How the Red Cross is Preparing for Wildfire Season During a Pandemic

By Hannah Huelin-Meek

California wildfire seasons are scary enough, now add in a pandemic, economic uncertainties, and social distancing. These challenges in 2020 have made the American Red Cross look at how we respond to disasters of all kinds with a different lens. Purposeful planning and preparedness are critical to ensuring that public health and safety are at the forefront of our mission delivery. 

The thought of dealing with a wildfire during a pandemic can be terrifying for some. With many on high alert for what could happen if their communities are affected, we are working around the clock to ensure that we are ready to respond.

What Can the Public Expect?

Unlike past disaster responses, where we have opened large shelters, we are taking a different approach this year. Tony Briggs, our regional CEO for the Central California Region, shared his plan.

This year, we will be prioritizing hotels and college dorm rooms that are not back in session yet for sheltering. We will also be utilizing temporary evacuation points to connect with people to ensure they have a safe place to stay if they can’t return home during or after a disaster.

With our strong partnerships with local health departments, we are trained and prepared to serve all clients, including those who have tested positive or exhibit symptoms of COVID-19, so that they too have a safe place to go. Thanks to our health screenings we will have in place, we can prepare ahead of time by proactively reaching out to those individuals to make special accommodations for isolated sheltering when needed.

Red Cross volunteer Michael M. shows his wrist band that he received after completing his health screening.
Volunteer Michael M. during a recent sheltering exercise drill.

In the event that we have to open a shelter, our shelter operations themselves have been tailored to meet the needs of this new environment.

Jessica Hodge, our Disaster Program Manager serving Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties, shares “social distancing in a wildfire situation is extremely difficult, and you have to be on top of that.” Jessica explained that cots would be spaced at least six feet apart, meals will no longer be provided in mass settings, but instead, food deliveries will be delivered to the shelter and then distributed individually so that no one is congregating in shared spaces. Per the CDC guidelines, regular cleanings will also be a focus to ensure proper safety measures.

We have also had to rethink how we follow up with individuals impacted by wildfires moving some of our most important work including casework, mental health, and spiritual care to virtual environments.

“The Red Cross is here, pandemic or not, we are ready to serve and ensure the public has a safe place to go.”

Jessica Hodge, DPM for Santa Barbara & San Luis Obispo counties

Where We Need Help This Year

Every year we rely on our staff and volunteer base to jump into action and help carry our mission forward. This year with additional shelter locations to manage during wildfire season, we are looking to bring on even more volunteers in a variety of roles. Whether you are interested in helping manage a shelter, serve meals, deliver relief supplies, assist with public affairs, or even remote roles, every opportunity is unique with complete training provided so you will feel comfortable responding. 

How Are We Keeping Volunteers Safe?

A graphic of the four key components on staying safe during Coronavirus outbreak including washing hands, covering your cough, disinfecting your home and staying home if sick.

Volunteer safety is a top priority for us, even more so now during this global pandemic we’re facing. Ensuring that we protect our volunteers and staff while serving our clients is a delicate balancing act. Each shelter will have one shelter manager, we are limiting the number of volunteers assigned to any one shift; in addition, volunteers and staff will be screened before arriving for their shifts to ensure that they are in good health. In between assignments, we will be checking in with individuals virtually.

Our volunteers help us create stronger, well-prepared communities, some working on a regular weekly basis, others periodically, or when major disasters strike. At the Red Cross, there’s a place for everyone to get involved!

If you want to be a part of the American Red Cross click here to learn more about our volunteer opportunities.

Hannah Huelin-Meek is a National Talent Management Leader at the American Red Cross, focused on Talent Acquisition, Employee and Volunteer Development and Domestic and Global Engagement; and part of the Pacific Coast Chapter.

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