How the Red Cross will respond in a threatening wildfire season

By Gordon Williams

“It is predicted,” says a Red Cross release, “that this year’s wildfire season is going to be more difficult than last due to the lack of late-season rain and snow.” So warmer and drier-than-normal conditions threaten to bring more, and more destructive, wildfires to Washington this summer.

At the same time, the COVID-19 pandemic is hugely complicating the way the Red Cross delivers assistance to those displaced by disaster. Consider trying to practice safe social distancing in the typical disaster shelter, with large numbers of evacuees living side-by-side and being fed in tightly-bunched serving lines. Even responses by Red Cross Disaster Action Teams (DAT) to such events as home fires would typically involve face-to-face contact between responders and disaster victims.

The Red Cross answer, says Martha Read, senior disaster program manager for the Red Cross Northwest Region, is to replace that typical response with something else whenever feasible. That “something else” would be a virtual response in which those in need are aided by the Red Cross with as little physical contact as possible.

The standard Red Cross response to disasters involves lots of personal contact. The first Red Cross response units on the scene round up disaster victims and collect their vital information. In something small — a single house fire, for instance — the victims would receive Direct Client Assistance, passed from hand to hand and to be used for emergency needs such as temporary housing.

In something bigger — a hurricane or flood or wildfire or a large apartment house fire — the Red Cross would turn to “congregate” housing — a shelter in a church or school or community center staffed by Red Cross volunteers. The volunteers would feed shelter residents and work with them on making recovery plans.

Clearly, none of those procedures can work safely while the pandemic rages. That forced the Red Cross to begin modifying its ways of doing things almost as soon as the epidemic struck. “When the pandemic began, we started immediately working within the strictures of the COVID-19 virus,” Read says. “Now, almost every DAT response across the country is a virtual response.”

How the Red Cross responds during the pandemic is still a work in progress. Read says the national Red Cross organization has created two task forces — one for hurricanes, one for wildfires — to adapt the disaster response to today’s realities.

Responding virtually means collecting client information remotely — by phone or internet, instead of face to face. Disaster victims still receive Red Cross assistance, but with virtually no risk of the virus being passed from one person to another.

April 17, 2020. Monroe, Louisiana. While observing social distancing due to the Covid-19 pandemic Sandra White of the American Red Cross checks on Lottie Jones at a hotel for people affected by a recent tornado in Monroe, LA on Friday, April 17, 2020. Lottie is one of hundreds of residents who needed shelter after the storm. Normally the Red Cross would set up shelters but due to the Covid-19 pandemic and social distancing guidelines they have been providing people with individual rooms in various local hotels. Photo by Scott Dalton/American Red Cross

Things get complicated when it comes to housing disaster victims — especially victims of such large-scale disasters as a hurricane or a wildfire. Victims of small-scale disasters might be lodged in hotels. But a wildfire or coastal storm can displace hundreds of people — and the most efficient response would be to open a shelter.

So far, none of the disasters in the Northwest Region has been big enough to warrant the opening of a shelter. “There would have to be a fire displacing a significant number of people before I would think about opening a shelter,” Read says. “So far it has not come to that.”

A wildfire in a populated area could easily create enough evacuees to give the Red Cross little choice but to open a shelter. An estimated million Washington homes lie close to the line where wilderness meets development, putting them at risk in wildfires. A really severe wildfire season could force the Red Cross to fall back on shelters.

Read says the Red Cross is preparing for such a development. She says the Northwest Region has three teams of volunteers willing to work in a shelter, should that become necessary. Read hopes to sign up more volunteers before wildfire season is fully upon us.

All the rules of social distancing would be followed. For instance, there would have to be 110 square feet of space around each shelter occupant’s living area. The Red Cross would work closely with local public health officials in opening and filling the shelter. “Public health would not normally be the first call we make,” Read says. But these are far from normal times.

Read is well aware of the warning of a more perilous than normal wildfire season. “We have spent a lot of time preparing for it,” she says. ”We have a good strong mass care team led by volunteer Kathy Brasch, who is the Regional Standby Sheltering Lead. She is working with her team to get them prepared. We are getting as ready for wildfire season as we can.”

Volunteers are needed to join our Disaster Response Team. Find out more and apply at: RedCross.org.

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