California Fires

by Marilyn Rothkin

I have just returned from a two week CA trip with the American Red Cross. I spent one day at the San Bernardino wildfires, then was transferred to the Cedar wildfire in San Diego. I spent a day at Scripps Ranch where there was more devastation and death. I ended up counseling fire survivors at Ramona and Julian, the historic mountain gold mining towns that were often shown on TV as firefighters battled to save them. I worked in a large tent from 6:30 am to 7pm daily. When it rained, a river ran through it. The work was exhausting but fulfilling.

The destruction was horrendous. You could drive for an hour or more and see nothing but black ash and skeletal trees (or strips of white ash that were once trees). It was a surreal scene, everything was black and white, no color anywhere. Smoke rose from hot spots, adding to the weirdness. Some homes consisted of a few Dali-esque twists of metal. Blackened mountains rose behind blackened mountains.

95% of the homes affected by the fires were totally destroyed. In most other disasters, 5% or less of the homes are totally destroyed.

People not only lost their homes - their places of business often burned, too, leaving them jobless and homeless. The despair was palpable. In most cases it was difficult or impossible to tell that a home once stood on the spot. Everything was incinerated, including many of the human bodies. One woman was identified because the rivets from her jeans left the outline of her lower body.

This was an area of many ranches. Many horses were saved but many died in the fires, as did many cats and dogs that were loved pets. People died trying to save horses and pets. One little boy saw his parents' car explode with his dog in it.

Many suffer survivor guilt. Their neighbors died and they lived. They question why.

There were burn victims we don't hear about who are being treated in hospitals. They, too, are suffering.

Many will never get over the emotional trauma of seeing their neighbors die, or of escaping only a few minutes before the flames reached their homes or cars. There was often no warning. I treated many cases of shock and trauma. Post traumatic stress will be endemic. Children and adults are having constant nightmares. One little girl carries the toys we gave her everywhere "so the fire won't get them." Another said "the fire came, it was hot and turneded my house to a stone." A picture shows a lump of something unidentifiable that is all that is left of her home. Other children will not leave their parents' side. Many children are frightened and do not feel safe anywhere, including those living in the area, but whose own homes were not affected. Men and women cried to me in equal numbers. Others have turned their despair to anger.

Some may never get on sound financial footing again. Many had no insurance or insufficient insurance. Others could not afford insurance because they live in a "fire zone." They chose to take the risk because the country was so beautiful and peaceful. Some have experienced 2-3 evacuations in the last few years. No one expected anything like this. One newspaper described the fires as a conflagration of biblical proportions. It was.

One thing I see over and over again as I work at various disasters I would like to mention. People donate truckloads of used clothing, toys and "things" to disaster survivors. These people feel good about cleaning out their closets and donating. Some of it is appreciated. Many items are not clean, or have something wrong with them. This is not what is needed. In a disaster such as this, survivors have no place to put the "things" that are donated because they have no homes, no storage. An emergency change of clothing may be welcome until they receive American Red Cross help, which is immediate. In fact, a disposal problem is often created for the town after the immediate needs are met due to truckloads of unused goods.

The best thing you can donate in a disaster is cash to an organization you can trust. The American Red Cross gave the survivors of the wildfires immediate emergency relief in the form of limited credit cards. People can maintain dignity when they buy new clothing and food that their family prefers. In this case, people received an amount based on the number in the family plus a $500 grant. They are also given a week of shelter in a hotel, and sometimes the first month's rent for an apartment. If they are eligible, FEMA kicks in after that.

An anonymous donor in San Diego gave out $500,000 or more in cash grants through Catholic Charities. Until the money ran low, everyone whose home was destroyed, insured or not, was given $500. Then only those without insurance received the money. I watched a wonderful man in his late 30's return a check saying he had insurance and wanted someone without to have the money.

A wonderful Buddhist group, Tzu Chi, gave $300-$500 checks. No strings attached.

Many single mothers lived in this area because of lower rents than in the city. They may fall through the cracks. They owned nothing but what was in their destroyed, rented homes. They are not eligible for FEMA aid. Many had been living in cars until they came to the American Red Cross. When our immediate emergency aid is gone they may have nowhere to turn. They fear they will lose their children to the county because they cannot provide for them. A wonderful group called the Soroptimists in Ramona, CA, is going to do their best to help these families regain independence. They will work with them for several years if necessary. Cash donations are needed to help them do this.

This was an intense experience for me, more so then any other disaster I have worked with. As with 9/11, the human and financial toll will last for many years. I haven't yet detached as well as I have before, though I know that it will come with time.

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