Local Red Cross volunteers help others while evacuated from their own homes

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:

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American Red Cross volunteers Vince and Robin Dieter worked on logistics and transportation and staffing for the Red Cross response to the Kincade Fire even as they were evacuated from their own home in Windsor by the fire, which came within blocks of their home. Photo credit: American Red Cross

While more than 400 Red Cross workers eventually helped with the response to the Kincade Fire in Sonoma County, many local volunteers who were evacuated from their own homes worked tirelessly on an effort that allowed more than 6,500 evacuees to stay in Red Cross and community shelters even while the Red Cross workers were unsure what had happened to their own homes.

Among the many local Red Cross volunteers who had been evacuated were Windsor residents Vince (logistics and transportation) and Robin Dieter (staffing), and Jeff Fleisher (logistics and facilities).

Fleisher said his home, which backs up to Foothill Park, was saved by the heroic efforts of firefighters but remains unlivable because of smoke damage.

“The fire was in my backyard,” Fleisher said. Firefighters came in and cut all the manzanitas that were close to the house and few oak limbs and moved them away from the house. “They pulled a firetruck up and opened my gate and came into my yard,” he said. “The park is 80 to 90 percent burned.”

“They saved our houses,” he said. “The smoke and wind and ash were coming so fast it was like somebody was up there with a giant fan blowing smoke and embers and ash down on them.”

While the house was saved, smoke has permeated everything from insulation to clothing and mattresses. “The air coming from underneath my house still smells like a campfire,” Fleisher said.

“When we look out of the bedroom window we can see where the fire stopped.”

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This photo taken by Red Cross volunteer Jeff Fleisher shows how close the Kincade Fire came to his home in Windsor. As firefighters battled the flames, saving his home, he helped the Red Cross be able to shelter 6,500 evacuees. Photo credit: American Red Cross/Jeff Fleisher

Fleisher, who has been a Red Cross volunteer for several years, volunteered to help soon after the fire started on Oct. 23.  As he had done during the 2017 fires, he worked on logistics and facilities, finding the supplies and locations the Red Cross needed to run its relief operation and house evacuees. “We started looking for facilities, a warehouse and such and staff shelter just in case,” Fleisher said.

Before the fire was finally put completely out — after burning 77,758 acres — on Nov. 6, Fleisher had evacuated from his own home, evacuated from the home of friends where his family had landed, evacuated the Red Cross disaster relief operation headquarters from the Red Cross offices off Airport Drive in Santa Rosa and soon after from the county offices they had moved to.

As Fleisher scrambled to find buildings the Red Cross could use to house workers, evacuees and supplies, the fire crept closer and closer to his home.

Vince and Robin Dieter began helping with the response even before the fire began, when a Red Flag warning of high fire danger was issued. By the next day, their house was in a mandatory evacuation zone.

The couple took a break from working and went home to get their travel trailer and their cat.

They parked it outside the several different locations the Red Cross headquarters occupied. “We didn’t haves to sleep on cots, we got to sleep in our travel trailer,” Vince Dieter said.

Not that they did a lot of sleeping. “The first couple of days we didn’t measure the amount of sleep in hours,” but in minutes, he said.

If they ever must evacuate again, Robin said, she’ll “bring more clothes.” “When we evacuated, it was 90 degrees out,” she said. “I didn’t bring a jacket,” nor enough socks, she said.

Robin Dieter said that while the couple was worried and curious about their home, they didn’t have much time to think about it.

“We just put our head into our jobs, so we didn’t dwell on it,” she said.

Working on staffing was a challenge, with the response team growing from five the first night up to 400 at its height, Robin Dieter said.

“It’s like watching your baby grow instantly,” she said.

The two said they were grateful to be with their Red Cross colleagues during the fire. “I think there wasn’t a group I would have rather been with during the disaster,” Vince Dieter said.

Robin said their friendships with other Red Crossers are tighter than ever. “It just makes the bond that you’ve already developed stronger,” she said.

“Everybody worked together really well, it was just a really strong team,” she said.

“We all were living the experience,” Vince Dieter said. “It was different than when you deploy out to another area, to another city. This was our city, our area.”

“We are so grateful to the firefighters who worked so hard to save our neighborhood,” Robin Dieter added.

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