By Gordon Williams
Alex Dieffenbach, chief executive officer of the Red Cross Northwest Region, saw first-hand the severity and scale of damage in Malden WA — a tiny farming town near Spokane that lost everything to wildfire. The town hall, police station and library in the Whitman County town all went up in the flames. “There were 150 homes in Malden,” Alex said. “110 of them were destroyed.”
Teams of Red Cross volunteers were in Malden within hours after the flames moved through.
On Tuesday, September 15, Alex traveled to Malden along with Ryan Rodin, executive director of the Red Cross Greater Inland Northwest Chapter, to attend the town’s very first long-term recovery meeting. He also accepted thanks from community leaders for the help the Red Cross delivered to the town.
Alex says his day in Malden was understandably emotional. “It was heart-breaking to see so many homes with nothing but a chimney standing,” he said. “You know that recovery for this community is going to take a very long time.” At the same time, he said, “It was uplifting to see how much the Red Cross and our partnering organizations have done to help the people of Malden. It filled me with pride to see the Red Cross making a difference in so many ways.”
Malden was not the only stop Alex made on a tour of Washington’s wildfire country. He first drove from Seattle to Puyallup in Pierce County. There Red Cross teams were sheltering refugees from several wildfires, including the extensive Bonney Lake fire. In Puyallup, he met with shelter manager Richard Simmons and some of the shelter residents. He also met with Dr. Kim Schrier, U.S. representative from Washington’s 8th Congressional District. Her district includes Pierce County.
In normal times, evacuees from the wildfires would have been housed in a school or some other public building, with dozens of people sleeping and eating in an open room. Given the pandemic, the Red Cross now houses evacuees in hotels and motels. Everyone wears masks — Red Cross volunteers and evacuees alike. Everyone maintains safe distancing.
He also visited the Ramada Inn in Spokane where Red Cross volunteers were sheltering refugees from Eastern Washington wildfires. “I met with shelter manager T.K. and with some shelter residents including a seven-week-old puppy,” he said.
While Alex checked out fire scenes and Red Cross operations along the way, he also checked on the physical and mental health of the Red Cross volunteers who were on wildfire relief duty. Running shelters is exhausting work for Red Cross volunteers at any time. Many are older — often retirees who can get away for extended periods in response to disasters. The restrictions imposed by the Covid-19 pandemic simply add to both the workload and the emotional strain.
“I wanted to thank our volunteers for all they are doing,” he said. We asked Alex how well the Red Cross volunteers he met were holding up through one of the worst wildfire seasons on record. He said he found them tired but resilient. “These volunteers are so passionate and so committed to what they do, that they are able to put the exhaustion aside and focus on the mission and on serving client needs,” he said. “They are like no other volunteers I have ever seen.”
For all his time as regional executive director, Alex has been no stranger to deploying to some far-off disaster scene. “I had just started at the Red Cross three years ago when I responded to wildfires near Los Angeles,” he said.
We asked Alex if he had a message for this season’s corps of volunteers. “My overall message,” he said, is one of thanks and of pride,
“I know our volunteers will be there for the response and they will be there for the recovery. That’s what makes the Red Cross so special.”Alex Dieffenbach, Northwest Region CEO