Home Fires Displace High Numbers of Wisconsinites in April

MILWAUKEE, Wisc. (May 1, 2020) – Home fire numbers remain high for this time of year, with 284 people displaced from 56 home fires in Wisconsin during the month of April, according to response statistics from the American Red Cross.

As the number of people displaced by fires remains high, Red Cross leaders are urging families to use extra time at home to practice preparedness and to be diligent with frequent sources of home fires such as cooking.

Greenfield Loomis apt fire April 2020 boards trash

A fire in Greenfield displaced nearly 20 residents, part of the ongoing rash of home fires in April 2020.

“Our dedication to helping people during times of disaster has not relented during this pandemic. In fact, we are seeing home fire numbers at an unusually high rate for this time of year,” said Mark Thomas, Region CEO and Southeast Wisconsin Chapter Executive, American Red Cross. “We’re strongly encouraging families to talk about their home fire escape plan, to check their smoke alarms and to keep an eye on cooking while in the kitchen. These are critical steps to make sure we’re safer at home in every way possible.”

April fire figures included two large-scale apartment building fires, in Madison (65 people) and Greenfield (19 people). That’s on top of March Red Cross response numbers – when “safer at home” orders went into place across Wisconsin – which saw more than 250 people displaced from 79 home fires. For certain, firefighters and first responders around the state have dealt with even more fire calls in their heroic daily course of work.

The rate of home fires is higher than normal for this time of year, and more typical with what Red Cross teams respond to during the busy start to winter. Along with home fires over the past nine weeks, our disaster teams also responded to assist with evacuations from flooding in Brown County, to feed first responders at a grain mill explosion in Chippewa County, and to people displaced by a building collapse in Racine and a transportation incident in Milwaukee.


For additional info on the Red Cross response amid the COVID-19 pandemic, including ways you can get involved, click here.


Our top priority is protecting the people we serve and our volunteers, so we have adopted new guidelines and tactics as we continue to support our communities. All volunteer responders and clients are asked health screening questions prior to meeting at a disaster scene. We also have the technology in place to issue immediate disaster assistance on a virtual basis. We have implemented steps to keep clients and volunteers safe from close contact, while at the same time providing financial assistance for items such as food, clothing, shelter and medications. The Red Cross also offers mental health support in beginning the long-term recovery process.

We continue to work closely with public health officials to deliver our mission where and when it’s safe to do so. This work includes additional support and partnerships through the state Emergency Operations Center to address the needs of people during this evolving emergency.

Superior Nock MKE fire April 2020

Residential fires like this one in Milwaukee displaced more than 275 residents from their homes in April, an unusually high number during spring.

Stay Safe and Help #EndHomeFires

The Red Cross is asking everyone to take simple steps to reduce the risk of a fire in your home and to help save lives. While many are home from work and school with their families, now is the perfect time to talk about home fire safety and practice your home fire escape plan.

  • Make sure everyone in the family knows how to get out of every room and how to get out of the home in two minutes or less.
  • Teach children the sound of a smoke alarm when you practice your home fire escape plan.
  • Select a meeting spot at a safe distance away from your home, such as a neighbor’s home or a tree in the front yard, so everyone knows where to meet.
  • Cooking fires are the top cause of home fires. Here is a list of cooking safety tips.
  • For resources and safety tips, download the free American Red Cross Emergency App from your app store.

You can support this ongoing mission for our neighbors in need by joining as a volunteer or by making a donation at redcross.org.

“You can tell that they care”: Greenfield man finds hope in people helping each other under the weight of COVID-19 and an apartment fire

By Justin Kern, American Red Cross

Jessie Austin saw the smoke pumping out of his Greenfield apartment building, could see the flashing fire truck lights. But his mind was elsewhere.

Austin said he had “déjà vu” to other traumatic events in his life, like a fire during his youth that took a friend’s mother, and his experiences in the Army during the evacuation of Vietnam in the 1970s.

GF fire Jessie Austin chair ONE

Jessie Austin shares from a hotel in Milwaukee, a temporary home as he works on next steps in his recovery with the American Red Cross and others.

With his own apartment and belongings uncertain, under the shared stress of a global pandemic, Austin said he knew the “best way to deal with things was to get them out.” He started talking – with his neighbors on scene, on the phone with his counselor from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, and multiple times each day with volunteers from the American Red Cross.

“[T]he volunteers from the Red Cross … they are very committed, compassionate people,” Austin said Thursday from a hotel sheltering operation where he and 10 other residents were staying.

“They don’t do a whole lot of talking; they’re there for support, like a sounding board. It’s … easy conversation because you can tell that they care. That’s the main thing. I’m very appreciative of them.”

In all, 19 people were displaced by the apartment building fire on April 20 and the Red Cross has worked with the residents on resources and recovery plans. In the time of COVID-19, crucial disaster response and recovery work persists – including a higher-than-normal rate of home fires for this time of year – with disaster teams adding extra safety steps along the way like daily health checks, an emphasis on virtual interactions, and masks and gloves whenever out in the field.

GF fire Jessie food Jim Robin Berzowski

American Red Cross volunteers Robin Berzowski, right, and Jim Berzowski, bring ‘room service’ meals to Jessie Austin, who was one of nearly 20 people displaced by a recent fire in Greenfield. The food drop offs are part of additional health and safety steps by disaster workers amid COVID-19.

It was the weight of the pandemic that turned Austin downright philosophical as he shared his story, his soft voice underscoring the importance he finds in keeping up hope and finding a way to help others. In a hat that read “United States of America” and prepping his hot lunch brought by Red Cross volunteers from a local diner, Austin expressed the deeper values he sees amid this unsettled moment.

“This Coronavirus thing, I’m telling people, look at what’s really going on. This thing is causing us to lean on each other and to continue to understand what life is all about. It’s about people helping each other. That’s what counts, that’s what’s important,” he said. “It’s the respect, knowing that you’ve been cared about, knowing that you count, knowing that in the long run, it’s time that is the most precious thing that we have.”

The spirit of people like Austin looking out for each other and sharing what help is available has been evident to Red Cross Disaster Action Team (or DAT) volunteers Jim and Robin Berzowski.

The couple has led food deliveries from generous Milwaukee restaurants like Don’s Diner and Landmark Family Restaurant, to the hotel sheltering the apartment complex residents. The dynamic duo of Jim and Robin – jokingly known as “DATman and Robin” among the Southeast Wisconsin disaster team – said they’ve felt grateful to be able to bring tasty meals to the residents, though the social distancing and other health steps have taken some getting used to.

GF fire COVID April 2020 Jim Robin Berzowski Landmark food pickup

Food pick up on April 23 from a Milwaukee restaurant, with meals destined for residents of a recent apartment building fire, one of many fires during an unusually busy spring.

As they delivered spaghetti dinners to each room at the hotel shelter Thursday, residents like Jessie gave quick updates on talks with their Red Cross caseworkers, and others let Jim and Robin know what they had heard from their neighbors earlier that day.

“We’re helping but they’re helping each other out, too,” Jim Berzowski said.

For more information on the response to COVID-19 in Wisconsin and the U.P. of Michigan – including ways you can get involved – visit this site.

“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.

Introducing: Lisa Weisman, new Regional Chief Development Officer, American Red Cross of Wisconsin

By Justin Kern, American Red Cross

Lisa Weisman said she was eager to join the American Red Cross for the chance to work with a team that “contributes to the community and has a direct impact” on people in need.

The Red Cross mission is a lot of things, but it isn’t shy. Just one month into her new role, with Coronavirus affecting all aspects of our lives, Weisman has had the chance to make a direct impact on our mission, including promotion of blood donations, connections with board directors and supporting ongoing disaster relief.

Lisa Weisman ARC with painting

Lisa Weisman, new Regional Chief Development Officer, at the American Red Cross offices in Milwaukee.

“To me, I’m looking for those one-on-ones to create relationships with a donor, that bring them joy in the organization’s mission,” she said.

Making the match between donor passion and Red Cross response has brought a quick turnaround with support, including more than $1 million in new gifts in early April. Weisman said that all happens because of the Red Cross reputation to respond in inspiring fashion during the most trying times.

“I’m so honored to be part of a strong and effective team and an organization revered and trusted for its impact here and throughout the world,” she said.

Weisman brings a strong pedigree in fund development and nonprofit leadership from agencies such as the United Performing Arts Fund, Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, Best Buddies International, Cystic Fibrosis Foundation and, most recently, Concordia University. In preparation for her new role with the Red Cross, she made connections to our mission already in her own life, with the military service held by many family members and her husband’s “hardcore” dedication to regularly give blood.

In a Region that has proven to be a leader – the Wisconsin Region was named 2018 “Region of the Year” in this Division of the Red Cross – Weisman said she sees opportunities to be part of a team that can mold even more leaders.

“I’m looking for that mentoring and strategy, to bring people along and help them learn more about fundraising. It was that coaching type role that was part of what made this career so attractive,” she said.

Lisa, her husband and their teen daughter (along with a golden retriever) live in Brookfield. She also has three stepchildren and four grandchildren, spread across Georgia and Wisconsin. She calls herself a “big Broadway fan” as well as a fan of the Milwaukee Brewers; her family was able to watch Brewers spring training in Arizona just before gathering restrictions and cancellations from COVID-19.

To share your ideas on bringing the Red Cross mission to life, or to just say hello, connect with Lisa on LinkedIn or at lisa.weisman@redcross.org.

260 People Received Red Cross Assistance After Home Fires, Other Disasters in March

MILWAUKEE, Wisc. (April 2, 2020) — Even during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, emergencies don’t stop and neither does the work of the American Red Cross. Every day, local volunteers are still providing care and comfort after disasters, such as home fires.

In the month of March, Red Cross disaster workers in Wisconsin responded to 81 incidents, providing assistance to 260 people all across Wisconsin (see map). Volunteers primarily helped families after home fires (79 incidents), with the addition of health measures and virtual work to keep this important support moving ahead for people in crisis.March 2020 fires WI ARC

“Our responses remained higher than average in March. As the realities of COVID-19 hit our state and nation, our disaster teams worked with public health officials, took on new training and added health and distancing measures to keep this work moving ahead, safely,” said Justin Kern, Communications Officer for the Wisconsin Region of the Red Cross. “We’re urging everyone to take steps while you’re observing stay-at-home measures to minimize the risk of fires in your own home.”

Along with the 79 fires in March – more than two per day, which is above our typical state average – Red Cross disaster teams also responded to help people at a building collapse in Racine and a transportation incident in Milwaukee.


You can support this ongoing mission for our neighbors in need by joining as a volunteer or by making a donation at redcross.org.


Our top priority is protecting the people we serve and our volunteers, so we have adopted new guidelines and tactics as we continue to support our communities. All volunteer responders and clients are asked health screening questions prior to meeting at a disaster scene. We also have the technology in place to issue immediate disaster assistance on a virtual basis. We have implemented steps to keep clients and volunteers safe from close contact, while at the same time providing financial assistance for items such as food, clothing, shelter and medications. The Red Cross also offers mental health support in beginning the long-term recovery process.

Dave and Kevin deliver to ISO Milwaukee FIVE

American Red Cross disaster volunteers Dave Flowers, left, and Kevin Connell don protective face shields and gloves as they deliver hygiene supplies to a shelter run by the National Guard in Milwaukee. (Photo by Justin Kern / American Red Cross)

We continue to work closely with public health officials to deliver our mission where and when it’s safe to do so. This work includes additional support and partnerships through the state Emergency Operations Center to address the needs of people during this evolving emergency.

Stay Safe and Help #EndHomeFires

The Red Cross is asking everyone to take simple steps to reduce the risk of a fire in your home and to help save lives. While many are home from work and school with their families, now is the perfect time to talk about home fire safety and practice your home fire escape plan.

  • Make sure everyone in the family knows how to get out of every room and how to get out of the home in two minutes or less.
  • Teach children the sound of a smoke alarm when you practice your home fire escape plan.
  • Select a meeting spot at a safe distance away from your home, such as a neighbor’s home or a tree in the front yard, so everyone knows where to meet.
  • Visit org/homefires for additional free resources and safety tips.

For additional COVID-19 (a.k.a. Coronavirus) safety tips and resources, click here.

‘People will get it done’: Q&A with Dave Nelson, government operations volunteer working on Coronavirus response

By Justin Kern, American Red Cross

With any large-scale disaster, there is a significant amount of work behind the scenes to set up food, shelter, assistance and more on the ground. Rarely has that “behind-the-scenes” effort been more vital than during the present COVID-19 pandemic. By its nature, this health emergency has resulted in isolation, social distancing and other remote efforts. This is where the strategy, networking and smarts of American Red Cross volunteers like Dave Nelson make a huge impact. From a post at the State Emergency Operations Center in Madison, as well as virtually, Nelson has led the Red Cross response to the Coronavirus emergency.

Nelson started at the Red Cross about eight years ago, including stints as a disaster action team volunteer and board president with the Northwest Wisconsin Chapter. Nelson, a retired finance officer for hospital systems who lives in Eau Claire with his wife, shares details on this unique Red Cross volunteer role – and one-of-a-kind disaster response.

Dave Nelson headshot

Dave Nelson

For starters, how do you kind of describe your volunteer role to friends or people on the street?

“I say that, ‘If we do our job here [in the Emergency Operations Center], that’s how we coordinate where to set up shelters, where our partners could use our assistance, and where people are most in need.”

What are some of the duties as a Government Operations volunteer?

“Where we usually work is in the E.O.C. [Emergency Operations Center]. That could be with the state, county or municipality. We coordinate the emergency response with all of the local authorities, including, like here with the state Department of Health Services, the National Guard, FEMA … all those types of agencies so there is a coordinated effort by all entities to provide the response needs in the places that it is most needed. … For Red Crossers, this role used to be called ‘Government Liaison.’”


Volunteers make the mission of the American Red Cross come to life. Find volunteer opportunities that fit your interests at redcross.org/volunteer.


Had you done this role before the Coronavirus response?

“First time I did this was during the Bad River Floods in 2016. For Hurricane Florence, I was the government operations [lead] in South Carolina for 15 counties in that response. I was at the Camp Fire in Paradise, California and last summer I was with the state of Oklahoma for flooding.”

Compare and contrast for us, the differences and similarities with a natural disaster like a hurricane in your role, and what’s happening with your role during this COVID-19 response.

Vol Dave Nelson at State EOC 3-16-20

Dave Nelson, at right in hat, on the first day at the State Emergency Operations Center in Madison.

“What is similar: I’m working with the federal, state and local authorities in the E.O.C. We also coordinate a lot with V.O.A.D. [Voluntary Organizations Active in Disasters] groups, too, to help find other resources where we all have a gap to fill. The players from the agency standpoint are pretty much the same. In hurricanes, for instance, the majority of our work is … supplies, feeding and sheltering of people. What makes this one very different is that we’re not doing any sheltering. We have special rules because we’re dealing with a pandemic, which is something not many of us have worked with before. The coordination becomes different. The state and counties are working on isolation shelters, more of a medical shelter and different from congregate shelters … Using Red Cross and FEMA resources, we helped put together a shelter operating manual with DHS so that they can operate and better understand the processes involved in operating shelters. DHS is taking the lead and we’re assisting, providing guidance, supplies and resources. They’re the health experts. It may seem small to anyone outside but it’s really under a whole different set of rules to ensure infection does not spread and medical needs are met.”

I’ve been at E.O.C.s in the past in Madison and this one was definitely different from day one. Can you share the differences from the perspective of where and how you’re working?

“We walk through medical screenings before we can even get into the [E.O.C.] building. We’ve been working, spaced apart somewhat … and we are now dispersing into what we call ‘Virtual E.O.C.’, using web access, phones, email. That is important [based on gathering guidelines], but we’ll be doing a lot more calling, relying on technology much more. People will get it done. These people in the E.O.C., they work hard and they take tasks seriously. Whatever needs to get done, gets done. And that’s the fun part, really, solving problems and executing the plan.”

A couple of weeks into this pandemic, what have been some of the early successes?

“Some of the blood drive need and safety information, getting that language passed along to help the state and governor’s office to support the need for blood drives and collection. The other big one for me was, on day two, getting involved with the isolation sheltering task force. I was able to find policy and standards manuals and intake forms as a start, based on Red Cross, FEMA things I know about sheltering, and contacts I had from other states already going these response issues in heavily impacted areas in California, where they’re a little ahead of Wisconsin in dealing with the COVID-19 response. Our team was able to then bring in a shelter expert, Barbara Gugel, to work full-time with the Isolation Task Force to develop and put that isolation sheltering process into place. It’s where your networking and working well with new people, treating each other well, really comes into play.”

This is a pretty unique role with the Red Cross. What qualities would you say help to have for someone who may want to get involved like you in government operations?

“You have to be even tempered. Don’t take anything personally, there is so much going on and people can get stressed, people are tired. If you can handle the pressure of working 12-to-15 hours a day and coordinate with numerous types of people, [those are] the skills you really need. Even if it’s a role that comes up once or twice a year, don’t get frustrated with that. At the end of the day, we’re here to help people the best we can. We play a very important role, and our government partners, our nonprofit partners, they all know that.”

You can make an impact in your community as a volunteer with the American Red Cross. Find volunteer opportunities that fit your passion at redcross.org/volunteer