519 people affected by spate of January home fires

During busy winter season, Red Cross shares preparedness reminders and resources

By Justin Kern, American Red Cross

Winter has brought a sustained escalation of home fires in Wisconsin and the U.P. of Michigan, with more than 500 people displaced in January alone, including at large apartment fires in Beaver Dam, Menasha and Milwaukee.

An apartment building in Milwaukee affected by a tragic fire in January 2021.

The American Red Cross has assisted approximately 519 people at 68 fires, which registers as more than two-per day and ranks on par with some of the busier months in recent years. That includes a fatal fire at a 106-unit building in the Burnham Park neighborhood in Milwaukee, one of the largest residential fires we’ve assisted with in recent years, as well as other apartment fires in Menasha (43 people), Beaver Dam (35 people) and elsewhere in Milwaukee (17 people). Separately, Racine has suffered four, single-family home fires in January, affecting 19 people, and Iron Mountain, Mich. has had two single-family home fires, affecting 10 people.

“While we prepare for an unfortunate rise in fires each winter, our teams have helped people through a particularly dense number of larger incidents, such as the three big apartment fires alone on January 28th,” said Mark Thomas, Regional CEO and Southeast Executive Director, American Red Cross. “With these incidents still looming large, we’re encouraging people to take a moment and review their preparedness plans with their families, as well as to consider ways to join our mission.”

Examples of relief support by Red Cross disaster teams at these fires includes aid for temporary lodging at a local hotel, meals, and access to health and mental health resources. Volunteers and staff also work with residents on recovery plans to move forward during the protracted aspects of a home fire, like identifying longer term housing. This work is amplified by partners in service at communities across our Region.

The winter season typically brings an increase in residential fires, though our teams have been involved in a higher than usual number of large-scale fires going back to the start of the pandemic. Since March 2020, Red Cross disaster volunteers and staff have been committed to internal and CDC protocols to ensure health and safety measures for everyone involved in our mission.

Home fire safety tips & resources

American Red Cross disaster volunteers Denise Bruneau, left, and Ranjit Verma collect more than 100 chicken wrap meals from our partner Alverno College for distribution to people at temporary sheltering after home fires.

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:

  • 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.
  • Test the smoke alarms in your home and replace deficient batteries or alarms. 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.
  • Bring home fire and disaster safety lessons into your school or organization. Click here to sign up for these free virtual preparedness courses.
  • For additional free resources and safety tips, visit redcross.org/homefires.  

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

‘This is temporary’: perspective and perseverance power recovery after Menasha apartment building fire

By Justin Kern, American Red Cross

Jo Ann Harris in a selfie.

Jo Ann Harris stood outdoors in flip flops and comfy clothes amid a Wisconsin winter afternoon, in “total shock” as a police officer told her the building she lives in was on fire.

She had left the apartment that morning for doctor’s appointments, on a seemingly ordinary Wednesday, never dreaming of the doubt and obstacles she’d come home to.

Yet just over a week later, she’s standing strong with the keys to a new apartment – and a newfound appreciation for those organizations that help others, like the American Red Cross.

“There’s so much good I haven’t been able to focus on the down times,” Harris said.

On the afternoon of Jan. 20, fire ripped through the Jefferson Court Apartments, ultimately displacing people from 24 units in the residential building near Jefferson Park in Menasha. In the initial response, Red Cross disaster teams established lodging, meals and immediate needs at a nearby hotel for Harris and nearly 30 other people.

Disaster teams from the American Red Cross at the scene of an apartment building fire in January 2021 in Menasha. Dozens of residents received relief and recovery help from Red Cross and partner agencies. Photo by Tom Nimsgern / American Red Cross

Harris moved into her apartment in 2016, up from Hammond, Ind. near her hometown of Chicago. In Menasha, she found a good career in customer service, and an apartment ideally located next to “beautiful” Lake Winnebago and run by landlords she had started to tease as “like my mother and father in Wisconsin.”

The fire took away that ideal apartment. But Harris has been able to pull a few priceless items from the wreckage – her family photographs central among them – and find perspective parallel to the pain.

“I’ve been really trying to keep it together. It’s a strain,” she said.

“But I’m very grateful, because God has made a way for people that don’t know me to be empathetic and show they care, show a caring spirit. You don’t always find that and the whole world is going through [a pandemic] right now. This happened, this fire, but then people helped, got me in a hotel, you’re eating every day, you’re making a way to move. I’m so grateful.”

Red Cross and a network of local service agencies – LEAVEN, St. Vincent de Paul, United Way, Salvation Army – rallied early on to see what recovery resources may be jointly available, with the future of the Menasha apartment building uncertain.

Your generosity brings relief in times of need to people in our community. Thank you for your support.

Harris has been a big advocate of LEAVEN since she arrived in Menasha and called them “a rock” this past week. In short order, she’s also grown close with Red Cross team members, like Sharon Holt, a volunteer from Combined Locks who has helped her with calls and reconnections to the numerous agencies that become disjointed after something as dire as a home fire.

Harris shows off the keys to a new place, just a week after experiencing a fire.

As Harris talked up getting the keys to a new place in Appleton, she acknowledged the gravity of the whole fire may yet come to her doorstep. She promised to keep moving ahead though, turning up the Marvin Sapp gospel songs when she needs a boost and reminding herself that she’s a witness to that lesson her mother often shared – help others because you, too, may one day need help.

“The representatives of the Red Cross, they give you empathy and they are on the frontline of helping,” Harris said. “Sometimes, we drop all our load on them, like they’re our therapists. I look at them, like, ‘They’re here to help me. They’re giving me their time.’ They helped me realize this is temporary.”

Your support of the American Red Cross enables our disaster teams to bring emergency relief to people like Jo Ann. Thank you for considering a donation to our humanitarian mission.

How a home fire client became an all-star volunteer

By James Ziech, American Red Cross

Kimberly Brockman’s decision to join the American Red Cross as a volunteer four years ago began with a cry for help – her house was on fire.

It was three in the morning. Cries from her daughter aroused Kimberly from her sleep. Then, she heard the smoke alarms. She sprang into action. She evacuated her family and her pets from their burning trailer. Her daughter was taken to the hospital. One of their dogs didn’t make it.

“We have nowhere to go, nothing but the clothes on our backs,” she remembered thinking at the time.

Kim profile James story

Kimberly Brockman shares a selfie while wearing her Red Cross volunteer duds.

Kimberly reached out for help the best she knew how. Within the hour, a representative of the American Red Cross came to help. Volunteers from the Red Cross brought comfort, then provided some money for a safe place to stay for a few days. When it came time to leave the hotel and find a new apartment, her Red Cross caseworker led her to the information and agencies that could get her started again in a new place for her and her family.

“I was so touched by what the organization does, that I wanted to help people the way they do,” she said.

Coming in with many years of experience working as a Medical Assistant, her choice of being a volunteer as a blood donor ambassador was an easy one. She would greet and welcome donors who come to the blood drives and ensure that they have a pleasant experience with the organization.

“Everybody is so thankful and we are thanked so much for what we do to help people,” she said. “I think we get the most thanks by talking to someone and asking people what you do for a living, and they’re like, ‘You guys are awesome! Thank you for being there.’”

After some time, Kimberly took up a leadership role and started to do community outreach. Sometimes, she would spend time in public talking with people. Other times, she would get to know the businesses in the area and getting them involved in hosting blood drives. There will even be a blood drive at Lincoln Park Zoo in Manitowoc on July 17. (Click here to find that and other drives to share your generous donation of life-saving blood.)

Kim and Cheap Trick James story

Brockman, holding the check at left, joins fellow Northeast Chapter volunteers to accept the generous donation from a rock concert that included Cheap Trick.

Kimberly wanted to also get involved in disaster response, though health issues prevented her from doing on-scene responses to incidents like home fires. Turned out, there was a need for volunteer disaster dispatchers. It was a perfect fit. From the comfort of her home, she could put volunteers in touch with people who need our help.

“It’s not that you want to feel good about yourself, but about making others feel better. Knowing how you help your fellow man in the worst times of their life. Just being a shoulder, just giving support. It’s about helping other people. Some people just want to know other people care,” she said.

Volunteers like Kimberly Brockman continue to reach out to assist all in need: from local house fires to regional flooding and hurricanes, from donating blood to running blood drives, from community outreach to building partnerships with businesses and government, volunteers from the American Red Cross are available 24/7 to serve and assist. For more information on how you can help your community and state, visit redcross.org/volunteer.