By Gordon Williams
Rhonda Jack of Wenatchee, WA first volunteered for the American Red Cross in 2014 after watching news reports about the Oso WA landslide that killed 43 people and destroyed a town. “The Red Cross played an important role at Oso and I wanted to be part of it,” Rhonda says.
Back then, however, she was working as a hospital supervisor. Her volunteering with the Red Cross was limited to helping out when she had spare time.
Rhonda is fully retired now, and she has become one of the Northwest Region’s most active volunteers. The year is barely half over and already she has been deployed four times to Red Cross relief operations. Unlike the virtual deployments that were the Red Cross norm in 2020, Rhonda says many of this year’s deployments have been “face-to-face, boots-on-the ground events.”
Three of her responses were to wildfires close to home.
She first responded to a fire near Coulee Dam WA in Okanogan County. “That is close to the Colville Indian Reservation, which is where the fire was,” she says. That fire burned 35,000 acres. The Red Cross housed fire victims in a nearby school.
Then the Red Apple fire broke out in Chelan County–close to her Wenatchee home. That fire burned more than 12,000 acres in mid-July. For that fire, Rhonda says, the Red Cross sheltered evacuees in a church.
Finally, she responded to the twin Cedar Creek and Cub Creek fires burning near Winthrop WA in Okanogan County. Those two fires–burning close to one another–consumed around 100,000 acres. A Red Cross shelter was set up for those impacted at a school.
Her fourth deployment in 2021 was to Texas–not to aid fire or storm victims but to work in a shelter for unaccompanied minors being held at the Southern border. That was not a Red Cross event, but the Red Cross was supporting the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). “We had 2,200 teen-age boys all housed in one big room,” she says. “It was incredibly rewarding watching those boys wanting to assimilate and to feel safe. That experience will stay with me longer than anything I have ever done.”
All four responses this year involved working in shelters–which is how the Red Cross has typically responded to disasters. The pandemic and the limits it imposed on face-to-face contacts forced the Red Cross to make most responses virtual and to house disaster victims in hotels rather than its own shelters.
With the pandemic easing, the Red Cross has returned to “congregate” sheltering in 2021–helping evacuees face-to-face in schools and churches, and Rhonda likes it that way. “I much prefer face-to-face,” she says. “You are right there with the people you are helping. You hear their stories. That’s much more rewarding to me than to be in non-congregate sheltering.”
When she is working in a Red Cross shelter, her usual role is shelter and mass care supervisor. Because she must worry about keeping shelters fully staffed, Rhonda is aware of how hard it has been to get enough volunteers to keep pace with Washington’s wildfire pandemic.
Interested in being a disaster volunteer with the Red Cross? Join us!
Covid-19 kept many potential volunteers away. “The numbers dropped off and have been slow to come back,” she says. Fire conditions can be daunting to anyone not used to them. “I read in the papers that Winthrop [scene of the Cedar Creek and Cub Creek fires] had the worst air quality in the U.S.” she says.
Because so much of Eastern Washington is sparsely populated, the Red Cross must call on the same responders again and again. “In a rural area it is hard not to burn out teams,” she says.
Rhonda urges more people to volunteer with the Red Cross, get the right training, and help Washington move past an awful year for wildfires.
Because she is a committed Red Cross volunteer, Rhonda jumps in wherever she is needed. While she prefers the face-to-face contact of a congregate shelter, she deploys virtually when needed. Thus, when we talked, she was home in Wenatchee but virtually supervising Red Cross workers at the Cedar Creek/Cub Creek fires in Winthrop.