Smoke in the Air, Strength in the Heart

by Jennifer Hansen, American Red Cross North Texas Region

Mendocino Fire and ARC Volunteer
A Red Cross volunteer gazes at encroaching smoke from the Ranch Fire in Lake County.

Middletown, California. Nestled amid lush vineyards and rolling valley vistas, it embodies a small-town charm in one of the Golden State’s most scenic areas. Will Lundberg has been here for nine days, but this is no vacation for the Red Cross volunteer. Though well downwind from disaster, Middletown’s crisp wine country air has been marred by a smoky hangover since Will first arrived from Frisco, Texas, on August 6.

“Some mornings, it’s beautifully clear. Others it’s like a yellow fog that’ll choke you,” Will said, adding, “Sometimes the air changes throughout the day.”

Such is the unpredictability and menace of a wildfire.

Mendocino Complex still grows larger
NASA satellite imagery of Mendocino Complex, showing smoke plumes and dark brown, burned areas

Will, a registered nurse, is an American Red Cross Disaster Health Services volunteer. Deployed from North Texas to Lake County in Northern California, he is one of hundreds of Red Cross personnel who answered the call to assist the response and recovery effort during current spate of wildfires. Middletown is the interim Red Cross disaster response headquarters and – as of late – plagued by intermittent smoke from the nearby infernos.

The Mendocino Complex, an unrelenting cluster of fires that has surpassed 2017’s Thomas Fire as the largest in California’s recorded history, erupted in July and have burned hundreds of homes and driven thousands to evacuate.

Mendocino Fire and ARC Response
The Red Cross CA Wildfire response has included shelters in small towns around Clear Lake, and a Disaster Response headquarters in Middletown. While the River Fire has been contained, the Ranch Fire is still active.

As of August 14, the Complex had engulfed more than 350,000 acres of land and was less than 70 percent contained.

“You look over a valley, and there are swaths of green and swaths of black,” Will said, describing the fire’s fickle path over the countryside.

Farmland, commercial buildings and family homes have been reduced to ashes in its wake.

Burned Valley
Looking west from the hills outside of Lakepoint, CA shows the indiscriminate character of the fire, with small untouched areas completely surrounded by burned destruction. Photo by Will Lundberg during an ARC ERV and DHS/DMH outreach team mission, Mendocino Complex Fire, River Section, August 2018.

Since arriving in Middletown, Will has done outreach as a nurse in areas impacted by the fires. Alongside Mental Health workers, he has both visited neighborhoods where residents are returning to their homes and worked at bulk distribution sites, “drive-thru” locations where residents can quickly and easily access services and supplies from the Red Cross and its community partners.

As clean-up kits (shovels, rakes, gloves, cleaning supplies, etc.), bottled water and meals are passed through car windows, Will speaks with residents about any immediate health needs, including prescription refills and breathing masks (a popular item).

ERV delivering clean up supplies
A Red Cross Emergency Response Vehicle stops to unload clean up supplies while a desolate swing set sits idle.

Will is all too familiar with the emotional toll a disaster can take; he worked in the Dallas shelters following Hurricane Harvey last summer and has assisted with multiple tornado responses. He recognizes the same stress and anxiety in the Northern CA locals.

But he has been struck by the community’s strength in the face of dire circumstances. Despite the fire’s wrath, they are unbowed and undeterred from resuming their lives.

“These folks are incredibly resilient,” he said. “They remind me of my grandparents who made it through the Great Depression. They are hunkering down and getting through the recovery process.”

Mendocino Fire, California
Sunset taken at Clear Lake showing the smoke from the Ranch fire. Photo credit: Albert Becker | American Red Cross

He is also equal parts thankful and relieved that most everyone chose to evacuate their homes when fire danger was imminent.

“This community made very smart decisions; they heeded the warnings and evacuated,” he said. “We came across a married couple who were just returning to their home. Initially, the husband had not wanted to evacuate, but the wife was adamant and threatened to pick him up and carry him if he didn’t leave – and he believed her!

“She told him ‘Human life is what’s important. We can always rebuild.’ They both evacuated; it was the right choice.”

While the couple’s home wasn’t destroyed, it did not go unscathed. They are one of hundreds of families working out what’s next.

As more residents are allowed to return to their homes and assess damage, Will is seeing more requests for breathing masks. While the air is often heavy with smoke, the ash and charred particles stirred up by raking and sweeping debris are the primary respiratory hazard. He explained that masks are a recovery item essential to a wildfire response and is grateful for the Red Cross supporters who have made this effort possible.

CA Fire Shelters
Jordan, age 8, is glad that he can be with his pets while he is staying at the Lower Lake High School shelter. Photo by Virginia Becker/American Red Cross

“A big thank you to everyone who supports the Red Cross,” he said. “I appreciate (the Red Cross) being able to get these items to a community who truly needs them.”

While not his first disaster deployment, his California venture has been a memorable one and reinforces his commitment to answer the Red Cross call whenever he can. He recently marked his fifth volunteer anniversary and has no plans to step away any time soon.

“It’s a privilege to be here,” he said. “It’s a privilege to be a North Texan volunteering with the Red Cross in California.”

To learn more about the Red Cross, and how you can help those impacted by disaster, visit www.redcross.org.

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