How the Red Cross managed a wicked wildfire season

By Gordon Williams 

We’re barely into Spring, but the American Red Cross is already looking ahead to a summer wildfire season that could be as bad as the record-setting season that scorched Washington in 2020. Between an unprecedented number of fires and the strictures imposed by Covid-19, the 2020 wildfire season stressed Red Cross resources as never before. 

A deadly combination of near-record heat, severe drought and powerful winds gave Washington its second worst year ever for wildfires.  

Those fires swept the ground, destroyed homes, and forced hundreds of people from their homes. The Red Cross rose to the challenge of sheltering everyone made homeless by the flames. Firefighters and Red Cross volunteers alike had to tailor their response to the pandemic.  

It didn’t start out that way. Washington had two minor fires in April 2020, and then nothing for months. There was another fire in July and two more in August, but early predictions of a quiet wildfire season in 2020 seemed to be playing out. And then came September — and an outburst of wildfires in Washington unlike anything the state had ever seen. 

Labor Day Weekend

September 6, the Sunday before Labor Day, brought the Cold Springs fire in Okanogan County. It burned through the rest of the month, destroyed 190,000 acres, and caused the only fatality of the 2020 wildfire season. 

The next day — Labor Day — saw the American West go up in flames. There were five significant fires in a single day in Washington, and many more up and down the Western United States. Rainfall had been sparse, leaving the forests and fields parched. The weather turned hot and windy, meaning that once fires began, they spread faster than firefighters could keep up with. 

The Cold Springs fire was bad enough. But driven by strong, gusty winds, it leaped the Columbia River and set off the Pearl Hill fire in Douglas County. Together the fires destroyed 400,000 acres of forest and grasslands. 

The Babb-Malden/Manning fire in Spokane burned fewer acres, but its destructive power was stunning. It destroyed 80 percent of Malden, WA — a town of 203 people in Whitman County. Wind-driven flames then moved on to destroy most of Pine Hill, WA.  

The next day, September 8, came the Big Hollow fire in Skamania County, WA. It was not contained until December 1, and burned 25,000 acres. Nor was the fire event limited to Washington. Four fires merged to form the Santiam fire in Oregon which burned over 400,000 acres, destroyed 1,500 structures, and killed five people. 

And those were just the major fires. A total of 14 fires, big and small, were burning in Washington in the days after Labor Day. To add to the distress, the pandemic of wildfires up and down the Pacific Coast turned the air in Western Washington dangerously smokey for more than a week — unhealthy for anyone to breathe.  

The Carlton Complex fire in 2014 remains the most destructive single fire ever in Washington, burning more than a quarter-million acres. No single fire in 2020 was that bad. Overall, though, wildfires swept through 713,328 acres in 2020, compared with 169,742 acres destroyed in 2019. Only 2015, when fires swept over 1.1 million acres, was worse. 

Sheltering from Fires

Normally the Red Cross would have sheltered evacuees from those fires in schools and churches. Cots would be side-by-side, and food would be served in long lines. Covid-19 forced the Red Cross to shelter evacuees in ones and twos in hotel rooms. Meals were delivered to clients in their rooms.

The Red Cross did open one shelter, in Brewster WA during the Pearl Hill fire, to house 91 migrant farm workers. Far more evacuees were housed in rented hotel rooms. In all, the Red Cross needed nearly 1,300 hotel rooms during the fire season — providing over 4,000 nights of housing for fire victims. It took over 8,500 meals to feed them all.    

Red Cross workers provided health care to 1,650 individuals, mental health services to 130 more, and special care to 180 disabled individuals. It took 120 Red Cross volunteers to support wildfire relief — 40 of them boots-on-the-ground, and the rest operating virtually. All made possible by the generosity of donations to the Red Cross.   

Even smaller fires could require a heavy Red Cross response. The Sumner Grade fire, which began September 8, burned under 500 acres — modest compared with some of the blazes. But the fire was in the urban sprawl east of Tacoma. Because it threatened such towns as Bonney Lake, hundreds of people had to be evacuated and housed in rented hotel rooms. 

Looking Ahead

It’s too early to predict how bad wildfire season 2021 will be. The one thing you can know for certain is no matter how many fires burn in 2021, and how much land they burn, evacuees from those fires can count on a helping hand from the Red Cross when help is needed the most. 

American Red Cross Northwest Region

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