By Tim Healy, American Red Cross Volunteer
It is a sign of the times that major weather and catastrophic events are no longer measured against the recollections of old-timers, but rather the recent memories of soccer moms and their children. “This year’s Labor Day weekend was bad,” they might say, “but nothing like 2017 and 2018. And 2020 was the worst!”
In other words, while this year’s smoke event was annoying to many – and life-threatening to a few – it could have been worse. Ted Buehner, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service for more than 40 years, continues in retirement to track major weather events, including smoke, for multiple media organizations. Speaking shortly before the Labor Day smoke event in Western Washington, as clear skies dominated the region, Buehner predicted smoke was just around the corner.
“Expect to see the smoke in the next few days, brought by strong offshore flow,” he said [meaning winds from east to west]. Buehner said Washington’s 2022 fire season was unusual in part because of the red-flag fire warning west of the Cascade Mountains, indicating an especially dangerous situation for the rapid spread of fires. Eastern Washington, with its hot, dry summers, often receives the red flag warning, but not the western part of the state. “Wildfire danger is quite high throughout the state,” said Buehner in early September, “even along the coast.”
We are witnessing the impacts of a warmer planet, he said. “The heat and dry conditions have created more prevalent wildfire conditions – in Washington and really across the world.”
In 2021, the Red Cross issued a statement saying climate change was “caused in part by human behavior.” The statement emphasized the humanitarian crisis brought by climate change. “If left unabated,” the statement says, more frequent and intense weather events “will place an unprecedented burden on families and the resilience of communities.”
Jenny Carkner, who has been the Red Cross regional disaster officer for the Northwest Region of Washington and Northern Idaho since March, has seen the impacts first-hand. Her first Red Cross experience came when she was a volunteer during the Hurricane Katrina disaster in 2005. Since then, there have been multiple occasions for her to volunteer, most recently during devastating tornadoes in Kentucky and Alabama in late 2021.
As for wildfires, Jenny says preparation for the annual fire season, which typically runs from May to November in Washington, is just one piece of her landscape in being ready for disastrous events. “We’re doing everything we can to be ready if we’re called upon,” she says. The biggest fire events in the first part of the season, she says, were multi-family home fires in Western Washington. These required sheltering for several families.
She says with her broad experience across a range of natural disasters, it’s difficult to identify which type of disaster is most challenging. “In general, I suppose it’s the mass casualty events that are most difficult. It’s kind of overwhelming. My brain works in the way I like to help put things back together – looking at the macro picture but then breaking it down into smaller pieces and helping the community work through their recovery.”
Jenny acknowledges, however, that this is becoming increasingly difficult for volunteers asked to respond to repeated events. “What I’m seeing in Washington is a kind of volunteer fatigue. People become exhausted by the drumbeat of ‘stand up, sit down, stand up, sit down.’” She said that rhythm can be tougher than deploying to a single large disaster. “In some ways, deploying is easier. You work for two to three weeks, you exhaust yourself, and you come back feeling like you’ve really made a difference.”
To come back to fires, Washington is fortunate not to have experienced the kinds of fires that have threatened so many lives and property as in California this year. But Jenny says it has had the experience of “volunteer fatigue.” “I think perhaps our expectations of our volunteers need to change. We are trying to be more flexible, which may be the first step. Volunteerism is changing, and we have to learn to accommodate a new generation.” She quickly adds, “I am so grateful to our volunteer team members who continue to show up time and time again. We couldn’t do our work without them.”