One Year Later: An Erskine Fire Retrospective

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.

Erskine-Plume-062416
June 24, 2016 – the plume from the Erskine Fire billows out over the Kern River Valley, and can be seen from the Red Cross shelter at Kernville Elementary School

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.

Lake Kaweah and Erskine Fire 240 sm
Buildings in Lake Isabella narrowly avoid the flames. Photo: Eddie Zamora, American Red Cross

“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.

27560706224_dc8323e2d8_k.jpg
A Red Cross volunteer works the registration table at Kernville Elementary. Photo: Eddie Zamora, American Red Cross

“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.

Lake Kaweah and Erskine Fire 256.jpg
Red Cross volunteers assist a resident at the registration desk in Kernville. Photo: Eddie Zamora

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.

Lake Kaweah and Erskine Fire 258 sm
Some residents chose to sleep outside with their pets at Kernville Elementary, while Erskine Fire evacuation orders were still in place. Photo: Eddie Zamora, American Red Cross

“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.

Lake Kaweah and Erskine Fire 257.jpg
Dozens of animals are cared for at the Kernville Elementary School shelter, by Kern County Animal Services and the Central California Animal Disaster Team. Photo: Eddie Zamora, American Red Cross

“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.

1 Skeeter & Joan
Kern County Red Cross Spiritual Care volunteer Skeeter meets with a shelter residents, Joan. Photo: Steve Jeter, American Red Cross

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.

IMG_8365 sm
A Red Crosser surveys the Erskine Fire’s destruction. Photo Credit: Steve Jeter, American Red Cross

“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.

southlake-miguel2
South Lake resident Miguel explains to Cindy Huge how the flames came over the mountain.

“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.

Cindy-BabyBentley
Volunteer Cindy Huge cradles eight-day-old baby Bentley in a Red Cross shelter during the Erskine Fire.

“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.”

erskine-volunteers

 

 

Advertisements

Pizza Man Dan

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.”

32255438521_3d1370f516_k

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.

20170408_123630_resize_33983400085_o

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.

Next Saturday the American Red Cross of Ventura County will host another Home Fire Campaign in Port Hueneme, California.  Once again Pizza Man Dan will be supporting our volunteers with lunch, and participating families with vouchers.  Sign up to volunteer here: http://www.redcross.org/local/california/central-california/home-fire-safety

25204689304_3efa2ae4a1_k

Ready for Wildfires: 5 Steps to Prepare your Family and Home

The drought may be over for most of California, but that doesn’t mean the threat of wildfires is gone. In fact, many fire experts agree that this summer the threat may be even worse. The weather has only started to heat up, but the Central California Region has already seen thousands of acres burned due to fast moving grass and wild fires.

California Wildfires

That’s why it is so important for us to be prepared for what is already shaping up to be a busy wildfire season. Here’s five steps that you can take to make sure you’re ready:

  1. Know your risk and stay informed. Make sure everyone in your family is familiar with the National Fire Danger Rating System (NFDRS). Keep an eye on the weather, especially humidity and wind levels. Pay attention to red flag warnings in your community.

    DefensibleSpace
    Photo: CAL FIRE | calfire.ca.gov
  2. Clear your defensible space.
    By clearing brush and other debris within 100 feet of your house, you greatly improve your home’s chances of surviving a wildfire.
  3. Review your homeowner’s insurance policies. Prepare or update a list of your home’s contents. Store digital copies of your insurance paperwork, other important documents, and photographs on an easy-to-grab thumb drive or in secure cloud storage.
  4. Get a kit and make a plan. Keep essential items in an emergency preparedness kit that you can take with you in the event of an evacuation. Make sure to include food, water, medications, and hygiene items. Get the full list of recommended supplies here. Every member of the family should be prepared for disasters big and small – not just wildfires. Make sure everyone knows how to respond to a disaster, and can get out of the home in two minutes or less.
  1. Download the Red Cross Emergency App. Get more emergency preparedness knowledge at your fingertips, and even find shelter locations near your during a disaster with the free Red Cross Emergency App for smartphones and tablets.
wildfire-app
Wildfire tips from the free Red Cross Emergency App

When fires strike in our community, the Red Cross will always be there to help. But by following these important steps, the process of responding to and recovering from a wildfire will be much easier for every member of your family.

Check our more safety tips and download the full wildfire safety checklist on redcross.org.

Cold Springs Rancheria HFC

On Saturday, March 11, 2017 AmeriCorps Disaster Team member Bushra Zamzami met with 12 volunteers in Cold Springs Rancheria for a Red Cross Month Home Fire Campaign. Bushra set out Saturday morning from our Fresno location to not only install smoke alarms, but to help spread awareness to the Cold Springs Rancheria of Mono Indians of California. The American Red Cross has proudly been working towards an ongoing effort with Indian Country for the past two years to increase preparedness within the communities.

IMG_1039

This being the first HFC within Cold Springs Rancheria was an absolute success. The group managed to canvas over 30 homes. More than 20 families were educated on home fire safety, and together 27 lifesaving smoke alarms were installed. While installing the alarms one of the tribal citizen volunteers mentioned that her home had caught fire not too long ago. At the time of the fire she did not have any smoke alarms installed within her home. She was thankful to be a part of something so impactful and helpful. After experiencing firsthand how devastating a fire can be she was excited to help her fellow tribal citizens with installing smoke alarms and helping make sure they had a home fire escape plan.


Bushra wanted to especially thank Team 3 consisting of, Suha, Arlene, and Jennifer. Their team managed to install the most alarms for the day (12), and snagged the notorious “Golden Smoke Alarm Award”. The Red Cross also gifted the tribe 2 tool kits and step ladders to help reduce home fire related injuries and deaths in the area.
Not only was this our first HFC for the area, but it was also an all women group that completed the task. What a way to kick off “Women’s History Month”, Clara Barton herself would be proud. Great job everyone!

tribe 2

Ryan Henry Jackson
Communications Coordinator

Home

It’s two in the morning and you’re on a flight home.  You’ve been overseas for eight months, and were unsure if you would ever actually see it again.  The feeling that overcomes you isn’t what you would expect it to be though.  Happiness…Joy…excitement.  These are the typical emotions that you would expect to feel when returning back to the place that was once your place of comfort. Home.

For many veterans there is an abrupt end to the extended duration of time spent on deployment.  Organized duties and missions completed with a cohesive unit suddenly come to a screeching halt, and you are thrust back into civilian life once again.  Airmen bring back their military issued rucksack full of gear which has seen months and miles of resolute but lonely duty, but they also bring back their mental baggage full of tough experiences and painful moments locked deep in a vault that was created to harden the mind to perform their duty.  Straddling the line between military life and civilian life while trying to exist part-time in both worlds is the challenge.

Last month The American Red Cross – Central California Region held a workshop in collaboration with the Department of Defense called the Yellow Ribbon Reintegration Program.  The event hosted the men and women of the California Air National Guard’s 144th Fighter Wing based in Fresno, California.  The event provided marriage counseling, Veterans affairs information on education and training benefits, domestic violence and suicide awareness and prevention.  It also provided vital information regarding depression, brain injuries, and post-traumatic stress disorders.

32406202286_3320406867_k

The Red Cross augmented the schedule with a mid-day “Reconnection Workshop” where the nearly 250 attendees were put into groups of 20 led by an American Red Cross mental health professional who helped guide them through a carefully targeted training module.  The module titled “Communicating Clearly” gave the participants a fresh perspective on how to enhance their communication skills, and be more successful in their relations at both home and work.  The implementation of these “Reconnection” workshops is a key aspect in helping to reconnect our service members with family and successfully re-engage them to civilian life.

As a special addition to the day’s schedule, the Red Cross also provided a companion skill building activity for the children of the attending Service members.  While their parents were learning valuable communication skills in the “Reconnection Workshop”, the children were engaged in the interactive “Pillowcase Project”.  The Red Cross emergency preparedness program helps to educate and increase awareness regarding natural hazards.  The “Pillowcase Project”, sponsored by Disney, is an interactive activity where each child received a pre-printed pillowcase with Disney characters that they get to decorate and take home to use as their personal preparedness kit.

At the end of the day families left for home better outfitted to deal effectively with the special challenges a military family faces that are often impacted greater by a tough deployment.  Deployment can be hard not only on the deployed, but the family that they leave behind.

It’s eight in the morning and your flight has landed. You’ve retrieved your luggage from the baggage claim, and as you start to walk towards the entrance you hear someone shout your name.  You turn to see the bright shining faces of your loved ones, and that is when you remember.  This is HOME.

Ryan Henry Jackson                                                                                                       Communications Coordinator

When It Rains It Pours

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.

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.

California Flooding
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

Louisiana Floods 2016
Photo: Marko Kokic, American Red Cross

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.

emergencyapp-twitter.png

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.

Jessica Piffero
Regional Director of Communications

The Red Cross is the Place I Get to be Myself

“I’ve been told I’m a “Preparedness Fanatic,” laughs Holly Green a Red Cross Volunteer in Bakersfield, California. “And, that’s okay, because at the Red Cross, I get to be myself!”

Holly Green enjoys helping her community prepare
Red Cross volunteer Holly Green stands in front of an Emergency Response Vehicle during the Home Fire Campaign MLK Day of Service event in Bakersfield.

Holly volunteers for the Red Cross Central California Region and has been a Red Cross Volunteer since Hurricane Katrina.  But she’s not the first in her family to feel the call to serve.

“My mother was a volunteer with the Red Cross back when I was little and we were stationed in Germany. She worked out of the Wiesbaden office, and did casework, so I guess you can say I followed in her footsteps.”  Holly explains that during Desert Storm, her mother’s hard work was instrumental in getting over 500 Red Cross Grants to soldiers coming home.

“I love working with the Red Cross, just as my mother did.” explains Holly.  “This job makes my soul feel alive and no matter how tired we are, the people we help are what make it all worthwhile.”

Holly stays busy as a caseworker, pitching in with office duties at her local chapter, and sharing her enthusiasm and talent at special events such as the Pillowcase Project and Be Red Cross Ready Presentations. Her latest effort was assisting her team in the installation of smoke alarms in her home town as part of the MLK Day of Service effort this January.  “This was an amazing project! I love installing these alarms and sitting with a family to help them prepare for a fire or other disaster, because I know we are saving lives.”

red-cross-volunteers-install-smoke-alarms-bakersfield
Holly and her husband Aaron team up with Kern County Fire Department Explorer Gabriel Gomez and Red Cross Public Affairs volunteer Michele Maki to install free smoke alarms in Bakersfield homes.

Holly encourages others to volunteer too. “We get the opportunity to meet people in our own community and hearing how thankful they are for what we are doing. That makes my heart so happy!” And, as Holly said, if you care about others and want to help other prepare and prevent disasters, the Red Cross is a place where you “get to be yourself”!

For more information on how you can volunteer, please go to www.RedCross.org.

Michele Maki
Red Cross Volunteer

Since our local chapters were first chartered in 1917, the Red Cross has been here for the last 100 years when people in Central California needed us most.  Your Red Cross story of the past can be a part of our centennial celebration. Do you have your own Red Cross story to share? Click here to submit it directly online! 

135604-central-ca-region-centennial-logo-final-1