“A disaster on top of a disaster”: home fires bring additional challenges amid COVID-19

By Justin Kern, American Red Cross

Escorted by firefighters back into his apartment to grab what he could – essential papers, a son’s beloved blanket – Seth Hellenbrand looked to the sky, visible through a new, charred hole where the apartment ceiling should’ve been.

Muir Field Road fire Madison April 2020

The American Red Cross helped dozens of families on April 18 after a fire ravaged an apartment complex on Muir Field Road in Madison. Photo by Tom Mooney / Red Cross

Hellenbrand said he very briefly reflected on the last few “complicated” weeks for he and his family – the stay-at-home orders, a layoff from a food service sales job, general uncertainty with COVID-19. Add to that the new challenges his family faced, after a fire tore through their apartment complex in Madison, displacing more than 60 people total. What does “safer at home” mean when home is unknown?

“It’s a disaster on top of a disaster,” Hellenbrand said, in a phone call Sunday from a hotel provided to his family by the American Red Cross. “In this disaster, the Red Cross was there for us … It’s been one of the weirdest times of my entire life.”

On Saturday, April 18, the Madison Fire Department quickly responded to a blaze at a 24-unit apartment complex on the southwest side of the city. All of the approximately 65 residents were at least temporarily displaced. The Red Cross set up sheltering through rooms, meals and basic needs at a local hotel, where more than half of those displaced have spent the past few days.


Our disaster teams continue to help people in need amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Your support makes this help possible. Click here to support Red Cross disaster relief


It was one of a spate of fires that have lingered since the winter busy home fire season. Since the beginning of March, when many protective and health measures to deal with COVID-19 kicked in across the country, home fires have unfortunately continued at a steady and higher-than-normal clip. In Wisconsin, approximately 350 people have been displaced by home fires since the first week of March through April 19, with local Red Cross volunteers helping at more than two home fires a day.

And responding to neighbors in need has involved extra health measures and ingenuity to make sure our disaster response mission doesn’t miss a beat. At the fire in Madison, for instance, most residents were able to connect with Red Cross relief volunteers first over the phone to gauge their needs, rather than in person. At the hotel, volunteers and residents went through basic health screenings, meals have been done on a per-family basis rather than buffet style, and masks went on with disaster team vests.

Seth and Rachel Hellenbrand, their son Andy, and their Chihuahua terrier mix, Tango, had lived in their Madison apartment for about three years. On his own family’s experience following the fire, Seth said seeing the sky through their former ceiling was “a pretty tough moment.” After the fire was out, they were able to grab essential papers from a fire safe and other sentimental items, like Andy’s beloved blanket. A handful of masks Rachel had from her job at a local hospital probably didn’t make it through the fire.

Muir Field Road fire Madison April 2020 FOUR

Red Cross volunteer Jay Tucker, left, and COO Tom Mooney arrange a generous food delivery from River Food Pantry. Photo by Burlie Williams / Red Cross

On Sunday, Seth and Rachel had just returned from a trip to a nearby Goodwill that opened its doors for a few hours to small, socially distanced groups of residents to pick up clothes and other everyday needs. Along with recovery work , Red Cross teams were working on replacement eyewear for Seth. The kitchen in their hotel had food from local food pantries and restaurants.

Seth said the help from those at and after the fire has worked to buoy his family’s spirits, even with so much unknown.

“To have the Red Cross there to help take those tasks off our hands, that has been appreciated,” he said.

The Red Cross is grateful to our volunteer disaster teams, the shelter hotel and the many partners who have stepped up to directly help these residents, such as River Food Pantry, Second Harvest, Madison F.D., Public Health Madison & Dane County, Goodwill, Epic Systems, Hy-Vee and local Buffalo Wild Wings and Olive Garden locations.

You can bring support to the ongoing disaster needs of our teams helping people throughout this pandemic. Turn your generosity into action at redcross.org/donate.

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