A First Deployment: Telling The Red Cross Story During a Wildfire
By Marcia Antipa
If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to volunteer for the American Red Cross during a disaster – take a look back with me at my first deployment experience – to the Caldor Fire in California.
I am a Public Affairs volunteer with the Northern California Coastal Region. After retiring from a career in broadcast journalism, I now tell stories for the Red Cross.
Late last August, I received the call. I would deploy the next day to the Caldor Fire. I admit, my adrenaline spiked a bit when I got that phone call, but I was excited to put my career skills and Red Cross training to work.
My first stop was Sacramento, and the offices of the California Gold Country Region. This was the headquarters for the Red Cross response to the Caldor Fire and it was a hive of activity. Staffing Services, Public Affairs and seasoned disaster volunteers all gave me valuable advice. Then I hit the road for my assignment: a massive Red Cross shelter in Reno, Nevada.
Growing up in Northern California, I’d spent many vacations in the Sierra Nevada. But as I rounded the last turn on Highway 80 and looked across the Lake Tahoe Basin, a murky curtain of smoke blocked the usually stunning views.
In Reno, I arrived to more smoky skies and 95-degree weather. Armed with my notebook, pen and cell phone, I stepped inside the cavernous Reno-Sparks Convention Center. It was filled with hundreds of cots, evacuees, and volunteers in red vests working nonstop to meet the needs of the shelter residents.
In no time, one of the volunteers walked up and greeted me with a smile. I knew I had found my first story.
Walter Roberts, Junior is a volunteer from Missouri, with Red Cross Disaster Mental Health Services. Walter wears a lanyard that is covered with pins – all commemorating the disasters where he has volunteered for the Red Cross. In 2005, he deployed to Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, Louisiana.
“I have never left New Orleans in many ways,” he said. “I have worn a fleur-de-lis around my neck for 16 years in remembrance of Katrina and the difficulties, the hardships that people faced.”
This time, Walter was working with fire evacuees. His job was to help people stay calm in an extremely stressful situation, “defusing, deescalating tension. Everyone here – staff, management, has the positive right attitude, focusing on serving the residents.”
I then met volunteer Deborah Towers, a retired nurse who seemed to be everywhere at once: at the bedside of medically-fragile shelter residents, checking in volunteer doctors, or giving a job to a newly-arrived volunteer nurse. Deborah joined the Red Cross four years ago. Since then she has deployed to hurricanes, wildfires and other disasters.
“We get compliment after compliment about the love that we exude during an emergency. They feel so well-cared-for and so well-provided-for, that it’s just an amazing experience.”
Sometimes it takes a village to meet the needs of a shelter resident. Take the case of Russell Barton. In the 1960’s, Russell answered his country’s call and served in the U.S. Navy in Vietnam. When he arrived at the Reno shelter, his country, and the Red Cross repaid this veteran for his service. The shelter provided Russell with a cot, blankets, food, water restrooms and showers. He told me, “It reminds me of boot camp, but without the bunk beds!”
But Russell had other critical needs. That’s where a team from the Veterans Administration – including a nurse, a pharmacist and a social worker – stepped in. They arranged for supplemental oxygen and prescription medications.
Every day I witnessed acts of kindness just like that. Two veteran Red Cross volunteers who had been evacuated from their own home spent the day cleaning cots, handing out laundry bags, or simply talking with people who needed a friendly face. Another volunteer organized a talent show among the residents to boost morale.
Then one afternoon, the good news swept through the shelter: fire officials had lifted the mandatory evacuation order for South Lake Tahoe.
Whole families quickly packed up their belongings and headed out. Those with cars were on the road within minutes. Others lined up for a free ride home aboard a regional transit bus. Red Cross volunteers gave all the evacuees a boxed lunch and water for the trip. One bus rider was Reed Wells of South Lake Tahoe. He had a joyous reunion with his little dog, “Peepers,” who had been cared for at a local animal shelter.
Many people stopped to thank the Red Cross volunteers who gave them shelter, food and comfort during a frightening time. I heard one man say simply, “I love you,” to the workers.
The next day, a Public Affairs colleague and I drove to South Lake Tahoe to see how the Red Cross was helping those who returned home. The lake was blanketed with smoke, and teams of firefighters still headed to the front line, but people were happy to be back.
Two Red Cross volunteers handed out water, meals and snacks from a large truck and people stopped by to share their incredible stories. Jeffrey Grell said his house was in pretty good shape – except there was a bear swimming in his pool!
As we cope with another fire season, I will remember these stories, of the people who survived last summer’s fires, and the Red Cross workers who helped them. Despite those butterflies on the first day, I was not alone on this deployment. Many Red Cross staff and volunteers had my back – keeping me fed, sheltered and well-informed. But my secret weapon was the dynamic duo of Dan Halyburton of Texas, and Kim Mailes of Missouri – two seasoned, talented, Public Affairs volunteers who welcomed me onto their team.
Now my bag is packed and I am ready to deploy again.
To find out how you can help during a disaster, visit: redcross.org.