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.