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Six Month Update on Valley Fire Recovery

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As you know, our friends and neighbors in Lake County and in communities across the state endured a relentless series of devastating wildfires this past summer. Today, our work continues, where Red Cross staff and volunteers continue to collaborate to ensure residents have the extra assistance they need to rebuild, not just as individuals but as a whole community, too.

Click HERE to read a six-month Stewardship Report that provides a first-hand look at your generously donated dollars at work, detailing our continued support and recovery efforts in the community.

Thank you for your support and commitment to help those affected by these wildfires. Your generosity makes the hope of recovery possible at a time when people need it the most.

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Volunteer’s Persistence Provides Hope and Hearing

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Eleanor Guzik (left), a long-time volunteer Red Cross nurse from Ventura, whose persistence lead to donation of hearing aids and Client Charles Smith (right) at Sonus’ Walnut Creek, California offices, where the hearing aids were presented and fitted.

The wildfires that torched California’s Lake, Calaveras, and Amador Counties last September destroyed more than 1,700 homes and displaced thousands of families. Like many from the American Red Cross who were deployed to one of the fire locations, Eleanor Guzik — a longtime volunteer nurse from Ventura in the Central California Region — was a valuable resource for many of the people who relied on the national organization to help them with food, water, shelter and other critical needs in the first days and weeks of the fire-response operation.

Many months later, Guzik, a Red Cross nurse for more than 10 years, and others in the organization have continued to track the smaller — but still important — needs of hundreds of clients from the fires. The cases of five such clients — four adults and one child — were of particular concern to Guzik, as they had lost hearing aids that they were financially unable to replace.

While considering their plight one day, Guzik recalled a chance meeting she’d had with another Red Cross volunteer, Marilyn Reilly, from the organization’s Desert to the Sea Region. Reilly had worked in the hearing aid field — and after speaking to Guzik, sought help from a leading supplier of the devices, Sonus Hearing Care Professionals.

In February, the persistence of Guzik and Reilly paid off when Sonus, with critical support from Starkey Hearing Foundation, announced that the five victims would get new hearing aids for free.

During an emotional event at Sonus’s Walnut Creek offices on February 11, four of the five were on hand to be fitted for their new devices.

Daniel Smith, who is temporarily residing in Sebastopol, was one of the four who made the trip to Walnut Creek that day.

Having his hearing restored is important to him, he said. But Smith has acquired a lot of perspective since losing his home, vehicles, and other possessions during the Valley Fire.

“In a way, after all that happened to me, my hearing loss was not the biggest of my concerns,” Smith readily admits. But he says the donation he’s received has done more than improve his hearing; the experience has been a big boost to his spirits.

And Smith quickly mentions how thrilled he was that he got some face time with Guzik, who surprised Smith by attending the event in Walnut Creek. “She flew all the way up here from her home, and there she was standing there smiling at me after I received my hearing aids.”

Guzik, Smith says, never lost faith that the Red Cross and its partners could help him and the other four victims. “She kept telling me to just be patient,” he recalls.

“The hearing aids are great. I couldn’t be more pleased — and more humble, Smith adds. “This has been a real light in the darkness for me.”

Guzik, meanwhile, is quick to deflect credit to her Red Cross colleagues, Reilly and division disaster health services advisor Diane St. Denis, who helped shepherd the donation through its final steps — and, of course, to Sonus and the Starkey Foundation. “Their combined efforts provided a total of more than $30,000 worth of hearing aids to these five people so that they could hear again. The people at Sonus and Starkey are the real heroes in this story.”

It’s just the kind of comment one comes to expect from Guzik, whose Red Cross information includes her work experience as Registered Nurse and Nurse Practitioner and her Red Cross roles of Disaster Cycle Services Nurse Consultant and member of the Pacific Division’s Disaster Response Management Team.

“But the important line,” she quickly adds, “is the one that says: American Red Cross Volunteer. It’s a work of the heart, and that’s why I continue on with it.”

Safeguarding Watershed and Sheltering Belongings

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Shelly Mascari, a Lake County resident and head of the local coordinating task force on Cobb Mountain, sifts through the ashes on her property after she – like many of her neighbors – had her home destroyed by the Valley Fire.

On a rainy Sunday in early December, a group of Red Cross volunteers and residents of Cobb Mountain braved the elements in order to take another small step in the area’s recovery from the devastating Valley Fire that ravaged Northern California’s Lake County just three months earlier.

The dozen American Red Cross volunteers, joining community members from the Cobb Resiliency Action Group, gathered at the Little Red School House in Cobb to give away large tarps and wattle rolls to anyone who needed them to help protect their fire-ravaged land from the soil erosion the coming winter would surely bring.

Nearly 150 tarps, courtesy of the Red Cross, were given away on December 6 — just one of many large and small ways in which the organization has contributed to the Valley Fire recovery effort. Also given away that day, compliments of the Lake County Department of Public Works, were some 120 wattles, the erosion-control rolls that are typically interlaced with twigs or branches.

Mike Conroy, senior disaster program manager for Red Cross’s Northern California Coastal Region, and JJ Moses, the regional recovery program manager, have both been supporting the organization’s participation in Lake County’s long-term recovery efforts from the Valley Fire.

Conroy says recovery planning and organizing began right on the heels of the fire being extinguished as the Red Cross and other service agencies and organizations on the scene realized how financially challenging the fire was going to be for some of the people who lost homes in the blaze. “We shifted into long-term recovery mode pretty quickly,” he says.

“Because of the generosity of our donors, the Red Cross has been able to provide some financial assistance,” he adds. “Whether it be financial support or help with something else, we have just tried to pitch in where and when we can. But it is very much a community-wide effort.”

At the Little Red School House in December, the Red Cross pitched in with the tarps — badly needed by many residents to cover charred land that had once been protected by trees and vegetation. “And for some of the people, they just needed our tarps to cover possessions that were sitting exposed on their home sites,” Conroy says.

The erosion-control work to which the Red Cross is contributing not only protects the Cobb Mountain watershed from soil runoff, it protects the watershed from contaminates that might inadvertently flow downstream from the residents’ properties, he adds.

Helping safeguard the watershed, while also sheltering people’s personal belongings, are small but meaningful ways in which the Red Cross is contributing to the area’s massive post-fire recovery efforts. “It may take the community here years to completely recover from this disaster,” Conroy says. “It’s a very large undertaking, and we’re just one of many organizations — government agencies, non-profits, and citizen groups — that are pulling together to help.”

Conroy says that Red Cross has been working with Team Lake County (TLC), a collection of non-profit organizations that formed “as a kind of umbrella organization helping to coordinate many of the recovery efforts.”

Shelly Mascari, TLC’s chair, says the American Red Cross has been a welcome member of her task force. “There is a tremendous amount of work to be done here in Lake County, and at times it has been truly overwhelming,” says Mascari, whose own home was destroyed by the fire. “The American Red Cross has proven to be an invaluable partner.”

Mascari adds that she is “especially grateful for the Red Cross’s willingness to truly consider the needs of the community, researching and being thoughtful in how they utilize their resources.”

“We are grateful for their partnership in striving to rebuild Lake County and meet the needs of our community members,” she says.

Three Months Later Lessons Learned

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This week marks three months since the outset of one of the fast-growing wildfires in California history erupted across Lake County. The Valley Fire exploded to 42,000 acres in 12 hours and, according to experts, moved faster than any other fire in California’s recent history. California officials estimated that the Butte and Valley fires displaced 23,000 people from their homes.  The reality of this extraordinary disaster, coupled with the sheer scale of impact, made the first few hours and days of our response challenging. We can and will do better.

Despite the difficulties, we are proud to have joined the efforts of hundreds of Red Cross volunteers, local community volunteers, local and national organizations, and our government partners who worked tirelessly to meet the needs of those impacted. Together we provide more than 11,000 overnight stays in twelve shelters, delivered 58,000 critical relief items and cleaning supplies, and provided recovery support to more than 1,500 families. Also, we worked with the Salvation Army, the Southern Baptists, community groups and local restaurants to serve 120,000 meals and snacks.

In the first hours and days of our response to the California Wildfires, we recognize that people’s generous offers of help were not met with the appropriate gratitude and guidance they deserved. Having pre-identified partners to handle in-kind donations and community volunteers are basic steps we should have helped lead. Due to the recent national restructuring, our staffing in Northwest California increased from four disaster positions to six and while we lost our local executive, we gained additional support from a new Regional Disaster Officer and five Regional Functional Support disaster positions. Clearly, the staffing changes lead to gaps in our local community relationships. We learn lessons in every disaster, and this was no exception. We are currently working to build more collaborative relationships with community leaders, educate the community about what the Red Cross does in disasters, and train more local volunteers to ready to respond.

The largest of the twelve evacuation centers that we supported the California Wildfires response was the Napa County Fairgrounds in Calistoga. At that location, we had the capacity to provide indoor sheltering for up to 354 residents. If we had come close to that capacity, we were prepared to open another shelter nearby. However, many residents (approx. 1,000) chose to set up individual campsites outside the shelter, so they could access the food, comfort, information and services at the shelter and provided by the numerous community groups present, but still enjoy the privacy of their personal tent, vehicle, or RV.

All those at the fairgrounds were welcomed and encouraged to come into the indoor shelter at all times, whether for an overnight stay, a hot meal, hygiene, medications or emotional support. We also provided comfort kits, which included much needed basic hygiene supplies like toothpaste, toothbrush, deodorant, razors, combs, and female sanitary products to people inside both the shelter facility and camping outside on the grounds. We also worked closely with the fairgrounds, county, and state partners to secure port-a-potties and showers as quickly as possible. This evacuation center was an amazing example of an entire community rallying to meet a wide range of needs with a great outpouring of food, goods, and services.

In the midst of these efforts, we did face challenges as we worked to integrate community resources and volunteer support into our services but we were not relieved of our duties at the Napa County Fairgrounds. Three days into the event we sat down with the Fairgrounds staff, Napa County, and other partners and mutually decided which entity was taking the lead for each of the services on site. From the meeting, we added an experienced site manager, placed a liaison full-time in the County’s command post operated that was set up at the Fairgrounds, coordinated the meals for the entire site, and continued operation of the indoor shelter. The Center of Volunteer and Nonprofit Leadership (CVNL) was designated by the County to handle in-kind goods donations and volunteer management as announced in their September 19 press release.

Although the efforts in Calistoga grabbed most of the headlines, significant work has occurred and continues to occur in the impacted communities of Lake County. Red Cross volunteers from throughout Northern California, including many Spanish-speaking volunteers, worked closely with community leaders to coordinate our efforts and ensure a broad distribution of services. With the amazing partnership of the Middletown Rancheria, Grace Church in Kelseyville, Middletown Methodist Church, Middletown Lions Club, Hidden Valley Community, the Cobb Mountain Lions Club, the Seventh Day Adventist churches of St. Helena, Middletown, and ClearLake, and many others, we staffed and maintained a sheltering presence for several weeks, directly distributed tens of thousands of relief items, served tens of thousands of meals in partnership with The Salvation Army and Southern Baptist Convention, and provided casework and direct assistance to over 1,500 families.

Today, we continue to work with local Long-Term Recovery Groups in Lake and Calaveras Counties to develop and execute long-term plans for recovery. We are also providing two recovery managers to work hand-in-hand with these groups to provide expertise in case management, resource coordination, and recovery planning. We are grateful to those who choose to support the Red Cross and the communities impacted in times of disaster.

California fires touch Honolulu woman

By Tina Doty, volunteer contributor, American Red Cross (Hawaii)

It was an ordinary trip from Honolulu to our Napa Valley home located on Howell Mountain above a small town named Angwin on Saturday, September 19th. Little did my husband and I know that one of the most destructive wildfires in the area was about to take hold on the other side of the mountain.

I remember looking out my window at the vineyards surrounding our house and noticing the wind had picked up. I got an ominous feeling in the pit of my stomach. By the next morning, my sister-in-law, who lived in Calistoga, called to inform me that many people she knew living in Middletown had lost their homes and beloved pets. Eventually, the number grew to 1,000 homes and over 100 square miles burned.

I hastily made my way to the Red Cross shelter located at the Calistoga fairgrounds to offer my assistance. I was introduced to Pat Morales, a Red Cross Volunteer from the Greater Northern California Chapter, who was amazed I was a Red Cross volunteer from Oahu. He quickly set me up with a Red Cross vest, hat, and t-shirt and put me to work.

As I made my way into the cafeteria, I saw people sitting at tables, some eating, some not, others staring into space, or their heads hung low. One woman was busy nursing her young infant, and children were occupied in a corner with coloring books and related activities. “Gosh”, I thought, “Where do I start?”

I saw people covered in soot, a look of shock, despair, and hopelessness etched upon their faces. Others sat on cots outside with their pets, mostly dogs. Larger animals such as horses and llamas were in a nearby field. Calistoga residents made sure all animals were provided water and food.

I spoke with several people who told horror stories of barely making it out alive with what little belongings or pets they could. Many people only had the clothing on their backs. One man mentioned that he could not start his car because he realized that he was holding his house keys then turned around to see his house burning. He walked out of the area and eventually made it to the shelter. A woman came into the shelter crying and stated, “What do I do now? Everything’s gone!” The Red Cross offered shelter, food, and emotional support.

Other people in the shelter told stories of getting in their vehicles with family members and speeding through fireballs. Many houses were completely destroyed and turned to piles of ash or unrecognizable debris. One woman came up to me at the shelter to tearfully announce that she learned her house was still standing, at least for now. I gave her a big hug.

The residents of Calistoga responded with an outpour of donations which included food, pet food, clothing, and most of all much needed support. Residents from as far away as Marin County responded with various donations including rooms for people and their pets. A notification board was set-up to inform about other resources available.

I realized that that this was my very first large scale community disaster as a Red Cross volunteer. Kudos goes out to the many area fire fighters who are still fighting the blaze. We were lucky that our house was unaffected. Although I was definitely not anticipating this terrible event, I took away from it that even with all the global problems taking place around us, human caring and compassion still rules.

I am very proud to be a Red Cross volunteer.

Red Cross: GPS for Recovery

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by Kathleen Maclay, volunteer contributer, American Red Cross

The Red Cross is intensifying its efforts to make sure residents affected by the Valley Fire nearly a month ago get a solid and secure footing on their road to recovery.

Some 1,000 cases have been opened on behalf of individuals in the Lake County region by Sunday, said Martin “Rusty” Brown, the Red Cross’s client services lead for the Valley Fire.

“Our big push has been to reach clients and get them into the system, so we can help them get the help they need for recovery at each and every stage,” said Brown, for whom the Valley Fire is his 14th disaster deployment over the past four years.

The Red Cross shelter in Middletown transitioned to standby on Sunday, October 4th after answering the immediate needs of residents in the region for shelter, food and clothing  in the aftermath of the deadly fire that ignited on Sept. 12.

“Even though some of that part of the emergency response goes away, we don’t go away,” said Brown, who deployed from Winterhaven, Fla., where he belongs to the Red Cross Mid-Florida Chapter. “We will always have a presence.”

Ongoing support will include feeding, clean-up supplies, physical and mental health support and the Red Cross can open new shelters should the need arise.

And via its long-term recovery efforts, Red Cross caseworkers provide guidance and monitoring for residents trying to navigate an often daunting and frustrating assemblage of entities necessary to resolve housing, transportation, environmental, utility service or medical issues now, said Brown.

“We’re the Global Positioning System (GPS),” Brown said. “We’re not driving the car. We’re not building the road. We’re the voice on your GPS and sometimes when we need to get you back on the right path, you might hear us saying, ‘Recalculating.’”

Anyone in need of assistance can call the Red Cross 24-hour hotline at 855-224-2490.

Red Cross Pin links past and present

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by Kathleen Maclay, volunteer contributer, American Red Cross

Danny Ventress’s hometown of Cobb in Lake County was under evacuation orders due to the Valley Fire, and he was packing up things at his 86-year-old mother’s home in Valley Springs in the area of the Butte Fire.

He was busy examining a cache of coins she saved over the years, glancing at television news reports about the two disasters that rank among the state’s most devastating wildfires ever. Just as a scene with the Red Cross flashed across the TV screen, Ventress says, his eyes were caught by what he thought was a special coin.  Looking more closely, Ventress says, he say the coin was a Red Cross pin given to blood donors, probably decades ago.

Although his mother doesn’t recall the details of how she acquired the pin, finding the piece struck an emotional cord for Ventress.

“I’ve seen Red Cross people out in huge numbers, ready to assist. It’s been great,” he says of the emergency and recovery efforts of the Red Cross in the Sierra foothills where his mother lives, as well as in Lake County region where his family vacationed regularly when he was a kid and where he moved  permanently 15 years ago.

As he was helping out at the Mountain Lion’s Club in Cobb, Ventressa shared with visitors story of the pin, that didn’t match his original expectations, but exceeded them.

30 Days Later – The California Wildfires Response

Immediate Collaboration 

The ongoing drought across California has given way to another historic wildfire season. Beginning September 9, 2015, two of the most destructive wildfires in state history flared throughout northern California. The Valley Fire is now the third most destructive fire in state history and the Butte Fire the seventh most destructive blaze. Combined, these fires burned more than 150,000 square acres and destroyed more than 1,700 homes, displacing thousands of families.

As the fires destroyed buildings, neighbors instantly came together to help one another showing amazing generosity and resilience. Local Red Cross chapters, community organizations and government agencies sprang into action as well, mobilizing volunteers to offer shelter, food, water, basic health services, and mental health services for thousands of people in the path of the wildfires.

As evacuation orders were lifted, Red Cross volunteers worked alongside community members to distribute food, and relief supplies to impacted neighborhoods and support people as they returned to their properties with health and mental health services.

California Wildfires Response by the Numbers:
• over 120,000 meals and snacks served by Salvation Army, Southern Baptist, community groups, local restaurants and the Red Cross
• over 58,000 relief items water, snacks, hot meals, non-perishable meals, and clean-up items such as work gloves, buckets, trash bags, sifters, and dust masks
• over 11,000 overnight stays in 12 community or Red Cross shelters
• over 9,900 health and mental health contacts
• over 1,500 cases opened by Red Cross caseworkers to provide individualized recovery support.

Disasters are often complex, with complex needs – and no single agency can meet every need on its own; it takes collaboration and partnership. The reality is that it takes the talents and resources of many agencies and organizations working together to provide necessary services after a major disaster.

The Red Cross is one of many agencies coming together to ensure that basic needs are met, to work on the long-term recovery of entire communities, and to help them be prepared for and more resilient in the face of future wildfires. During the California Wildfires response, the Red Cross collaborated with several partner agencies, including several Lions Clubs, several Sevenths Day Adventists communities, Middletown Rancheria of Pomo Indians, Twin Pine Casino, Southern Baptist Disaster Relief, Salvation Army, Jackson Rancheria, Tzu Chi, St. Vincent de Paul, Catholic Charities, Children’s Disaster Services, Samaritan’s Purse, Team Rubicon, Rotary Clubs, Community Churches, Boy Scouts of America, Center of Volunteer and Nonprofit Leadership, local and state Emergency Operation Centers, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and many more.

It Takes the Whole Community to Make a Community Whole

To help all households in fire-impacted communities move forward, the Red Cross is working together with local Long-Term Recovery Groups in Lake and Calaveras Counties respectively, which are coalitions of community and grassroots organizations who will develop and execute long-term plans for a community’s recovery.

The Red Cross currently has highly trained caseworkers meeting one-on-one with each family affected by the wildfires to understand each unique situation and help them on the road to recovery with the information, assistance, and access to resources they need to put that plan into action. They are helping people with family reunification information, funeral assistance, emergency needs and recovery planning.

Caseworkers are also skilled in directing people to other agencies that provide specialized services not provided by the Red Cross. Much of Red Cross recovery work focuses on assisting the most vulnerable people who need extra help getting back on their feet, are ineligible for government assistance, or don’t have anywhere else to turn for help.

The Red Cross also has trained disaster mental health professionals available to help adults and children cope with the emotional impact of a disaster and its aftermath. It’s common for people to suffer from high stress, anxiety, depression and other trauma related illnesses during and after a disaster. Red Cross Disaster Mental Health workers assess clients’ needs, provide individual psychological triage, crisis intervention and condolence support, and make appropriate community referrals for longer term support.

Persons affected by the wildfires who are in need of assistance are encouraged to connect with a Red Cross caseworker by calling 855-255-2490.

Preparing for Secondary Impacts

The wildfires left vast expanses of terrain and hillsides bare and when heavy rains arrive this winter, experts predict that flooding and mudslides are not far behind. Recognizing that these secondary impacts represent a serious threat, the Red Cross will be collaborating with local communities to increase personal preparedness and strengthening the existing volunteer corps to ensure the community is ready to respond if and when another disaster strikes.

The Red Cross provides potentially life-saving preparedness apps that are absolutely free. There are apps for first aid, tornadoes, hurricanes, flood, wildfire, and earthquake that can be programmed to give an audible warning should an event be imminent. They are filled with important information on what to do before, during, and after an event, and provide directions to Red Cross shelters. Recently, the Red Cross came out with an Emergency app that combines in one place many of the features of the individual apps described above. All of these apps are free of charge. They can be found and downloaded by going to your particular app store and searching “Red Cross” or from the Red Cross website at www.redcross.org.

No matter what the disaster is, the American Red Cross is hard at work at some phase of the Disaster Cycle and often on multiple phases at the same time. The Red Cross is here today to serve those who have lost so much, and it will be ready to serve when a future disaster strikes again.

Big thanks to California Conservation Corps’ Ukiah team

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by Kathleen Maclay, volunteer contributer, American Red Cross

A dozen youth with California Conservation CorpsUkiah Center received heart-felt thanks, applause and formal certificates of appreciation as they headed home after a three-week deployment to the Red Cross shelter set up at the Twin Pine Casino & Hotel in Middletown for those affected by the Valley Fire.

“We really couldn’t make it without them,” said Rose Madison, the shelter’s mass care lead, as she prepared the certificates and circulated individual thank-you cards for grateful Red Cross volunteers to sign.

The team of nine young men and two women led by Charles Coffman were assigned to the shelter for a range of responsibilities. Duties included unloading trucks delivering bulk supplies to Twin Pines; loading Emergency Response Vehicles (ERVs) dispatched to the surrounding community with food items, clean-up kits and supplies; greeting clients and other visitors; vacuuming; washing shelter cots used by clients and volunteers; setting up canopies for other partners on the scene; and more.

Members of the CCC are young men and women ages 18 to 25 who commit to a year with the state agency, performing natural resource work and emergency response. The agency was created in 1976 by Jerry Brown, California’s governor then, and now.

“They took the initiative to do what they saw needed to be done, and they did it with a smile on their faces,” said Madison, a volunteer with the American Red Cross of Central California.  “It was inspirational to see these young people really making a positive contribution.”

LaRae Ewing, 21, of Redlands, is a graphic design student at California State University, San Bernardino, who called her experience meeting “life changing.”

Angel Shah, 19, of Richmond, said in the 10 months or so he has been with the CCC, the Red Cross is the largest sponsoring agency he’s worked with, and the Valley Fire assignment his first emergency response.

Employed in carpentry and construction before joining the Corps, Shah said he has learned invaluable skills in terms of workplace organization and better communication that he will take with him as he moves forward.

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