Tirtza, Barry and Gumby help out in Gold Country shelter

Photos and reporting by Barbara Wood

Tirtza and Barry Pearl

Tirtza Pearl of San Francisco figures she has deployed nearly 60 times since she joined the Red Cross in 1991 after the devastating firestorm swept through the hills of neighboring Oakland. Only recently, however, has she convinced her husband, Barry, to join her. Both Pearls worked in a Red Cross shelter in the Cameron Park Community Center in El Dorado County after the Caldor Fire in September. It was Barry’s second deployment.

“The people who volunteer for the Red Cross are an amazing group of people, ” Barry said. “They devote heart and soul to the clients.” 

Barry says, so far, he’s only deployed with Tirtza. “I feel much more confident of all her years of experience,” he said.  “I’m still learning the ropes.” 

In addition to recruiting her husband, Tirtza has brought another special guest along on at least ten deployments – Gumby. The stretchy green figure represents the unofficial motto of the Red Cross “Semper Gumby” or “Forever Flexible.”

Gumby and friend

Gumby has had his share of adventures, deploying with Tirtza across the county, including a “kidnapping” by some practical jokers in Florida. Tirtza says she came back to her cot in the Red Cross staff shelter to find Gumby gone and a “ransom note” demanding $1 for his return. Tirtza said she refused to pay the ransom but rescued Gumby after following written instructions to find him taped to a tree outside the shelter.

Tirtza said her first experience with a major earthquake was in 1964 as a junior high school student in Alaska when a 9.2 earthquake struck.

In 1989, having moved back to the Bay Area, she was on the eighth floor of a medical office building when the 6.9 Loma Prieta quake struck. Quakes, Tirtza said, “follow me around. But they get smaller.”

She said she tried to volunteer for the Red Cross after Loma Prieta, but was told no more volunteers were needed at the time.

In 1991, after the Oakland Hills fire destroyed 2,843 single-family dwellings and 437 apartment and condominium units, Tirtza tried again. “There was ash falling in the Richmond District of San Francisco,” Tirtza said.

This time, she was signed up, trained and put right to work staffing the office’s main switchboard. She was hooked.

Titza’s Gumby patch

“I just kept coming back,” she said.

Currently, Tirtza helps with the recovery process of those clients affected by disasters as well as working in Red Cross shelters.

Barry said he originally signed up to help with the Red Cross home fire program, helping to install smoke alarms and share fire safety training with local residents.

Soon, however, Tirtza also had him working on the Disaster Action Team, which responds to local fires.

About the author: Barbara Wood is a public affairs volunteer for the Northern California Coastal Region of the American Red Cross.