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.
Thursday – 20 August 2015
It was morning, and we were heading out to deliver most assistance to fire-impacted residents near this resort town of Chelan. Dan came back to meet us at the Red Cross shelter to direct us to our next areas to visit.
Afterward, Brett, my dad, and I attended the area briefing at the Chelan Fire Station, where we were briefed: areas that still had active fires, where the utilities crews were working, and which areas were safe for us to operate in. A hot topic was the forecast for changing winds. We had to remain aware of rapidly changing conditions.
Our day was dedicated to visiting residents up in the canyons and hills to the east of Chelan. These were twisty, steep, narrow roads leading into some very demanding territory. Dan lived in this area, so he was a great resource of information, directing us to whom we could help.
As we got further from town, the destruction was much more pronounced. Some areas reminded me of the surface of the moon, thick gray white ash covered the ground, with smoke sometimes still wisping out of fallen trees. One time we got out of the truck to stretch our legs, and I could feel the heat from the ground through my shoes.
Utilities crews were everywhere, restoring power and phone service. Many of the power poles in the area had burned through and fallen down. The area we were in was very rugged, making both the firefighting efforts and the recovery efforts incredibly difficult.
Brett and I worked together to connect with the residents, and we hauled as much gear and supplies with us as would fit, then would reload from the ERV. Several residents were very happy to get the shovels and gloves, as the fire had burned the handles off of their garden tools. We also had a large supply of trash bags, which were well received; since no one had power, the food in their fridges and freezers had spoiled.
Most residents we met didn’t have running water. Many rural homes rely on wells for water, which use electric pumps. Once the power lines were downed in the fire, residents lost drinking water and also much needed water to fight the fires. Some homeowners used generators to power their pumps, as well as large storage tanks to gravity-feed to sprinklers, which they had positioned on their property, and even on top of the roofs to keep the houses from burning. The fires were so volatile and burned so hot. I hoped that it would be enough.
Part 3 coming Tuesday, September 22