Fixing the Unseen Damage: The Story of a Disaster Mental Health Volunteer

By C.J. Jones

The unyielding, destructive force of the recent Washington wildfires has undoubtedly changed the landscape of the north-central Washington area. From a distance, it can be hard for some to fathom the extent of the damage. Brett Wenger, a Red Cross volunteer of 17 years, recently finished his deployment at the area and has insight to the impact of these wildfires.

“A wildfire creates utter destruction in its sometimes vast and often capricious path,” Brett said, “leaving behind an alien landscape of black and grey seemingly devoid of life.”

Brett has seen the multiple ways a disaster can change the physical landscape. In past years, he has been deployed to assist in the aftermath of hurricanes in Louisiana and New York in addition to previous Washington wildfires. He is experienced in how a disaster can affect the mental and emotional welfare of those involved.

With a master’s degree in counseling psychology, Brett primarily works as a disaster mental health volunteer. His 25 years of experience has provided useful in assisting victims of the recent wildfires. During his 10-day deployment in August, one of Brett’s main responsibilities included reaching out to people impacted by the fires.

“I reached out to the property owners living in the nearby and remote surrounding canyon lands burned by the fires,” Brett said. “I attended a fire briefing each morning to learn the status of the fire’s growth and which areas of the burn were being re-opened for property owners to check on their homes.”

Brett worked with a team of Red Cross volunteers that also provided clean-up supplies in addition to emotional support. Some local residents he met were returning to the area for the first time since evacuating, and only to find burnt remnants of their homes. One family’s story stuck with him.

“They were horse owners and they were far more impacted by the loss of their animals than their buildings,” Brett explained. “They spoke of the loss as one might [speak] of losing a beloved friend or family member.”

One family lost seven of eight horses. Brett and other Red Cross volunteers provided a space for the family to honor the memory of their horses, which is helpful for the grieving process. Brett added that the family was thankful they still had one of their horses and ready to start cleaning up with the help of new tools. “We offer various ways to help to families as they navigate the complex, emotional landscape of dealing with disaster,” Brett said, adding the most important skill: “We just asked the questions

Red Cross and Premera Blue Cross Team Up to Host Save-A-Life Saturday 2015

Brett Wenger joined this team of volunteers near Chelan, WA to provide emotional support to residents impacted by the wildfires.

and then listened.”

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