INSIDE Chico State
0 September 12, 2002
Volume 33 Number
  A publication for the faculty, staff, administrators, and friends of California State University, Chico
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On the Scene at the Arizona Fires

Photo: Arizona Fires

Photo: Cheryl Thomas said volunteering for the Red Cross is one of the most rewarding things she has ever done.
Cheryl Thomas said volunteering for the Red Cross is one of the most rewarding things she has ever done.

Note: Cheryl Thomas is the facility reservations coordinator at CSU, Chico. A volunteer for the Red Cross since 1995, she went to the Arizona wildfires from June 25 through Aug. 15 to provide relief for displaced residents. Thomas is an emergency response vehicle (ERV) driver and a shelter manager.

Volunteering for the Rodeo and Chediski fires in Arizona was the first time I responded to a disaster away from the local chapter area. The fires started on June 18 and 20, respectively, and burned 468,638 acres by the time they were contained. Volunteers from all over the United States arrived in Phoenix with a common goal: to provide support and care to the victims of the fire.

A drive to Snowflake, the site of the disaster headquarters, took five hours from Phoenix as we drove around the fire located in the Apache-Sitgreaves and Tonto National Forests. At headquarters, a sea of more than 1,000 volunteers in gray Red Cross vests were trying to get their bearings and checking in for assignments.

My first assignment was to help open a shelter. A veteran volunteer from Indiana named Carole was my partner. This was fortunate for me -- she had volunteered her support for many disasters. Carole guided me through the rough spots and helped me stay focused as we worked the first 44 hours without sleep. We laughed and cried and helped each other remember why we were there.

There is so much sadness at a fire. A fire creates economic hardship for the whole area -- people are displaced, jobs lost, homes lost; there are missing and dead animals. I wanted to make it better for just one person, and sometimes the only thing I could do was to give them a cold drink and some food and listen.

When the decision was made to let residents back into the fire areas, the Red Cross responded immediately by opening a site in Overgaard for meals and supplies. Carole and I were transferred before the roads were open, and traveling through the abandoned countryside was like passing through a ghost town. Twenty-four hours later, everything came to life.

The Red Cross set up a command station, the Southern Baptists set up a kitchen, and the Red Cross brought in truckloads of food and trailers. We set up a drive-though, just like a fast-food restaurant, with pallets of goods, supplies, and emergency response vehicles (ERVs) in two lines, and, as people drove through, we asked, "What can we put in your car, and how many hot meals do you need?"

What an experience! We provided stuffed animals and toys for the children, and shovels, food, hygiene supplies, water, and soda for everyone. I was also assigned to shifts on ERVs from Muskogee, Oklahoma; Yuba City; Portland, Oregon; and Los Angeles. We drove into the burnt areas and took supplies to people who were unable to get to the command centers.

There were 460 homes lost. Many homes were saved because the residents had cleared the area around their homes of brush and pine needles, which made them defendable.

I would like to acknowledge my boss, Dan DeWayne, for allowing me to go; Sandy Miskella, our office manager, for taking care of the daily stuff that comes across my desk; and all the other people on campus who helped make my trip possible.

The Red Cross is looking for volunteers. I am grateful I had the opportunity to work as a volunteer -- it is one of the most rewarding things I have ever done. The Three Rivers Chapter of the Red Cross is located at 1909 The Esplanade in Chico, and the phone number is 891-0885.

Cheryl Thomas

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