Category Archives: Old CalNW Blog (2015)

Lake County Wildfire Anniversary: ‘Unexpected Hero’

This story was originally published September 27, 2015.

By Eric Maldonado, volunteer contributor, American Red Cross

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rodriguez-familyThe Rodriguez family hadn’t even finished unpacking their apartment on Barnes Street in Middletown less than a week after they moved in.

On a hot Saturday afternoon, the family’s youngest child Danna didn’t want to take a nap and started to cry. Big sister Pricilla, 13, took Danna for a stroll outside in her little blue push car. But when they stepped outside, Pricilla knew something was very wrong. The sky was dark with what at first looked like rain clouds, but she quickly realized it was something much worse. Read more

Lake County Wildfire Anniversary: “30 Days Later – The California Wildfires Response”

This article was originally published on October 12, 2015.

Immediate Collaboration 

anniversary 1The ongoing drought across California has given way to another historic wildfire season. Beginning September 9, 2015, two of the most destructive wildfires in state history flared throughout northern California. The Valley Fire is now the third most destructive fire in state history and the Butte Fire the seventh most destructive blaze. Combined, these fires burned more than 150,000 square acres and destroyed more than 1,700 homes, displacing thousands of families. Read more

Saved by the Church Bell

By Taelor Duckworth, volunteer contributor, American Red Cross

Many folks in the Middletown area know that the United Methodist Church in Middletown was the site of the Red Cross Client Assistance Center for several days. People affected by the Valley fire could go there to find help and resources available from the Red Cross. (It has since moved to the Twin Pine Casino.)

What many don’t know, is that the church has long been a sanctuary for evacuees of any disaster. In fact, in the midst of the Valley fire erupting, the Middletown UMC church bell was used to signal the alarm for townspeople to evacuate.

Evelyn Kerr-Hansen has been a member of the Middletown United Methodist Church since 1998. She currently serves as the food distribution director and oversees the church’s community service projects, her favorite being the Spirit of the Season event where they give turkeys out to families for Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Evelyn has been a resident of Cobb since ’98, but says she’s never seen a fire quite like this one. She and her husband, Clay, left their cabin just in time to escape the fire. Evelyn thought it would be a good idea to open the church as she felt that’s where most people would go to find comfort and shelter. As they made their way into town, Evelyn had her keys ready to unlock the food cabinets and open the sanctuary when the church’s pastor, Claudja, called to be sure that she was opening the church. The pastor was stuck in Clear Lake and couldn’t make it across the bridge into Middletown.

As soon as Evelyn got the church doors unlocked, she heard a knock. When she opened them, she expected to find an evacuee. Instead, she found a firefighter telling her she had to leave the church.

“Why? Why would I have to leave the church?” asked Evelyn. “This is where people are going to go to be safe.”

To answer her question, the firefighter asked Evelyn to step outside the church and look back toward the mountain. Evelyn said she saw a wall of angry red flames spilling down the mountain behind the post office. She knew she would have to lock the church up and go.

“Over the years, I’ve heard several times that if anything bad were to happen, you should ring the church bell twelve times to alert the town,” said Evelyn. “For a long, long time, before there were cell phones or computers, that’s how people knew if something happened. Whether it be a child missing or in this case, a fire, you ring the bell twelve times, and people know something is wrong.”

So, that’s just what she did. Evelyn went into the chapel, wrote a short prayer for the prayer tree and proceeded to ring the church’s bell twelve times as fast as she could. From there, she went to help an elderly friend evacuate who lived near the church. On her way to the Red Cross shelter in Calistoga, she checked in on another family before finally putting Middletown in her rearview mirror.

Since returning, Evelyn has been a helping hand at the Red Cross Client Assistance Center. She made sure the volunteers were taken care of and people’s needs were being met. Several volunteers made sure to tell her that many of the people they saw from Middletown told them they wouldn’t have even known about the fire or to evacuate if it hadn’t been for Evelyn ringing the church bell.

After much convincing from Red Crossers, Evelyn eventually signed up for Red Cross assistance for her own home’s damage and says she and her husband will likely look to return to the mountain after repairing their cabin.

“God bless the Red Cross,” said Evelyn. “I have seen big, burly grown men come out of this church with tears streaming down their faces because you’ve been able to help them. Women and children, families and people from all walks of life have been here to give and receive help. It’s really amazing what you all do, and I’m glad I could be here to help the Red Cross, so the Red Cross could help these people.”

Nearly Trapped by the Valley Fire: An Escape Story

By Taelor Duckworth, volunteer contributor, American Red Cross

Saturday, September 12th, 2015 began much like any other for Terran Compton of Cobb, Calif. He woke up, made his way to the kitchen and began the task of searching for jobs. The 18-year-old has been looking for work in Lake County since he graduated from high school without much luck. He and his 11-year-old brother had the house to themselves because his mother was working at Twin Pine Hotel & Casino where she is a waitress.

In the early afternoon, he realized something wasn’t quite right. He looked out his window and saw thick, dark gray clouds of smoke and a man from his neighborhood running through the streets screaming, “FIRE!” Terran didn’t worry though. There had been several fire calls before, but nothing ever close to their property. He didn’t think it would come toward them.

When Terran’s mother pulled into their driveway at the end of the winding mountain road shortly after, she told him they needed to evacuate. They grabbed only the essentials and loaded them into the car, along with their two dogs.

“It all happened so fast,” said Terran. “We thought we had time. But the fire moved too fast, and we had almost no warning. Being at the end of the road, we were slower than the rest of our neighbors to get out.”

Firefighters came down their road to tell them it was time; they needed to get off the mountain. But as the Comptons quickly made a scan of their house, the Valley fire was burning too fast and too hot to be controlled. By the time they came outside to leave, firefighters told Terran and his family it wasn’t safe to take their car; they needed to get into the fire truck.

The fire had surrounded their property and was moving fast through their neighborhood. Because Terran’s house is at the end of the road, he, his family and the firefighters were all trapped, surrounded by the flames. Firefighters worked to put the flames out around the property while the family huddled in the safety of the fire truck.

For four and a half hours, they watched as their neighborhood burned down around them. The firefighters were working tirelessly, but at times Terran wasn’t sure if they would be able to get out alive.

By 8 p.m., Terran and his family were finally able to escape the neighborhood in their car with clearance from the firefighters. They sped down the mountain as flames licked the sides of the road. After escaping what he describes as a horror movie, Terran’s family went to stay with his grandmother for a few days. When they heard about the Napa County Fairgrounds, where the Red Cross and other organizations were providing help, they headed that way.

In the Red Cross shelter, they found some of their friends and neighbors.

“We really enjoyed staying there and getting to just have fun and try to forget with everyone else,” said Terran.

As news rolled in about the extent of the fire and the damage sustained, Terran’s mother learned that one of their friends—the man who came down the street to warn them about the fire—was one of the fatalities reported.

When evacuation orders were lifted after two weeks, the Comptons were surprised to find out that their home was left untouched. They even had electricity.

“Even without water at our house, it just feels nice to be there, to be home,” Terran said.

Much of their food was ruined, and they still have to boil water, so for now, Terran’s family has been seeking food, water and support from the Red Cross distribution site near their home.

“The Red Cross has been great so far. They’ve been really nice. They’ve been feeding us, giving us supplies and taking care of us. Everything about it has been really awesome, and I couldn’t appreciate it more,” said Terran.

While Terran says he will never forget what he saw that day, he feels they are lucky to have made it and lucky to still have their home. Now, he plans to find work with the clean-up crews on the mountain, so he can play a role in rebuilding his community.

Whole Community Recovery: It takes the whole community to make a community whole.

By Cynthia Shaw, American Red Cross

When a series of devastating wildfires ravaged California, thousands of homes were lost in minutes and many people were suddenly coping with unprecedented challenges. In small towns with a big sense of community, neighbors came together to help one another, mobilizing with great generosity.

Two weeks later, many community groups and agencies big and small are still working together on the relief efforts—distributing truckloads of relief supplies, while also providing food, comfort and shelter to those affected by these disasters.


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In the initial hours of the California Wildfires, working closely with local emergency management, several community groups and the American Red Cross opened a combined total of 12 shelters across California for those impacted by the many wildfires. Petaluma Animal Services and other animal groups have provided care for the evacuated pets and animals at many of the shelters.

These shelters have provided for the immediate needs to evacuated residents, including a safe place to stay, food (meals, snacks), water, medicines and basic health services, emotional support and other support resources. To date, community groups and Red Cross have supported over 11,000 overnight stays for residents affected by the evacuation orders.

Culinary Institute of America, Napa Valley Grapegrowers, Brad Smisloff, Jason Pasternack, Andrew Wild, Greg Way, and their “phone list” of Napa Valley wine and food industry contacts served over 36,000 meals at the Napa County Fairgrounds Shelter in Calistoga. Side by side with the Southern Baptist Convention, Salvation Army, and Jackson Rancheria, the Red Cross served over 85,000 meals and snacks.

The difficult recovery from these wildfires makes this a frustrating and emotionally draining time for everyone involved. Napa County, Lake County, Calaveras County, and Red Cross Mental Health and Health professionals have provided over 8,500 basic health and mental health contacts.

Clean clothes were also scarce in the smoky aftermath of the fires and communities were without access to water or power. As dirty laundry piles grew larger, the Southern Baptist Convention brought in the laundry trailer to provide free laundry services and they bought their shower trailer as well.

“When disaster strikes, hundreds of people and businesses step up to the plate to help,” said Jeff Baumgartner, American Red Cross of the California Northwest Chapter Executive. “We are incredibly grateful for the generosity of these businesses, organizations, and individuals who made significant efforts to help people affected by these wildfires.”

Several Lions Clubs, Rotary Clubs, 7th Day Adventist churches and Methodist churches throughout the Lake and Napa Counties, Redwood Empire Council of the Boy Scouts of America, Home Depot, Lowe’s, Ace Hardware as well as the Red Cross, have been gathering and handing out cleaning, hygiene and comfort items in hardest-hit neighborhoods devastated by the Valley fire when the evacuation orders are lifted. These items include water, snacks, non-perishable meals, and clean-up items such as gloves, buckets, trash bags, sifters, and dust masks. To date, over 50,000 relief items have been handed out.

Assistance Centers have been opened where residents can access resources available from many organizations, including Tzu Chi, St. Vincent de Paul, Catholic Charities, Children’s Disaster Services, Samaritan’s Purse, Salvation Army, Team Rubicon, government departments like unemployment and DMV, PG&E, Red Cross and many others. Red Cross case workers are meeting one-on-one with people on matters such as family reunification, funeral assistance, emergency needs and recovery planning. If the Red Cross is not providing for a specific need, our caseworkers are able to help residents get connected to the partner agency that is meeting that specific need. Nearly 1,200 cases have opened by Red Cross caseworkers to provide individualized recovery support.

Disasters are often complex, with complex needs – and no single agency can meet every need on its own; it takes collaboration and partnership. The Red Cross is one of many agencies coming together to ensure that basic needs are met and to work on the long-term recovery of entire communities and to help them be prepared for and more resilient in the face of future wildfires.

Rising Out of the Ashes

By Jessica Piffero, volunteer contributor, American Red Cross

68 year old Liz Jackson has been living with wildfires her whole life

“I fought my first fire when I was just seven years old living in Australia,” said Liz.

Her noticeable Australian accent makes her stand out, but Liz has been a local Cobb resident for decades. More than a week after the Valley Fire began, she is still under evacuation orders, and may be one of the last residents to return home.

“The flames were all along the ridge, it just lit up the sky. And of course there was the smoke,” said Liz.

Liz was working in her garden when the call went out.

“I looked around at what I could grab quickly, and there was my laundry basket full of clothes. I just grabbed it and left with the clothes I was wearing in the garden,” said Liz, pointing to her sandals.

She was one of the last residents out of the area, as the flames flicked at the side of the road and police set up the final barriers. She made it to safety but was soon restless. She heard that the Red Cross was having a volunteer recruitment event at one of the local shelters in Kelseyville. This was her chance to help, so she made her way down to the event.

“I couldn’t just sit around waiting, doing nothing. I wanted to help!” said Liz. Plus, the work would take her mind off the anxiety of her home’s uncertainty.

The Red Cross paired her with a supply distribution team in Middletown, where she was able to help her friends and neighbors by passing out vital resources like rakes, shovels, clean up kits, gloves, ice chests, snacks and water.

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“I’ve just been so impressed by everyone at the Red Cross,” said Liz, “It’s really been a whole community effort by these volunteers.”

Now staying in the Red Cross shelter at the Twin Pine Casino in Middletown, Liz has become an integral part of the team.

“She’s part of our Red Cross family now!” said one volunteer. She turned to Liz before leaving for her shift, “Give me a call when you find out about the evacuation orders, we want to be there for you when you find out about your home.”

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