Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Working the Valley Fire with the Red Cross

I got a call from my Red Cross buddy Julie Schoening on a Sunday evening and she said that I was wanted in California to help with the wildfires.

“When do they want me to leave?” I asked.

“Tomorrow,” she said.

An American Red Cross Emergency Response Vehicle drives past a destroyed hotel
in the Cobb Community of the Valley Fire.
The next morning at 9 AM I stopped by the Capital Area Chapter to pick up my travel documents and then I was off to the airport. Sharon Tyler, the CEO of the Chapter, advised a reporter from a local television station that I was being deployed and gave her my contact info. The reporter called when I was going through security so I asked her to call me back.

Once I was through security and had a cup of coffee in hand I sat down to do the phone interview. Some people are nervous about talking to the media. I didn’t recall reading the Red Cross memo on media interviews but I didn’t see any harm as long as I: a) spoke about things for which I direct knowledge, and b) focused on the positive, as opposed to the negative. If they were looking for a spokesperson for Gail McGovern then I wasn’t their man. I was a volunteer from Tallahassee, off to the Left Coast to save California, and that’s what I talked about. I made the noon and 5 PM news shows and they didn’t garble too much of what I said.

This was only my second deployment as a Red Cross volunteer. My first deployment as a volunteer was in 2012 when I was sent to the New York City Disaster Relief Operation in Manhattan at the corner of 10th Avenue and 49th St for the Sandy response. If you want to read about the exciting times that I had in the Big Apple go to here and here.

Speaking of exciting times, after my interview I boarded a flight to Miami, where I changed to the middle seat of a 7-hour flight to San Francisco. After some adventures, which are a story for another time, I was able to save the Red Cross the cost of a hotel room by sleeping at a friend’s house in Santa Rosa, an hour and a half north of the airport, where I laid my weary head down long after my customary bedtime.

The American Red Cross Disaster Relief Headquarters for the Valley Fire at Hidden Valley Lake the
morning of September 22, 2015 when I arrived.
On Tuesday morning, September 22, I reported to the Disaster Relief Operation Headquarters at Hidden Valley Lake. I went through the check-in process with the people at the Headquarters in charge of keeping track of which people and what stuff are assigned to the disaster. This is an important job. On one of the hurricanes I worked on with the State we spent 2 months after the disaster looking for a rented trailer. If you’re not paying attention, that’s easy to do. They gave me a laptop computer and the address for the Lake County Emergency Operations Center and sent me on my way.

The so-called “Valley Fire” was the 3rd most destructive in California history, or so I heard from more than one local emergency manager when I was there. The State of California Situation Report of 9/13/15 stated that the fire started in Lake County at 1325 hours on September 12. By October 2 the fire had destroyed 76,868 acres and 2,663 residences. I had seen some of this destruction as I passed through Middletown on my way to Hidden Lake that morning.

Light filters through the trees at a home destroyed by the Valley Fire in the Cobb Community.
My GPS sent me north toward the southern shore of Clear Lake, the largest lake in California (Lake Tahoe is partly in Nevada). Unsure of the provisions at my destination, my infantry training kicked in (i.e. never pass up an opportunity to eat or sleep) and I grabbed a chicken sandwich in Lower Lake on the way. I didn’t have to buy another meal for 10 days.

The Lake County EOC was housed in the banquet room of a Casino on the Lake.  The bathrooms were in the Casino so in the next week I made numerous trips between the rows of slot machines, self-conscious of my Red Cross hat and well aware that no amount of explanation could overcome the photo and caption: RED CROSS VOLUNTEER ON VALLEY FIRE CAUGHT GAMBLING IN CASINO.

The Lake County EOC in the Banquet Room of the Casino.

Like almost anything else, the best way to learn about disaster response is not by reading about it but by deploying and working on events. I have worked a lot of disasters, but very few at the County level and even fewer as a Volunteer. Plus, I’ve worked a lot of hurricanes but very few wildfires, and this was a big wildfire. Consequently, I learned a lot.

Lake County has a population of 63,860 so their County Emergency Management was woefully under equipped to handle a disaster of this size. No county jurisdiction in the nation is staffed to handle The Big One. That’s what Mutual Aid is for. When I arrived in the Lake County EOC I found a room filled with tables, chairs, computers, wires, maps and local emergency managers from all over the state coordinating the disaster.

The sudden destruction of a large portion of the housing stock in the County made a roof and a bed a premium item for survivors, responders and Red Cross volunteers. This put the Red Cross in the business of sheltering not only survivors but Red Cross staff and volunteers as well. I hadn't slept on a cot since I left Iraq 10 years ago and I can say that I hadn't missed it a  lick. I have slept on the ground and on the hood of a HumVee so there are worse things than a cot. And sleeping on a cot is easier when you've been working hard all day saving California.

My deluxe living accommodations on the shore of Clear Lake.

The State of California did a good job of recognizing the problem and then providing a solution. They pulled a 100 person base camp out of storage, loaded it on a trailer and and sent to to a County park a few miles from the County EOC/Casino. They assigned a California Incident Management Team to manage the Base Camp and these guys did an outstanding job. Instead of making me drive 45 minutes to Middletown to stay in the Red Cross staff shelter than let me sleep at the CALOES Base Camp, 5 minutes from where I was working.

The tents were climate controlled and the showers were hot. The only slight disadvantage were the midnight trudges with flip-flops and my Gator Sweatshirt through the chill night air to the portalets. To this day I can't go to a portalet with thinking about Iraq but I couldn't complain about my luxury camping conditions.

"People pay a lot of money to camp like this on the shores of Clear Lake, California" I said more than once to any of my fellow Campers who would listen.

When the Lake County EOC shut down and I was reassigned to the DRO Hqs at the Adventist Church in St Helena, nestled on a hillside overlooking the spectacular Napa Valley, I was assigned to the nearby Staff Shelter. Because I allegedly snore (not having heard anything, I am unable to verify the allegation) I took up the offer to sleep outside in my own tent, sleeping bag and cot. Besides having to erect the tent in the dark (a task alleviated by the able assistance of some RedCrossers who took pity on me) I had no problems with these arrangements. Although the absence of heat, insects and reptiles were a plus.

Putting up my tent in the dark outside the Red Cross St Helena staff shelter.
As in all disasters, some things went well and some didn't. What California did well, at least in Lake County during the Valley Fire, was to make sure that accommodations were made in the shelters for those who had access and functional needs. The efforts by the responsible individuals in the Red Cross, the County and the State to make sure the toilets and showers at the shelters were accessible and that the animals were taken care of made this one of the better disaster responses (in this area) that I had seen.

The burn scars from the Valley Fire around the city of Middletown in Lake County, CA.
Like Floridians with hurricanes, Californians are getting wildfire responses down. This is an unfortunate business that the El Nino winter rains may alleviate.  This will allow the Californians to work on their mudslide responses.

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