By Los Angeles Region CEO, Jarrett Barrios
The past week’s dramatic wildfires across southern California have now consumed over 250,000 acres. That’s an area of land larger than New York City and Boston combined! The largest among them, the Thomas Fire, continues to spread with only 15% containment. Burning 230,000 acres by itself, this fire is now the fifth-largest blaze in California history. Despite increases in containment, some 103,000 people still face evacuation orders just a hundred miles away. Additionally, officials have reported that the Thomas Fire has already damaged or destroyed some 1,110 homes in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, and still threatens as many as 19,500 more.
Right here at home, though our hands have been full, staff and volunteers have pitched in mightily over the last week in Los Angeles for our response to the Rye, Skirball and Creek Wildfires that threated thousands of lives and homes. Over the weekend, our disaster operation center was buzzing with teams of volunteers, and others were running shelters or driving ERVs for bulk distribution.
We maintain one shelter at this time in Los Angeles, and while relief efforts throughout Ventura and Santa Barbara are more widespread, here in LA, we have engaged 130 volunteers and staff to provide nearly 200 overnight stays in three wildfire evacuation shelters in Sylmar, Pacoima and Westwood. And, as of today, some 1,158 relief items have been given out including, 33 clean-up kits and 68 fire kits that contain shovels, sifters, rakes, masks, gloves, hand sanitizers, trash bags, paper towels and Clorox wipes.
When we open shelters, we make sure to spread the word that our shelters are open to everyone—and that everyone is safe there. The creative LA volunteers work mightily to create a home-like environment for our guests. Take, for example, Sara Chunab and her children. This family sought refuge at the Branford Shelter last week in Pacoima. The family has struggled with homelessness in the past, and just before the Creek Fire erupted, had finally obtained permanent housing. Sadly, due to the fire, they were forced to evacuate their new home. They came to the Red Cross shelter where our volunteers learned that one of Sara’s children, a 7 year old girl named Andrea, was having a birthday that very same day. Our volunteers quickly joined together with Northern Valleys Chapter Executive Director, Raul Claros and LA Unified School District Homeless Education Program workers, Malissa Vanegas and Blanca Lopez to organize an impromptu birthday party, right there in the shelter! The party was complete with cupcakes, singing and presents, and for a few moments, I’m sure that little Andrea felt like the luckiest girl in town! I am thrilled that we were able to brighten a young girl’s special day—especially since she and her family have been through some much in the recent months. And, I am remaining hopeful that Andrea and her family’s new home will still be standing once it is safe to return.
More typical in our shelters are activities and games for kids, and three square meals a day for everyone. The people we welcome are usually not their best selves. Many have lost property, and some have been injured or lost family members. The most important thing we give is a roof over their head but, along with that we give hope—because another day will dawn, and soon they will have a chance to start over.
If anything, the events of the last nine days have us all thinking about how we can best be ready, should something like this ever happened again. This is why, every day of the year, our staff and volunteers work to help prepare communities for every type of emergency or disaster—including wildfires, home fires and earthquakes. We all know that emergencies can occur at anytime, anywhere. Because of this, I urge everyone to take the steps necessary to get prepared now by visiting http://www.preparesocal.org.
Jarrett Barrios is the Chief Executive Officer at the American Red Cross Los Angeles Region. But, above all, Jarrett Barrios is a humanitarian with more than 20 years of experience helping people in need throughout the United States and Cuba.
To learn more about Jarrett Barrios or the America Red Cross Los Angeles Region, visit RedCrossLA.org.