By Gordon Williams
When his phone rings in the middle of the night, Cody Campbell of Kennewick, WA can be pretty sure before he answers the call that a wildfire is burning somewhere not far off. Cody is Disaster Program Manager for the Central and Southeastern Washington Chapter of the American Red Cross, based in Kennewick. His job is to manage the Red Cross response to disasters in a seven-county chunk of Washington that stretches from Ellensburg to Walla Walla.
The area his chapter serves — range and farmland with lots of brush, plus a couple of national forests — is prone to wildfires. With wildfires more common and the wildfire season getting longer, Cody faces a challenging task in keeping the Red Cross ready to respond to each new incident.
On the day we talked, Cody’s chapter had to deal with three significant fires. There was a big fire burning near Walla Walla, a smaller one between Yakima and the Tri Cities of Kennewick, Pasco and Richland. The third, near the White Pass Recreation Area, was the smallest of the three but also the most daunting. There are camps filled with teenagers in the area. Some 150 campers were evacuated, and the Red Cross had to open a center in a nearby elementary school to care for the youngsters until they could be collected by their parents.
Cody did not start out thinking about a career in disaster management. He was studying business administration at Columbia Basin College in Pasco when he signed up for a Red Cross work study program.
He admits he didn’t know all that much about the Red Cross when he first joined the program. “I knew they did things like collect blood,” he says, “but I did not realize the role they play in responding to disaster and helping disaster victims. I just gravitated toward the disaster response side of things. I fell in love with it and wanted to do more.”
He joined the Red Cross full time when he graduated. His first job was working with the chapter’s AmeriCorps volunteers. That is the program that places young people with such public service entities as the Red Cross. Then the job as Disaster Program Manager for the Central and Southeastern Washington chapter opened up. “I applied for it and I got it,” he says.
One of his first incidents proved to be one of the most memorable. A propane tank at a facility in Plymouth WA ruptured, raising the danger of an explosion that could cause serious damage as far as two miles away. Hundreds of local residents had to be moved a safe distance from the danger area. Teaming up with Red Cross colleagues based in Portland, the evacuees were housed in a shelter across the Columbia River in Oregon.
Cody also played a role in one of this year’s high profile events — the threatened landslide at Rattlesnake Ridge near Yakima. Millions of tons of earth and rock began sliding down the ridge, threatening to block the Yakima River and trigger a flood that would have displaced thousands. The Red Cross set up an emergency shelter for those nearest the slide, found sites for two large-scale shelters in case they were needed, and created a leadership team to manage the response.
Fortunately, the threatened disaster never occurred. “The mountainside is still moving,” Cody says, “but only six inches a week instead of 20 inches as it was last spring.” Still, it was a textbook example of how the Red Cross responds to what could have been an epic disaster.
Cody is about to start his sixth year as the chapter’s Disaster Program Manager. In that relatively short time, he has already seen the scope of his job change markedly. That is because of the worsening peril of wildfires. The chapter responds to house fires and occasional flooding, but it is the wildfire danger that makes the greatest demands on Cody’s resources. “There used to be a wildfire season,” Cody says, “but now it is fire season all year long.” On the day we talked, the wildfire risk was considered extreme in all of the chapter’s seven counties.
He’s grateful for having a committed group of volunteers from the community to respond to disasters. Similarly, he can rely on experienced Red Cross teams in the chapter’s satellite offices in Ellensburg, Yakima, and Walla Walla. It was the Yakima office that took the lead at Rattlesnake Ridge.
Cody was only in his early 20s when he was promoted to Disaster Program Manager, so he has literally grown up within the Red Cross. So what has he gained from his service with the Red Cross? He talks about the skills he has honed in leadership, organization and planning. On a more basic level, he says, “It has given me a tremendous opportunity to find things within myself that I didn’t know existed.”
Since disaster can strike at any time, one important lesson Cody has learned is not to make too many long-range plans. “You have to be adaptable and be able to drop everything and respond to whatever is going on,” he says. That is true year-around, but especially true in summertime when the wildfire danger is at its worst. “I don’t try to look too far ahead in summertime,” he says. “I just try to take things day-by-day, because you never know what the next day will bring.”
Looking ahead, Cody says he want to remain with the Red Cross as long as possible. His commitment to his community runs very deep. “I just bought my first house here,” he says. “I really want to stay here for a long time and make this community a safer place.”
Disaster Response Volunteers are needed! You could be on Cody’s team. Visit RedCross.org for more information and to find an opportunity that interests you.