunteer applies Red Cross lessons to loss of her home to wildfire

This is another in a series of stories we are posting on this regional blog related to the American Red Cross response to the Kincade Fire disaster:

Jeanne and Jim Sternbergh and Cindy Jones 420x279

Former Red Cross Disaster Action Team volunteer Jeanne Sternbergh (l) and her husband Jim (r), who lost their home in the Kincade Fire reconnect with old Red Cross friend Cindy Jones at the Local Assistance Center in the Healdsburg Community Center on Nov. 4. See more stories related to the Red Cross response to the Kincade Fire. See photos from this response.

Jeanne Sternbergh spent many years as a Red Cross Disaster Action Team member, responding countless times to help Sonoma County residents displaced by home fires. Now she’s helping herself.

Sternbergh and her husband Jim lost their home off Chalk Hill Road in Healdsburg, California to the Kincade Fire.

The fixer-upper home the Sternberghs bought in 2000 and poured sweat equity into is gone, along with half the other homes in their immediate neighborhood. Most of those who didn’t lose their homes lost barns or essentials such as pumps that provided water to their homes.

Only a few lone trees remain in the garden Sternbergh had lovingly built up plant by plant.

“That’s kind of hard to see,” Sternbergh said. “It’s pretty devastating looking – everything’s burnt and black.”

The Sternberghs did escape, however, with what is most precious, their lives. Not one life was lost in the Kincade Fire and only four firefighters suffered injuries, according to CalFire, which reported the fire finally under control on Nov. 6. It had burned 77,758 acres, destroying 174 homes and 11 commercial buildings.

Sternbergh thinks lives were saved because people heeded evacuation orders. In 2017, she said, some neighbors refused to leave.

Now, having seen the devastation other fires have wrought, they know “this can be about life and death, not just losing your property,” she said.

Residents received at least four hours of notice of a mandatory evacuation on Oct. 26. “We packed up as much as we could,” Sternbergh said. “In hindsight I would have really thought about what mementos I really wanted to take” instead of practicalities such as water bottles and plastic cereal bowls.

Sternbergh said that although she knew the damage a fire could cause and how to prepare, “I didn’t have as good a go bag as I should have.”

“I had the Red Cross training. I knew what fire did. The 2017 fire came within two miles from our house,” Sternbergh said. However, she said, “there’s something in your mind that it’s just not going to happen to you, despite all that training.”

“I had thought about it. We had most of the important documents out,” she said. “I was just kind of mad at myself for not being better prepared when we should have known better.”

Neighbors communicated via the NextDoor app and on an email list “about having things ready….and still a lot of us didn’t,” she said. “I knew what I needed to get and got them,” she said. “I had neighbors who didn’t get anything.”

She said she and her husband had also prepared for a wildfire by cutting back vegetation around their home. But there are hay-filled wooden barns within 30 feet of the home. “The problem is these embers can blow for long distances,” especially with winds reaching up to 90 miles per hour, she said.

“We did mow and clean up everything,” she said, but the winds then blew down more leaves. “I didn’t have time to rake everything,” Sternbergh said.

Sternbergh said she found communication with neighbors key. “That whole communication thing within a community is really, really important,” she said. The residents of all nine houses on their road make sure they know where their neighbors are and what help they might need, an informal system she helped set up after the 2017 fires. “I think because of my experience in the Red Cross I found myself in this role,” Sternbergh said.

Sternbergh said the Red Cross also taught her to look ahead. “Not about what you lost but what am I going to do next,” she said.

While the Sternberghs declined the Red Cross offer of financial assistance to help them out in the short term, they did register with the Red Cross and take items designed to help them return to their property – rakes and shovels, gloves and bleach and sanitizer among them.

Sternbergh said her many Red Cross friends have also been very supportive, even though family obligations forced her to retire as a Red Cross volunteer in 2013. “They’ve really been there,” she said, even sending her many photos of Red Cross get-togethers she hosted at her home. “It was like the memories of the home and the good times there,” she said. “That was so helpful emotionally.”

The Sternberghs first evacuated to a friend’s corporate office building near the airport, but when that area itself was evacuated they headed to Harris Ranch, nearly four hours from Santa Rosa. “It was nice to be away from the smoke and have electricity,” she said.
Now the couple is staying in an AirBnB in Windsor, and they plan to move into a rental property soon, while they rebuild their home.

The Sternberghs say that although they are retired and the task is daunting, they plan to build a new home on the hilltop site where they could watch sunsets and see all the way to Mount Saint Helena.

“We’re looking into building a concrete home,” she said, “something that would be more fire-resistant” and include new technology to help with the challenges of climate change such as solar systems with battery storage. “We want to see if we can get off the grid,” she said, noting that because the power was off fire sprinkler systems didn’t work.

“I’m going to be careful about what I plan,” Sternbergh said.

Here are some Red Cross tips for wildfire preparation:

BEFORE A WILDFIRE OCCURS Remove anything that can catch fire from around your home, garage and outdoor shed, including firewood and propane tanks. If it’s flammable, keep it away from your house, deck or porch. Obey outside burning bans when issued. Other things you can do to be prepared include:

  • Keep your gutters and roofs clean. Remove dead vegetation and shrubbery from your yard. Keep your lawn hydrated.
  • Select building materials and plants that resist fire.
  • Make sure driveway entrances and your house number or address are clearly marked.
  • Set aside items that can be used as fire tools – a rake, axe, hand or chain saw, bucket and shovel.
  • Identify and maintain a good water source outside your home. Examples include a small pond, well or swimming pool.

IF A WILDFIRE OCCURS Listen to your local media for updates on the fire and be ready to leave quickly. Back your car into the garage or park it in an open space facing your direction of escape. You should also:

  • Keep your pets in one room so you can find them quickly if you have to evacuate.
  • Arrange for a temporary place to stay outside the threatened area.
  • Keep your indoor air clean – close windows and doors to prevent the smoke outside from getting in your home.
  • Use the recycle mode on the air conditioner in your home or car. If you don’t have air conditioning and it’s too hot to be inside, seek shelter somewhere else.
  • If smoke levels are high, don’t use anything that burns and adds to air pollution inside such as candles, fireplaces and gas stoves.

AFTER A WILDFIRE Don’t go home until fire officials say it is safe. Be cautious entering a burned area – hazards could still exist. Avoid damaged or downed power lines, poles and wires. Other things to do include:

  • Keep your animals under your direct control. Hidden embers and hot spots could burn them.
  • Wet down debris to minimize breathing dust particles.
  • Wear leather gloves and shoes with heavy soles.
  • Throw out any food that has been exposed to heat, smoke or soot.
  • Recheck for smoke or sparks throughout your home for several hours after the fire, including in your attic. Wildfire winds can blow burning embers anywhere so check for embers that could cause a fire.

Barbara Wood is a volunteer with Public Affairs for the Northern California Coastal Region.