By Gordon Williams
When Red Cross volunteer Fran Adams of Olympia WA hears about a disaster—nearby or far away—her first reaction is a desire to rush to the scene to help out. Her first Red Cross deployment to a disaster was nearly 20 years ago, to flooding at Chehalis WA in Lewis County. “I saw people on television filling sandbags,” she recalls. “I said, I can do that. The Red Cross sent me to a class and the rest is history.”
In Fran’s current deployment, she is supervisor of a shelter in Redding CA—near to where the worst wildfire in the state’s history is ravaging northern California. She was off duty when we talked one evening recently, but would begin a 12-hour shift at 8:00 the following morning.
The California wildfires are moving so fast that Fran is not sure exactly how close to the nearest fire she is. Fire is close enough, she says, that “ash is coming down like snowflakes.”
Fran is one of more than 20 volunteers from the Red Cross Northwest Region currently on duty in the California fire zone. She heard about the fires in their early stages and wanted to come to California to join the response. Her deployment took longer than expected, because at first California disaster managers thought they could get by with local volunteers. They changed their minds as the fire kept getting bigger, and asked for Red Cross volunteers from farther away.
“When I respond to something like a hurricane, I like to get there the night before the storm hits,” Fran says. “With the California wildfires, I had to wait until we were invited to come.” She finally flew from Seattle to California on July 29th, the start of a two-week deployment. She first worked at a shelter in the Crosspointe Community Church in Redding. When that closed she moved to a shelter at Shasta College, also in Redding. Now that shelter is winding down, with only 60 people being aided, down from a peak of 600.
Fire hit the Redding area in late July. Shelters around Redding are closing because residents have returned home or found new places to live. But the fire continues to spread rapidly. As it does, new shelters must be opened in its wake. Fire officials say they don’t expect to contain the fire until sometime in September. It is pretty certain that more Red Cross volunteers will be needed before the fire is finally extinguished.
In our conversation, I asked Fran how many times she has been deployed to disaster zones in the 27 years she has been a Red Cross volunteer. “Too many to count,” she says. “I have deployed many, many times.”
Her most exciting response, she says, was to a wildfire at Lake Chelan in North Central Washington. To reach the shelter, Fran and the Red Cross team had to race through flames, escorted by a police car. “There was fire on both sides of the road and even the guardrail was burning,” she recalls.
That incident also brought some unusual clients to the shelter. “One day, two mountain men came in with beards and long hair and knives on their belts,” she says. “They were filthy, so I told them I would feed them if they took showers.
Her most exhausting deployment—physically and emotionally—was to Puerto Rico in 2017 in the wake of Hurricane Maria. “We were sent to open a shelter, but the devastation was so complete there was no structure we could use as a shelter,” she says. “There were long lines for gasoline so we went from car to car, introduced ourselves and asked how we could help.”
A Norwegian group had a portable satellite phone system Fran and her team were able to use to send “safe-and-well” messages to loved ones outside of Puerto Rico. “The most emotional moment was when a mother used the satellite phone to reach her son who was on military duty in Afghanistan,” she says.
Fran tries to keep just as busy when she is back home in Olympia. There she is part of the South Puget Sound chapter of the Red Cross, which is based in Tacoma. She is retired from work in the administrative side of the Washington State Patrol. Now she prepares the kits that will be used to open shelters at future disasters. She also helps run a Red Cross mobile canteen supporting search and rescue activities and police searches.
She also is active with an organization called NODA, which stands for No One Dies Alone, and with a companion organization called NVDA (No Veteran Dies Alone). “I sit with dying patients in hospitals who have no one to be with in their last hours,” she says.
She first volunteered for the Red Cross, she says, because she wanted to make a difference. Beyond that, she says, she has some unique skills that mesh perfectly with the Red Cross mission of aiding disaster victims. “I can bring feelings of peace and security to the people around me,” she says. “I have been told that by Red Cross mental health professionals.”
What will Fran do when she is back home from California? “Washington is having wildfires,” she says. “I will rest up and then try to deploy to a Washington fire.”
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