Post written by Red Cross mental health worker Ryan Yamane. Ryan also currently represents the 37th State House District in the Hawaii House of Representatives.
On June 27, I turned on the local news showing the devastation of the California wildfires. Twenty-four hours later, I was on a flight to help those families impacted by the Erskine Fire which destroyed 285 homes and killed three people. As I arrived at headquarters, I was excited to serve in my role as a Red Cross disaster mental health worker to help victims of the fires and various volunteers deal with the loss of life and property.
Later that night, I sat on a cot in a staff shelter gym with 80 other Red Cross volunteers. As I looked around, I was amazed to see so many volunteers from all across the United States who left the comfort of their homes and the company of their families to help people they had never met before.
When I asked one of the volunteers why he came to help, he said, “I came to help because I have a home and family to go back to once I am done here. Many of the people we help do not have homes, so a little bit of sacrifice to help others is well worth it.”
Comforting Families Who Lost It All
Over the next seven days, I was part of an outreach team that drove throughout the devastation looking for people who were impacted by the wildfires. I was amazed how the fire melted refrigerators and twisted steel beams, how it destroyed neighborhoods but spared some homes, how the fire melted the windshield of cars and made puddles of aluminum metal. As I talked with survivors, their stories where very similar. All of them mentioned the terror they felt and how fast the wildfire spread.
One woman said that she and her husband ran out of their home with their two dogs in their arms, and had no time to gather any personal items. As they got into the car, their two dogs jumped from their grasps and ran back into their home. Her husband tried to re-enter the home, but it was engulfed in flames and they barely got away while the fire chased them down the street. The woman cried on my shoulder as she recalled how she felt and how scared her two dogs must have been to run into a burning home.
Later that same day, I came across a man and his sister sifting through debris and ash. I approached them and asked if they wanted ice cold water and if there was anything I could do to assist. After some brief introductions I noticed that the man walked off to the side and stood alone with his head down. I asked him if I could join him, gave him a cold bottle of water and stood with him silently with our heads down. A few moments later he began to talk about his home and family of pets that he lost. As he talked, I noticed six small mounds of dirt on the ground in front of us. He then described a horrifying ordeal in which his neighbor pounded on his door yelling that he had to get out right away. When he exited his home to see what the commotion was, he saw the flames spreading over the mountain side at speeds up to 60 mph. He tried to grab his two frightened dogs, but they ran under the house and refused to come out. He ran into his home which was ablaze and grabbed two of his cats, but had to leave the other five cats still inside. As he described what had happened, he cried and said that he found all of pets except for one cat. We stood there silently for a few moments. He said “thank you,” and that he would leave the area once he found his last pet family member.
Proud to be a Red Cross Volunteer
On that day, I talked with various victims who lost more than just their items, but their pets and memories. However, as I left each family, I witnessed the human resolve and the spirit of giving. Each family stated that they would rebuild, that they would eventually recover, and that they would build new lasting memories from the ashes. It was uplifting to see hundreds of volunteers willing to help these victims with the first steps of rebounding from this terrible disaster. That night I was exhausted, but proud to be a Red Cross volunteer.
As the days passed, I had the privilege to work side by side volunteers from across our great country with the single motivation to help others. Members of the community took the time to express their words of appreciation and we did our best to reach everyone we could while we were there. As my disaster deployment came to an end, I looked forward to returning home to our beautiful islands, spending time with my wife and kids, and sleeping in a real bed, but I would also cherish the opportunity to help others during this devastating disaster. When I hugged my kids, I told them I missed them, but was also gratified that I was able to help.
To all the volunteers and staff of the American Red Cross, thank you for your service to others. To our community, please know that we, the Red Cross, will be here when disaster strikes.