When the email call came in at 8:30 a.m. Monday morning from the San JosÈ Red Cross Chapter asking for volunteers, Santa Clara resident and longtime Red Cross volunteer John McLemore was there to answer.
Hello Disaster Responders,
We have a massive regional disaster that we are responding to. They are in critical need of help. Last night DR 736-16 Lake County Forest Fire had 934 clients staying in our shelters. They had to flee with only their clothing on their backs and most have nothing. A quick DA [disaster assessment] today showed at least 400 homes burned and one confirmed mortality. The numbers will only get worse as more information comes in.
We are looking for Shelter workers, Mental Health and Health workers, Staffing, Disaster Assessment and any kind of Logistics. It is chaotic right now, with staff shelters and heavy smoke. From our region we are asking for a 6 day minimum commitment but two weeks would be the best.
The Valley Fire started about 1:30 p.m. Saturday afternoon. By 11 p.m. it had grown to 40,000 acres. When the Red Cross sent out the call for volunteers, the fire had spread to 67,000 acres.
By late afternoon the former Santa Clara City Council Member was on the road to St. Helena, where he was stationed at the historic 1870s New Harvest Community Church. This is the second time in the last four weeks that McLemore has been deployed by the San JosÈ Red Cross Chapter for relief efforts in Lake County – one of 125 San JosÈ Red Cross volunteers that have been sent out two and three times for 5-12 day assignments in different hot spots, according to the Chapter.
Things were hectic when McLemore arrive in St. Helena, with 15 volunteers facing wave after wave of people escaping the racing firestorm. The volunteers were trying to gather people coming in from everywhere, checking shelters for space, he said when I spoke to him late that evening.
Things are happening so fast – 10 percent contained means it’s 90 percent uncontained, McLemore said. At that time 62,000 acres were burning. They’ve already pulled firefighters away from Kings Canyon [Rough Fire] to here because all these houses going up – over 400 within 48 hours. Over 800 people are in the shelter [at the Napa County Fairgrounds]. That doesn’t include the people in the parking lot – in tents and RVs. Everyone is stunned. The fire, he said, was demonic in its ferocity and speed.
Over at the Fairgrounds, community spirit was flowing. A lot of the community is bringing in food, McLemore reported. The state fair concessionaires have opened up and are giving food away free.
The next day there were 1,000 people at the Napa Fairgrounds. Everyone there is trying to cope with their personal disasters and support everyone else surrounding them, McLemore wrote in a Thursday morning email. The rain lifted everyone’s spirits because they knew that would improve the chances of the fire being stopped sooner. And then the next chapter of recovering would start sooner.
In fact the recovery has already begun. Middletown residents started looking for their neighbors and organizing by streets, McLemore said They’re calling it Middletown 2.0.
On Sunday, when a new fire broke out in Monterey County, volunteers who came from from Santa Cruz and Monterey Counties were reassigned to set up Red Cross shelters, now in their own communities. McLemore was starting his second week of relief work in Calistoga in 99 degree weather. Pray for all of those people affected by these massive California fires, he said.
Santa Clara Fire Department has been part of the team fighting this year’s wildfires. Last week 14 Santa Clara firefighters were working at the Valley and Calaveras Fires, including two Battalion Chiefs, a dozen firefighters and three fire engines.
Worst Fire Year in Nearly a Decade
This year is the worst fire year in the U.S. since 2006, as measured by the acreage burned – 8.8 million acres burned as of September 21, according to federal government’s National Interagency Fire Center. There are 20 active fires burning in the Western U.S., five of them in California, where almost 400,000 acres are burning. The largest, the Rough Fire in the Sierra National Forest, has covered 141,000 acres and is about 70 percent contained. Hardest hit, however, is Washington State where more than three quarters of a million acres are currently burning in eight active fires.