From Texas to Washington: A Volunteer’s First Day of Wildfire Response (part 1 of 4)

The Red Cross responded to the Chelan Area Wildfire, August 2015. This is a 4-part personal account of volunteer service by Carlin Comm.

Carlin Comm, based in Austin, Texas, was visiting his parents in central Washington when a fierce firestorm struck nearby in the small, resort town of Chelan. He joined his father, Garth Comm, a local Red Cross volunteer, to deploy with a recovery team to distribute supplies and provide emotional support to residents that were impacted by the devastating wildfires.


Wednesday – 19 August 2015

From Austin to Washington: My first day on the wildfire response, but not my last.

My dad, Garth, and I arrived at the Red Cross office in Wenatchee at 9 am to find a flurry of activity. We were assigned to carry out the distribution of clean up and recovery items— which was loaded up with coolers, water, snacks, shovels and rakes, bug spray, sun screen, and work gloves. We loaded up an Emergency Response Vehicle (ERV) and drove up to the Red Cross shelter in Chelan, WA which was based at a nearby elementary school. Local volunteers Dan and his son briefed us. They were a great help, they lived nearby and were to be our guides into diverse and at times rugged territory. On a map of the area, they showed us what had already been burned, where active fires were still burning, and the areas we would be visiting.

My dad and I rode together in the ERV. Our goal was to get these tools out to people who were cleaning up after the destruction of the firestorm. Brett, a Red Cross disaster mental health specialist, also joined us. We knew there were a lot of people experiencing unspeakable loss and grief. As we drove up to various homes to make contact with the residents, a question popped into my mind: so, who were we, and how did we get here?

My dad, Garth, is recently retired, and has been a Red Cross volunteer for a few years. He used to work for a road construction company, and before that was a farmer. I was visiting my parents for a couple weeks on vacation when the wildfires ignited in Chelan. I am a US Navy veteran and served as an aircraft mechanic during Desert Storm. Currently I live in Austin, Texas, where I am a mechanic for the US Postal Service. I decided that I would join my dad and help out on the Red Cross disaster response, which was growing every day. When the fires had passed through Chelan, they had spread and grown across central, north and eastern Washington state.

The first day we visited homes on the east end of the town of Chelan, Washington. The fire had burned right up to the edge of town, and there was some pretty serious destruction visible from the road. We drove past fruit packing warehouses with collapsed roofs and burned forklifts. Stacks of apple bins, assorted machinery and outbuildings had been reduced to ashes. Homes had burned to the ground. It was my first day, but I realized pretty quickly it wouldn’t be my last.

There was a lot to do.


Part 2 coming Thursday, September 17

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