By Abby Lutz, American Red Cross Northwest Region Communications Manager

Just one week after the Bolt Creek Fire threated homes in the town of Index, Washington, teams of Red Crossers visited the town to see how families were coping and to better prepare them for another disaster.

A look outside the Red Cross Evacuation Shelter set up at the Evergreen State Fairgrounds for evacuees from the Bolt Creek Fire.

Mandatory evacuations forced Index residents from their homes on September 11, 2022, as the Bolt Creek Fire spread. Many of them found safety at a Red Cross emergency shelter in Monroe, Washington. Within a few days, evacuation levels were reduced, and families were able to return home.

The Red Cross shelter closed, but the Red Cross work was far from done.

“A lot of really good conversations happened about what we could do in this community to reinforce our presence and prepare them for the potential of a next time this happens to them,” said Jenny Carkner, Disaster Officer for the American Red Cross Northwest Region.

In early September, volunteers from outside the Northwest Region deployed to the area to help local teams with wildfire response. The team – called the Wildfire Initiation Team – brought a break for local disaster workers, which Carkner says has been “fantastic.”

“It allowed us to take a step back from day-to-day response and look again at our steady-state activities that we need to have year-round focus on as well. That’s what led to this outreach idea.”

Though it didn’t fit the mold of a typical home fire event, Carkner called Regional Preparedness Manager Hannah Christen to see how the Red Cross could help families as they settle back into their homes.

“I planted the seed with Hannah and said, ‘what if we did something with this Wildfire Initiation Team?’ says Carkner. “Let’s get them into our community and let them get to know that community and let the community see that we’re here, even though the fire is being put out, to talk to them about what they can do to prepare for the next time and what can they count on us to do.”

For Christen, it was perfect timing. “People had been back in their homes for several days, and yet the wind had changed direction, so the smoke had just blown back in, which caused a heightened awareness for people that made our work really relevant,” she said.

Christen spent her Saturday, one week after families had been evacuated, leading a team of about 15 Red Crossers door to door in the town of Index.

“We wanted to do outreach in a community that had been evacuated because of a wildfire and be sensitive to that, while also providing wildfire information, home fire information and just general community information,” said Christen.

The town saw some power outages, so conversations varied from food safety in a refrigerator, to home fire safety, to disaster preparedness. Overall, Christen says, it was a day full of conversations with families about how they were doing since being evacuated, asking if they needed anything, “and also ‘hey we have some preparedness information to share if you’re interested.’”

In one day in the town of Index, Red Cross teams made 30 homes safer, installing 55 smoke alarms that will serve 70 clients. Other conversations included preparedness and evacuation information. All the conversations, Christen says, were met with overwhelming acceptance from residents.

“People were very happy that we were in the community,” said Christen. They were very receptive and kind and really happy to chat with us about being prepared.”

Both Christen and Carkner say they are thrilled with how the day turned out. With such a success, Christen says she hopes to see more outreach like this in the future. However, she says, it’s important for the Red Cross to be sensitive to the gravity of each disaster. So, the timing of community visits may vary from a few days, like this situation, to a few weeks or a month.

“We need to get into the preparedness game right after a disaster because disasters will continue to happen in the same communities over and over and over again,” said Christen. “It’s critical that we are working with people as soon as they’re ready to start those conversations, so I’m hoping that we’ll be seeing this moving forward.”

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