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.
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.”
When it rains it pours, and it has certainly been pouring in California this winter. Massive amounts of rainfall in the Golden State has caused flooding, landslides, sink holes, road closures, power outages, and mass evacuations. All of this has led to a major Red Cross response effort, with volunteers from around the nation pouring into our state to provide relief.
Oroville Dam Spillway
Last Sunday night nearly 200,000 residents were told that the Oroville Dam Spillway failure was imminent, and they had only an hour to leave home. Within just a few hours, the Red Cross Gold Country Region managed to set up multiple emergency shelters to house thousands of residents fleeing the threat of the dam.
Red Cross workers congregate for an afternoon meeting at the Silver Dollar Fairgrounds shelter in Chico, CA. Photo: Marko Kokic, American Red Cross
Two-year-old Samantha started running a fever at the shelter, and disaster health workers helped prescribe medicine and even picked up the prescription for the family at the local pharmacy. Photo: Marko Kokic, American Red Cross
Red Cross worker, Sam, cleans and organizes cots at the Silver Dollar Fairgrounds shelter in Chico, CA, where he is the shelter manager. Photo: Marko Kokic, American Red Cross
Sabreen and Emily meet and hug at a Red Cross shelter. Sabreen had to evacuate her home in Oroville and is staying in the shelter. Sabreen has also helped out at the shelter by running games and activities for the kids. Photo: Marko Kokic, American Red Cross
Red Cross volunteer Emily chats with shelter residents Natalie, Anna, and Eliza at the Red Cross shelter in Chico. Marko Kokic, American Red Cross
By Monday afternoon, 12 local Central California Red Crossers were on their way to the operational headquarters in Sacramento to help provide relief and comfort. Their support ranged from shelter staff, public information officers, and Emergency Response Vehicle drivers.
Meanwhile, more rain was on the way and all eyes were on the atmospheric river slowly churning over the Pacific Ocean. The Central California Region quickly teamed up with the neighboring regions and Red Cross National Headquarters to formulate a plan for supporting multiple communities that would be impacted by this new storm all at once.
Friday night, our local Red Cross activated five emergency shelters for families looking to avoid the storm’s wrath. Many more shelters were placed on standby just in case. Red Cross volunteers worked through the night, making sure that anyone who needed assistance was supported.
Get Red Cross Ready
The winter weather still isn’t over. With more rain on the way, it’s more important than ever to make sure that your family is ready for disasters big and small. There are three simple steps that everyone can take to help make a difference: get a kit, make a plan, be informed.
Follow a few flood safety tips to prepare for and respond to flooding in your area:
Keep your car gas tanks full, so that in the event of an evacuation, you can get quickly to safety.
Listen to local radio and television stations for possible flood warning and reports of flooding in progress or other critical information from the National Weather Service (NWS).
Be prepared to evacuate at a moment’s notice.
When a flood or flash flood warning is issued, head for higher ground and stay there.
Turn around, don’t drown! If water is flowing above ankle level, stop, turn around, and go another way.
Keep children out of the water which can be swift moving or contaminated.
Download the Emergency App
You can download the FREE Red Cross Emergency App to have safety information available on your mobile device, including open shelter locations, emergency weather alerts, and flood safety information. Red Cross apps are available in smartphone app stores by searching for the American Red Cross or going to redcross.org/apps.
The Red Cross will always be there for our community in times of disaster. But by following a few simple steps to make sure your family is ready, you’re helping us to build a stronger, more resilient Central California – come rain or shine.
Regional Director of Communications
It was Christmas Eve at my Grandmother’s house. Tummies were full of holiday treats, stockings were hung by the chimney with care, and the family was gathered at the kitchen table playing cards. That’s when my Dad smelled the smoke.
“Is something burning?” he asked. Everyone looked up from their cards with concern and started sniffing the air. It did smell like smoke. Dad got up from his seat and followed the scent into the living room. That’s when we heard him shout, “Get some water!”
Everyone jumped up from their seats and rushed to the living room to see what was causing the distress. There, on the table, was my grandmother’s carefully placed nativity set fully engulfed in flames.
Just days before she had so delicately placed the wooden figurines on a bed of angel hair and thoughtfully surrounded it with candles. But it didn’t take much – just a flame catching the slightest wisp of angel hair – to cause the fire to start.
Thankfully we were all home, awake, and able to quickly put the fire out. There was minimal damage, except for the nativity set itself, and we were able to laugh about it for the rest of the holiday and for years to come. But that’s not the case for many families during the holiday season.
With the holidays comes a whole host of safety hazards that often result in disaster. Last year between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve, the Red Cross Central California Region responded to help 373 families affected by fires, providing relief and comfort to those that had lost everything.
It doesn’t have to be this way. You can help us reduce that number this year. Here’s how.
Get Red Cross Ready
Following a few Red Cross fire safety tips goes a long way to stopping preventable tragedies. Holiday mishaps can happen to anyone, including you and me. So put the odds in your favor by being extra cautious.
This video shows just how quickly a Christmas tree can go up in flames:
Don’t let this be your home this winter. Place Christmas trees, candles, and other holiday decorations at least three feet away from heat sources like fireplaces, portable heaters, radiators, heat vents and candles.
Always unplug the tree and holiday lights before leaving home or going to bed.
Smoke alarms save lives. Install a smoke alarm near your kitchen, on each level of your home, near sleeping areas, and inside and outside bedrooms if you sleep with doors closed. Use the test button to check it each month. Replace all batteries at least once a year.
Find even more holiday fire safety tips from the Red Cross here.
Be a Social Butterfly
Share your favorite tips with your social networks. Share this blog post on social media along with your own holiday hazard story to illustrate the importance of fire safety. Social media users are far more likely to listen to a plea of safety from their own friends and family. So share the love!
Give With Meaning
Make a donation to your local Red Cross and #GiveWithMeaning this year. Stuck on gift ideas for that person who has everything? A gift to the Red Cross in their honor helps to educate families on the importance of fire safety and installs free smoke alarms in local neighborhoods. Plus it provides your loved one with a unique holiday present that they’ll remember for a lifetime.
On January 14, 2017, we’re hosting three different Home Fire Campaign events in Bakersfield, Fresno, and Oxnard. We’re looking for passionate citizens like you to help build stronger communities by installing free smoke alarms. You don’t have to be an existing Red Cross volunteer to help! Visit redcross.org/cencalhfc to sign up and learn more.
If we all just commit to one of these four opportunities for fire safety, our beautiful Central California community will be a much stronger, more resilient place!
From all of us at the Red Cross, have a safe and happy holiday season!
Regional Director of Communications