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Oak Fire Response: Stories & Reflections of the People Impacted

For more than two weeks, American Red Cross disaster workers have been working around the clock with local response officials to help people affected by the Oak Fire in Mariposa County, California. The wildfire broke out on July 22, burning through more than 19,000 acres and destroying people’s businesses, homes, and belongings along with it. Over 80 trained Red Cross disaster workers answered the call to help provide people with a safe place to stay, warm meals and critical relief supplies like hygiene items and clean-up kits. Volunteers also helped care for those with medical or disability needs and provided people with emotional and spiritual support during these challenging times.

Red Cross volunteers serving lunch at a shelter.

As the Oak Wildfire is now reportedly 86% contained, it gives the Mariposa community the opportunity to begin their road to recovery. Many evacuations have been lifted and residents are now transitioning to alternative housing arrangements and utilizing resources provided by the Red Cross and local partners. Although Oak Fire residents are beginning to take the first steps to recovery, Red Cross volunteers will continue to support and connect them with additional resources for as long as it’s needed.

Here are some of the inspiring stories of the people we’ve helped and the exceptional work of our volunteers:

Providing Care When It is Needed Most

Richard Perez speaking with Red Cross volunteer Dave Wagner. Photo by: Tracy Sebastian/American Red Cross

“I looked outside and saw that the fire was pretty close. When I saw the tankers fly over our house, I knew it was serious.”

Richard Perez, a retired Army Scout and National Park Ranger, had to quickly evacuate with his wife and three German shepherds when fires broke out near his home. They stayed the night in a motel, and unfortunately, left behind his CPAP machine. The next day, they sought refuge at a Red Cross shelter and were able to work with volunteers to retrieve his machine. This is one example of how the Red Cross can support people who have additional medical needs during a disaster.

In shelters, Red Cross nurses are available and help respond to any medical needs people may have. They regularly assess those who need additional medical attention and can address minor injuries like cuts and sprains. They can also help replace critical medical supplies and equipment like medication, walkers, and eyeglasses for those who may have lost or left them behind during their evacuation to safety.

George Leroy Williams, Sr. sharing his story with a Red Cross volunteer. Photo by: Tracy Sebastian/American Red Cross

“It was pure torture trying to find places to stay until we found the Red Cross shelter.”

When the Williams family, members of the Wilton Rancheria Tribe of the Miwok Indians, were forced from their mountain home, they chose to shelter with the Red Cross, but in their own way. George Leroy Williams, Sr. and his family chose to camp outside, instead of staying inside the shelter, so they could stay with their two dogs and two cats around the clock, and because they enjoy being outdoors as much as possible.

When his daughter told him that there was a fire approaching their home, Williams told her not to worry because it wasn’t coming their way. Twenty minutes later, he looked out his kitchen window. “It was like the fire was alive,” he recalls. “It was green outside one minute and just an orange ball of fire the next.”

Happy that his family finally found safe refuge, he pointed to his cot nestled beneath some nearby trees and remarked, “The best sleep I had in a week was on that cot. It’s better than my own bed at home. I hope they let me take it home with me.” Although the Williams family camped outside the shelter, they took advantage of the other amenities provided, such as three meals each day and hot showers.

Showing Love to Our Furry Friends, Too!

Red Cross volunteers Michael Mcgehee and Annikah Trail assist our partners, the Central California Animal Disaster Team in the cat room. Photo by: Tracy Sebastian/American Red Cross

“A lot of people will not evacuate if they have no place to take their animals. Many of the animals are stressed in a new environment. We take time every day to calm their nerves,” said Leslie Harris, CCADT shelter manager and eight-year volunteer.

As people arrived at the Red Cross shelter, they brought their furry friends along with them. Barbara Cone, who is a local Fire Safe Council volunteer, evacuated with her dogs Charlie and Kramer, and her cat, Reign, and brought them with her to the shelter. Barbara shared how she and her furry friends were very comfortable staying at the shelter, adding, “It was really nice to get breakfast here this morning, and I will definitely be using the showers later.”

Thanks to our partners, the Central California Animal Disaster Team (CCADT), these beloved pets, which included cats, dogs, birds and reptiles, were cared for with the same love and assistance as their human companions. They had their own sleeping quarters in an air-conditioned classroom, plenty of food, and were provided regular walks, as well as a make-shift hospital suite for those that arrived injured.

Volunteering with Passion, No Matter the Circumstances

Sisters Sally McCalla and Marion Chappell at a Red Cross Shelter in Mariposa County. Photo by: Tracy Sebastian/American Red Cross

“I had been in a shelter before, and the Red Cross people were wonderful. They make you feel like you belong. The main thing I think about is how caring they are.”

In the Sierra Nevada mountains, Sisters Sally McCalla and Marion Chappell live next to each other. When the Oak Fire forced them out of their homes, they evacuated together to a Red Cross shelter.

Although they were both seeking refuge at the shelter, Marion, who is a current Red Cross volunteer for the Central California region, grabbed a red vest and started helping wherever she was needed. She has been volunteering for the past 54 years and started her Red Cross journey teaching baby care classes when her daughter was born, and then, CPR classes.

HOW YOU CAN HELP

Disasters like these, as well as home fires, hurricanes, and tornadoes, can affect anyone, at any time. In fact, every 8 minutes, the Red Cross responds to a disaster across the country. But you can help provide the hope and relief people desperately need and ensure they don’t face these crises alone. If you’d like to help people affected by disasters big and small in your community and across the county, here are two ways you can help:

  • Make a contribution. Your generous gift helps the Red Cross prepare for, respond to, and help people recover from disasters like home fires and severe weather events.
  • Volunteer your time. You can make an impact in someone’s life after they have lost everything in a disaster by signing up to volunteer. From setting up shelters to providing meals and emotional support, your time and talent can help someone in need.