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.
“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.
Walker’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.
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.
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.
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.
“This is our community’s disaster,” said Marianne. When it comes to the Red Cross volunteers, “we couldn’t have asked for better people.”
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.
Follow the local Red Cross on Facebook and Twitter for additional updates on Detwiler Fire relief efforts.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
As we continue to look back on 100 amazing years of service from the American Red Cross Central California Region the word “selfless” has made an appearance multiple times. The definition of “selfless” as explained by the Modern Language Association is described as, having little or no concern for oneself, especially with regard to fame, position, money, etc. In my time working at the Red Cross, and being a part of this team I have witnessed this on countless occasions. From our volunteers, to our Disaster Corps members, to our executive front. Selflessness has remained a true staple in the core of the message and identity.
Some of the duties of our wonderful volunteers tend to go untold due to the constant need for disaster relief, lifesaving blood donations, international services, training and certification, etcetera, but I had the amazing opportunity to sit down with a volunteer that embodies the definition of selflessness. Prior to meeting Virginia Bradley (Ginny) I had no idea what a Donut Dollie was. I had been told that they were Red Cross volunteers that served in the Vietnam war. Once I sat down with Ginny and heard her story I knew it was one that needed to be told.
When you think of volunteering the thought of bullets whizzing past your head, and losing friends in the process is something that never comes to mind, well at least for me it didn’t. Then I met Ginny and I understood exactly what this team that we have at the Red Cross truly is. She described to me her experience of being in Vietnam for a year with the purpose of helping our soldiers keep their moral high in times that seemed like they may be your last. A ride back to camp in a helicopter with a friend whose light had been extinguished, and all you can hear are the blades of the helicopter thumping.
“I would definitely do it again, but war is not fun”, Ginny stated as she thought back to her time spent in Vietnam. “I gained a much better understanding of war and the people that lived through war. I met a soldier that was on his third tour, and was afraid he’d kill someone if he went home. We were there to remind them that there was life after the war, but some men and women never got over the experience. On one trip back to base in a helicopter, the pilot told us something had gone wrong, and that we were probably going to crash. I thought to myself that my family was ok, and I had lived a good life if this was the end.”
Along with the dark there were also many things that Ginny said helped strengthen the light. The many games that were played and bonds that were made between soldiers and volunteers. The long talks of home over a cold beverage, and the beautiful sights of cities such as Saigon and Khe Sanh. From the beautiful tile pools that had been left by the French to the adopted dogs that became companions. Vietnam had made a lasting impression not only on those that were serving their country, but also those that were not only there for their country, but on behalf of humanity.
April 1970. Firebase Jamie, Vietnam. US troops at this remote firebase take time out from their duties for informal games staged by American Red Cross recreation workers Gayle Kuhn (left), Jubar Road, Stone Mountain, Georgia, and Barbara Crippen, 143 Marsh Avenue, Youngsville, Pennsylvania. There are more than 90 Red Cross recreation workers assigned to Red Cross centers and clubmobile units in Southeast Asia. Photo by James Caccavo/American Red Cross
November 1969. Tuy Hoa, Vietnam.”Toting equipment bag labeled ‘the Age of Aquarius,’ American Red Cross recreation workers Mary Gin Kennedy (left), Lewiston, Idaho, and Sharon Bernardi, Rt. 5, McAlester, Oklahoma, leave helicopter and head for outlying unit where they will present an informal recreation program. They are two of 110 Red Cross girls bringing recreation activities to U.S. troops in Southeast Asia.” Photo by by James Caccavo/American Red Cross.
November 1969. Tuy Hoa, Vietnam. SRAO Rec Center staff. From left to right: Dolly Hasselwander, Sharon Bernardi, Mary Gin Kennedy, and Sandy Rhoten. Photo by James E. Caccavo/American Red Cross
June 1968. Qui Nhon, South Vietnam. PROBLEMS HANDLED HERE . If a patient at the 67th Evacuation Hospital in Qui Nhon has a problem, he calls it to the attention of Red Cross hospital worker Evelyn Hardison. Here she is consulted by SP4 Irwin Cohen, who comes from San Francisco. Red Cross staffers provide sick and wounded servicemen at the 67th with non-medical personal attention and casework services, such as arranging emergency communications between a wounded man and his worried family at home. Photo by Mark Stevens/American Red Cross
December 1970. Tan Son Nhut, Vietnam. Red Cross worker Christine Foerster, 21, of 1545 Hialeah St., Orlando, Florida, tosses ditty bag up to C-119 pilot Capt. Bert H. Blanton (Rosewell, New Mexico). Photo by John E. Hendrickson/American Red Cross
Through all the gunfire, tears, monsoons, and snakes Ginny never lost her smile. To this day, she continues to instill in her students the compassion and bravery she took with her to Vietnam the day she flew out from Fairfield, California. It’s not easy to give up a year of your life so effortlessly, and at that to be separated from your family and friends to be placed in a foreign country. This is something that only a special group could be capable of. For that I am truly thankful for our troops and the courageous task that they take on. I am especially thankful for Ginny and the other Donut Dollies for their selfless service that should make all Red Crossers proud to don the Red Cross symbol.
Just before 4:00 p.m. on June 23, 2016, Jim Steel noticed a faint glow out the window of his Squirrel Valley home. He went into his backyard for a closer look, and that’s when Jim first saw the plume of smoke rising from the east side of Cook Peak Mountain. He knew in an instant that the fast moving winds were blowing the flames in their direction.
What he and everyone else did not know at the time, was that the Erskine Fire would soon become the most destructive wildfire in Kern County history.
The Longest Night
“I called to my wife and told her to get the dog, some dog food and I got some important papers, some water, and my Red Cross go bag. Within another 10 minutes the flames were in my neighborhood,” said Jim.
As a local Red Cross volunteer, Jim knew the chapter would be responding to open a shelter. Even though his own home was risk, he headed for the Lake Isabella Senior Center, where he knew the disaster team would be setting up a shelter to assist evacuated residents.
“On the way down the hill towards Highway 178, I encountered a mass exodus of residents and horses making their way through heavy smoke,” said Jim, “At the bottom of the hill, the field behind the hospital was on fire and the staff was moving the hospital patients out into the parking lot on the opposite side of the hospital from the fire.”
Meanwhile, volunteer Cindy Huge was at her home in Bakersfield, putting the finishing touches on a dinner that she was hosting for friends. That’s when she got the call to respond.
“I quickly packed a bag and told everyone to enjoy their meal,” said Cindy, “Little did I know that I would not return home for 72 hours.” As Cindy and a car full of volunteers drove up the canyon to help, they were awestruck at the site of the glowing mountainside.
“We could hardly speak. We all knew at this very moment that this wildfire was horrific,” said Cindy, “As we drove up to the shelter we could see over a hundred people standing outside waiting to get in. People were just standing there with a look of, ‘what is happening here.’”
In the car with Cindy was Red Cross volunteer Shirley Smith. This was her first wildfire response and she didn’t know quite what to expect. Once they arrived, Shirley was tasked with working the registration table at the entrance.
“Wow, suddenly there was an influx of people, coming in so quickly that help was needed at the intake table and we had to recruit the nurse to help,” said Shirley, “She was called away at one point and we ended up have the school secretary helping us.”
“There was so many people at once and so many elderly women who were arriving without their husbands and they – the women – were so scared for their husbands. The men had stayed with the hope of saving their homes. Some did, but some had to flee at the last minute and did lose their homes,” said Shirley, “Stories of pets being left, pictures lost, and general shock was what each person brought to the table. It was surreal but we had to continue to do intake.”
Jim, Cindy, Shirley, and the handful of other volunteers at the Senior Center were in overdrive, frantically setting up cots and organizing the shelter for the displaced residents. But it was short-lived, as the building quickly filled up, and the fire moved directly towards them in Lake Isabella.
Jim knew that some residents of South Lake were probably congregating at the South Fork Elementary School in Weldon, which had been used as a shelter in the past. He volunteered to go there and open a new shelter if needed. But by then, Highway 178 was closed, and he had to go around the lake by way of Kernville, 25 miles, to reach Weldon. When he arrived, there were about six or seven people sitting on the grass in front of the school. With the cell phone towers already destroyed by the fire, Jim remembered that a nearby relative of his had a landline. He was able to go there and call back to the Senior Center for further instructions.
“It was then that I learned the fire commanders decided they did not want a shelter in Weldon, as it was potentially in the fire path. By the time I got back to the school, there were about 60 people outside on the grass and I had to tell them the only shelter location was going to be in Kernville for now,” said Jim.
That first night, the Kernville Elementary School cafeteria would house well over 125 residents. It quickly became the primary shelter and community center for reconnecting loved ones, meals, health services, comfort, and official briefings.
“This evening was probably one of the most difficult that I have ever experienced in my life,” said Cindy. She still remembers the harrowing story of a young girl and her cat that were evacuated that night.
“She was clutching her beloved cat. Her grandmother told me that they ran out of their home with only the cat and had jumped into a pickup truck of a neighbor as a fire ball was quickly consuming the other homes on their street. The young girl was silent, so traumatized that she could not speak.”
Cindy dropped everything to sit by the girl and comfort her.
“I reassured her that the Red Cross was going to give her a safe place to stay for her and her beloved cat. At 3:30 am I found her sound asleep, snuggled next to the cage that her cat was purring in. This precious sight brought tears to my eyes and still does when I think about what this beautiful child went through,” said Cindy.
“The people were in shock. The fire had raced across two valleys in less than an hour,” said Jim, “It was a very difficult night for many people. I had been so busy; I hadn’t had time to reflect on my personal situation but in the quiet hours of the night, the fact that I didn’t know if I had lost my home sunk in. There was no way to talk with my wife.”
It would be three days before Jim would find out that his house had actually survived. It was one of the four homes on his street that had not burned to the ground.
The next morning, day two of the fire, brought a bit of comic relief. Four teenage boys decided they would prefer sleeping in the grass outside that night.
“Here they came about 3:00 a.m. wanting new blankets,” said Jim, “The sprinklers had come on and given them a rude awakening.” It was the chuckle that everyone needed after the long and scary night.
A National Disaster
As the operation continued, Red Cross volunteers provided relief, hope, and comfort to hundreds of residents affected by the Erskine Fire. By the time the shelters closed, the Red Cross had served over 11,400 meals and snacks, provided more than 830 overnight shelter stays, and made over 850 health services contacts.
More volunteers poured in from around the country in the days that followed the initial evacuation, from far away as Florida and Hawaii. Shirley was able to transition back to her primary Red Cross role: Spiritual Care. By now, evacuations were starting to lift, and many families were facing the new reality of the fire’s destruction.
“The thing that continues to stay with me was the image of an entire community burned out, gone with nothing but twisted metal remains of mobile homes and melted aluminum from car wheels running down driveways,” said Shirley, “As we met these people and tried to offer comfort and hope, the thing that seemed to offer the most comfort was simply a hug. The most amazing thing was later when we would meet up with these people somewhere else they would light up and run and hug us and tell us how much we had helped them.”
Kern Valley Strong
The Red Cross transitioned into a long term recovery phase, providing clean up supplies, referrals, financial assistance, and other resources to families as they began to pick up the pieces. By the end of the operation, volunteers had distributed nearly 17,500 clean up kits and recovery items like shovels, gloves, and buckets. The Red Cross partnered with many community organizations that were also working around the clock to support the residents – groups like the Elks Lodge in Wofford Heights, the Salvation Army, Kern County Animal Control, the Central California Animal Disaster Team, Goodwill, All For One, Victim Relief Ministries, and countless others who served meals, provided clothing, or built sifters by hand.
After all the evacuation orders were lifted, the County hosted a Local Assistance Center, or a LAC, or short. The Red Cross was there along with dozens of other organizations to provide a one-stop-shop for recovery services. Red Cross casework volunteers met one on one with families, determining their needs along with how to best meet them. Counselors and Spiritual Care volunteers like Shirley were on hand to meet the emotional needs of the families facing the disaster.
“Everyone in the community was so great to work with and did everything they could to make things work for the clients and the volunteers,” said Shirley, “The service center that was set up for clients to sign up for assistance was a work of art. It seemed to run so smoothly. There were so many agencies there to assist the clients and people in the community. They truly cared about helping these people and getting them on to the road to a new normal.”
Several days after evacuation orders began to lift, Cindy had an opportunity to tour one of the areas most affected by the fire.
“There are few words to describe the devastation I witnessed. All that was left of over 200 hundred homes were piles of ash and metal, hardly a reminder of the many families who lived there,” said Cindy.
Now, one year after the Erskine Fire devastated the community, these memories are still fresh in the minds of the residents and first responders.
“The Erskine Fire has had a profound effect on me,” said Jim, “I have moved from having empathy for the clients we serve, to having personal experience regarding their pain. I saw amazing compassion among the volunteers and the evacuees. Everyone was helping one another in any way they could.”
While the scorched hillsides of the Kern River Valley still serve as a reminder of the fire’s destruction, there are signs of renewal and growth. The community is Kern Valley Strong, and more resilient than ever. The Red Cross is honored to be a part of the Erskine Fire community gathering this week on the one year anniversary of the blaze, from 4:00 p.m. – 8:00 p.m. at Mountain Mesa Park.
“I of course will never forget the experience and never want to repeat it, but is has been rewarding watching my community pull together in recovery and the Red Cross has been a significant part of that,” said Jim, “For that I’m proud to be a Red Crosser.”
Pizza, volunteering, and newly formed friendships. Sounds like a great day, right? That was the theme of the Home Fire Campaign that the American Red Cross of Ventura County held on January 14th, 2017. Volunteers met early in the morning and divided into teams with different functions such as installers, educators, recorders, and translators. They installed hundreds of smoke alarms in the Oxnard area. Kimberly Coley, the Executive Director of the American Red Cross of Ventura County, explained that the volunteers go through orientation and training onsite. The American Red Cross of Ventura County was able to recruit the owner of Pizza Man Dan, Dan Collier, to donate pizzas to feed the volunteers. Coley stated, “The generous donation from Collier was amazing and greatly appreciated. The message of the American Red Cross is an important one, and we are pleased to hear that our message managed to reach Collier as well.”
When Dan realized the goal of the event he felt compelled to help. Collier described how he became familiar with the American Red Cross, and the lifesaving work that we provide. Collier explained that he found out about the Red Cross after losing his brother in-law to a home fire in New York two months prior. Collier said the fire started while he was asleep, and that his life could have been saved if the smoke alarm in his home had been connected. Collier said when he was approached by the Red Cross to assist with the event he jumped at the opportunity.
“When I heard the goal of yours was to install 400-500 smoke alarms in one day here in Oxnard it was not only great timing, but I wanted to do what I could to help spread awareness to people that were as unfamiliar with the work of the Red Cross as I was. I am impressed with the work that the American Red Cross is doing, and all the volunteers that have dedicated their whole Saturday. The least I can do is provide lunch for them.”
Dan also mentioned that the American Red Cross was the first and the only organization that arrived at the scene of the fire of his brother in law’s home before it was out. He explained that they offered everything they said they would. He praised the program for carrying out the same services in New York as well as in California. The volunteers offered emotional, financial, and other visible support when his family needed it most.
This event turned out to be a huge success. Red Cross volunteers managed to install 518 smoke alarms, educate 676 residents, and create 278 safety plans for families in the event of a disaster.
Collier returned three months later to provide lunch for volunteers and provide vouchers for pizza to families at the Camarillo Home Fire Campaign on April 8, 2017. On this occasion, community volunteers managed to cover 53 homes, install 158 smoke alarms, and educate 212 residents.
Dan Collier may not have heard much about the American Red Cross prior to his family’s unfortunate loss, but he has continued to show his support and help families potentially avoid such an accident. Like many others in the region, Dan may not have heard much about the Red Cross prior to his unfortunate incident, but now that he has experienced the importance of home fire safety first hand, he is committed to making sure no one else must go through the same tragic experience.