Detwiler Fire: A tale of two mental health volunteers

It moved fast, furiously and forced hundreds of people from their homes. The Detwiler Fire was like no other for the residents of Mariposa and surrounding areas. It swept through dry brush, charred trees and demolished dozens of homes, leaving numerous residents without a place to live and stole all normalcy from their lives.

In the midst of the inferno firefighters, PG&E workers and law enforcement from across the state converged on the small mountain community with a mission to save lives and property. But, while the firefight happens at the fire lines, another war is waged to save the wellbeing of those displaced; a big task that Red Cross workers from around the world with specialized training take on. Two people on the front lines of mental health are Ramon Almen of Puerto Rico and Jan Walker from Alabama.

Almena, a 51-year-old social worker, began his Red Cross journey almost six years ago in Puerto Rico. A journey that has taken him to other countries and landed him in Mariposa to help those impacted by the Detwiler Fire.

Detwiler Fire Ramon 1“They went to my school so I get to know the Red Cross. So I went to the chapter, American Red Cross chapter, in Puerto Rico. I did several workshops there to become a mental health case worker. Now I am going into my sixth year with the Red Cross,” Almena said.

His job requires expert interpersonal skills and the ability to understand people’s emotional and physical needs following a disaster.

“So when I talk with them [clients], if I see they need some psychological help because they don’t know how to manage their situation of disaster. So I have to talk to them and look for services that person would be able to get the help,” Almena said.

His talent to connect with people is instantly apparent and is what makes him a strong asset to the American Red Cross and the people it serves. Almena’s service has taken him around the world, with a full heart and a vest lined with pins to show for it. However, he also serves those in his native Puerto Rico, too.

“In Puerto Rico, the problem that we have is fire, too. We don’t have much rain or earthquakes. Sometimes we have too much rain, but much of the problem in Puerto Rico is fire. During blue skies, the Red Cross does orientation for people to help them avoid fire in their houses,” Almena said.

Another member of the Red Cross mental health team on the ground in Mariposa, Jan Walker, is a retired school counselor. The Detwiler Fire is her third deployment with the Red Cross, following work in the wake of a tornado and hurricane.

“I’ve spent my working career in a service organization — I was a school counselor for 30 years. I just like helping people basically. Feel like I’ve got a lot to be thankful for and I’ve got to pass that on,” Walker said.

Detwiler Fire JanWalker’s passion for helping people is instantly seen as she helped Detwiler Fire victims find the resources they need and provided a listening ear.

“Just spoke with a little lady, 81 or 82 years old, sat in a chair in the main room over there for about an hour and a half just patiently sat waiting and I stopped and chatted with her for awhile and she said somebody had told her that she has a great smile so whenever she got to thinking about things she just smiled. She was so pleasant,” Walker said.

Walker and Almena are just two examples of the heroic team doing their part to help those affected by a disaster. Proving the importance of the work done by all Red Cross volunteers and the value of approaching every challenge with sleeves up, hearts open and all in.

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Comfort in the Face of Adversity

Janet Kirkland has been in the Hunter’s Valley community for the past thirty years and can make anyone smile. If there is one thing you need to know about Janet, it is that she is tenacious and that she is going to stay positive throughout the Detwiler Fire.

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Janet Kirkland shares her story with a Red Cross worker at a local shelter. Photo: Eddie Zamora, American Red Cross

One thing that brought her comfort, was that she had her emergency bag ready to go. With a suitcase in hand packed for three days, a fireproof case with her important documents, and her dog, Janet was able to evacuate in less than five minutes. Knowing that it is fire season, her thoughtful preparedness gave her peace of mind and had her most valuable items with her as she left her home.

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Clean cots and brand new Red Cross blankets are ready for residents at the Mariposa Elementary School shelter. Photo: Dan Halyburton, American Red Cross

With her possessions in tow, Janet just needed a safe place to stay. That’s when she found herself at a shelter in Oakhurst, ran by the American Red Cross of the Central Valley.

“I would have been sleeping in my car if Red Cross didn’t have a shelter for me,” Janet said.

At the height of the sheltering operation, the Red Cross housed nearly 300 residents in one night across seven different shelters. Hundreds more came to the shelters to receive meals, snacks, water, fire information, health services, and more.

One of those shelters was the Sierra Vista Presbyterian Church in Oakhurst. The church’s property manager Charles Fisher and his wife Marianne found comfort in the face of adversity.

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Charles and Marianne Fisher pose with a Red Cross meal at the Sierra Vista Presbyterian Church in Oakhurst. Photo: Eddie Zamora, American Red Cross

“This is our community’s disaster,” said Marianne. When it comes to the Red Cross volunteers, “we couldn’t have asked for better people.”

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Meals are ready to serve at the Red Cross shelter located at Mariposa Elementary School. Photo: Dan Halyburton, American Red Cross

Since the fire first began on Sunday, July 16, the Red Cross has provided 960 overnight shelter stays, served 13,250 meals and snacks, passed out over 430 comfort kits, and supplied nearly 1,600 recover items such as gloves, shovels or clean up kits.

As evacuation orders continue to lift and residents begin to return home, the Red Cross is shifting focus to help families focus on recovery. Volunteers will be present at the Local Assistance Center at Mariposa High School on Tuesday, where the Red Cross will be meeting one-on-one with each family to determine how to help them on the path to recovery.

HOW TO HELP

Financial donations are still the best and quickest way to support Red Cross Disaster Relief. Call, click, or text to give: visit redcross.org, call 1-800 RED CROSS or text “RED CROSS” to 91999 to make a donation to your local Red Cross region.

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The Detwiler Fire has destroyed over 60 homes. Red Cross will be there to help families recover.

Follow the local Red Cross on Facebook and Twitter for additional updates on Detwiler Fire relief efforts.

Pouring Out Some Good

Last weekend 7-year-old Andrew George was celebrating his spiritual birthday by giving away lemonade at a lemonade stand with his family in his neighborhood by Dos Pueblos High School in Goleta, California. While he was giving away lemonade, people would leave him tip money as a thank you.

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The George family stops for a picture outside of the Red Cross Whittier Fire shelter at San Marcos High School in Santa Barbara. Photo: Ryan Cullom, American Red Cross

While he and his family were giving away the lemonade the Whittier Fire broke and they could see the huge smoke plume from over the mountain. As the day wore on, more and more fire resources poured into the county and actually set up their basecamp at the high school near them.

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Local Red Cross volunteers pause to offer a firefighter a cold bottle of water. Photo: Jessica Piffero, American Red Cross

Seeing all the help for the community coming in from all over the state, Andrew decided he wanted to do his part and donate the proceeds from his lemonade stand to the American Red Cross. Jason had suggested the Red Cross to donate his money to because he had taken a first aid class at the Santa Barbara office before and knew we would be the best place to donate money to help the fire victims.

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A Red Cross registration table is ready to greet to wildfire evacuees at a local shelter.

So, with that, he had his dad, Jason George, drive him and his brother to the Red Cross shelter a few miles away. When they walked in they approached Red Cross shelter manager Patti Shiflet and told her that he wanted to donate his tip money to the Red Cross. He was very shy but managed to let Patti know why he was there, “I want to help people” said Andrew. “I want to give you my lemonade tip money to help the people of the fire.”

You too can support Red Cross relief efforts, just like Jason. Your gift enables the Red Cross to prepare for, respond to, and help people recover from disasters big and small. Visit redcross.org, call 1-800 RED CROSS or text the word REDCROSS to 90999 to make a $10 donation.

 

California Wildfires Update

Rick and Ronda Rozanek had left their Lake Cachuma campsite for the day when they heard about the Whittier Fire evacuations. Stranded in a new place with just the clothes on their back, they found relief in the Red Cross emergency shelter at San Marcos High School in Santa Barbara, California.

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Rick and Ronda Rozanek are eager to show off their comfort kits, courtesy of the Red Cross. Photo: Kimberly Coley, American Red Cross

They were grateful for all the small touches that volunteers made to make their stay easier, such as the Red Cross comfort kits full of hygiene items. While it wasn’t the way they anticipated spending the evening, Rick and Ronda were determined to make the best of their situation – what they called, the most unique “date night” they’d ever had.

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A Red Cross volunteer unloads a trailer full of relief supplies at Santa Margarita Elementary School, where the Red Cross assisted families evacuated due to the Stone Fire in San Luis Obispo County. Photo: Jessica Piffero, American Red Cross

Rick and Ronda are just two of the dozens of residents that have found relief so far in a Red Cross shelter since Friday, when wildfires began to sweep through the central coast. Volunteers have set up shelters and supported residents evacuated throughout San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara Counties due to the Alamo, Whittier, and Stone Fires. The local Red Cross has provided more than 60 overnight stays at four different shelters, and served nearly 500 meals and snacks.

In total, wildfires raging throughout California have evacuated thousands of residents. The Red Cross stands ready to help these families for as long as there is a need. When evacuations orders lift and residents are able to return home, the Red Cross will be there, making sure residents have what they need to recover from this disaster.

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The Whittier Fire billows out over Lake Cachuma in Santa Barbara County, CA. Photo: Ryan Cullom, American Red Cross

But we can’t do it alone. The wildfire season is just beginning, and the Red Cross relies on the compassion of volunteers and the generosity of donors to serve our community. You can help people affected by disasters like California wildfires and countless other crises by making a donation to support Red Cross Disaster Relief. Your gift enables us to prepare for, respond to, and help people recover from disasters big and small. Call, click, or text to help: visit redcross.org, call 1-800 RED CROSS or text the word REDCROSS to 90999 to make a $10 donation.

Every single donation will bring hope to those in need.