California Fires: What I saw there

What a Red Cross professional witnessed when he went to the NoCal fire locations — and what we can learn from his experiences. By Michael de Vulpillieres

The author, Michael, with another Red Cross worker, in Paradise, CA. Photo: Daniel Cima, American Red Cross.

[This article was guest written and all photos by Michael de Vulpillieres of the American Red Cross in Greater New York.]

Standing outside a shelter for wildfire evacuees on my first full day in Butte County, California, I met a couple from the town of Paradise who were forced to flee their home 36 hours earlier. Holding back tears, the husband detailed his traumatic escape as he showed me photos of the apocalyptic scenes he witnessed while driving to safety. Despite losing his house and belongings, all that mattered to him was that his family was safe.

One man knew when to begin frantically loading up his car by the sound of the fire just behind his house. He said it sounded like a freight train

Throughout my deployment to Northern California, I heard similarly harrowing stories every single day. Maybe it was my Red Cross jacket, but residents wanted to talk about their ordeals. A man in line at Starbucks told me about his evacuation. He knew when to begin frantically loading up his car by the sound of the fire just behind his house. He said it sounded like a freight train.

A woman at a gas station, also left homeless by the fire, explained to me how her son ran nearly five miles to safety through thick black smoke after abandoning his car because traffic was at a standstill. An elderly woman I met at a shelter shared how she fled alone in her car, and how that terrifying drive to safety surrounded by flames took hours.

This Paradise resident drove by herself through roads ringed by flames. Pictured at a Red Cross shelter in Gridley, CA

All the evacuees I met were still in shock, and few had any hope that their houses were still standing. Many already knew the fate of their homes because they were engulfed in flames by the time their cars reached the end of their driveways. That’s how quickly the fire moved.

Occasionally we’d come across a sign of life and color, like a fully intact child’s toy

A few days later, I saw firsthand the destruction for myself. Accompanied by officials from Cal Fire, my team visited the town of Paradise. What we witnessed was surreal and disorienting. Neighborhoods were barren, rows of homes burned to their foundations, charred appliances and vehicles, melted metal and glass, pockets of smoldering ash. Occasionally we’d come across a sign of life and color, like a fully intact child’s toy.

None of the families I personally met lost loved ones to the fire, thankfully. But the anxiety and scope of loss were certainly palpable. In front of each shelter were bulletin boards containing lists, names, and photos of missing individuals. There were also notes posted to these boards speaking directly to the missing: “I love you;” “We miss you.” It was heartbreaking to see those boards fill up day after day.

The terrible tally to date in Butte County: 85 deaths, nearly 14,000 homes destroyed

But my time in California was also marked by moments of hope. Shining a light through the smoke and darkness was the generosity that poured in from near and far. I traveled from New York City to work with the Red Cross and met many fellow team members, mostly volunteers, from local communities, several who lost their homes, as well as from dozens of states across the country. Each day they worked tirelessly to help: providing shelter, meals, water, emotional support, health assistance, reunification, and so much more.

Shining a light through the smoke and darkness was the generosity that poured in from near and far

And there were countless other individuals and organizations large and small providing just about anything you could imagine for the survivors: Food, coffee, internet service, face masks, wi-fi, phones, clothes, music performances, supplies for pets, hay for rescued livestock, rides to the doctor, a room in their homes.

After I explained to an evacuee at a shelter where the meals came from, the man looked at me, deeply humbled, and asked, “Why can’t we be this kind to each other every day?”

The Red Cross is there for people in need across the nation every single day of every year, from single-family house fires to major events like the wildfires in California, hurricanes in Florida and the Carolinas, and the devastation of Puerto Rico. Please consider donating at the American Red Cross. You may need them yourself one day.

Michael de Vulpillieres is the Communications Officer at the American Red Cross in Greater New York, where he manages media relations and provides strategic and content support for multiple Red Cross digital platforms. In his 11 years at the Red Cross, Michael has served as communications lead following dozens of large-scale disasters in New York—including train derailments, building explosions, hurricanes, blizzards, floods and multiple-alarm fires. Follow him @vulpillieres.

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