Preparing for a regional wildfire response

By Gordon Williams

Before this year is over, Red Cross teams in Washington and adjacent Idaho will have aided victims of hundreds of disasters big and small — home fires, wildfires, floods, storms and more. It is the responsibility of the Red Cross to make sure each of those teams is fully trained, equipped and motivated to provide the care disaster victims need.

Seven chapters make up the Northwest Region, covering Washington and the Idaho panhandle. Since there is no way to predict when or exactly where a disaster might occur, chapter program managers and regional leadership must plan for what is most likely to occur. These days, that effort is sharply focused on wildfires that can sweep across hundreds of acres and require dozens of Red Cross volunteers to staff overnight shelters.

Martha Read, Senior Disaster Program Manager for the Northwest Region, admits being worried — with good reason — about the outlook for wildfires in Washington state this year. 

Martha Reade leads a group of volunteers through shelter training in Sequim, WA

She is concerned because of the large number of fires in Washington in March and April — months in which wildfire activity is usually modest. Most disturbing is how many of those early fires happened west of the Cascades, in the wetter part of the state where early season fires typically are rare. “We don’t know if that is a blip or a real problem,” she says. Because that question won’t be answered for months, the Red Cross must prepare for the worst.

So how does the Red Cross plan ahead for wildfires or other disasters that leave people in need of assistance? Read says that much of the planning ahead is based on lessons learned during the particularly devastating wildfire seasons of 2014 and 2015.

First step is to find buildings that can be used as emergency shelters to house disaster victims. Read says the Red Cross has lined up 1,700 potential shelters in churches, schools and community buildings across the state. “Teams from each chapter go around checking on existing shelters or finding new ones,” she says. At the peak of last year’s wildfire season, in August 2018, the region had 17 shelters in operation at one time. The Red Cross typically will open a shelter when more than 25 individuals at an incident need emergency housing,

Each shelter must be furnished with cots, blankets and more. Those supplies are stashed in trailers strategically positioned around the state. The trailers are placed near a potential shelter building or next to a police or fire station, based on where Red Cross resources were needed most in years past.

Most important are the Red Cross workers — some staff, but mostly volunteers — who will actually operate the shelters. Even a small shelter could require a dozen or more Red Cross volunteers, working 12-hour shifts.

“Each chapter has a list of volunteers willing to do mass care,” Read says. (Mass Care is the assigned role the Red Cross plays in response to such disasters as wildfires. It includes sheltering, feeding and caring for disaster victims.) Smaller events are handled by workers from a single chapter, but teams from throughout the region will aid each other when more help is needed. A recent fire in Grant County WA, part of the Greater Inland Northwest Chapter, brought Red Cross volunteers from the adjacent Snohomish County chapter in to help.

The worsening wildfire situation is forcing the Red Cross to rethink how it recruits volunteers, and has inspired the creation of a regional shelter on-call list. People from throughout the region agree to be on call for service during the wildfire season.

Today the Red Cross has shelter locations and supply trailers ready to use. What is needed are more trained volunteers ready to respond to whatever disasters lie ahead. Existing and new volunteers should list their availability with their local Red Cross chapter and make sure their training is up to date.

Find your local chapter: HERE

Sign-up to volunteer: HERE

The Red Cross often needs volunteers who can deploy to disasters in far-off locations. “But please volunteer even if you can’t deploy out-of-state,” Read says. “History has shown we will open lots of shelters inside the state this year. When we do open those shelters, we will want as many volunteers as possible who are ready to serve when called on.”

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