More than 1,000 People Displaced by Fires to Start 2021

Story by Justin Kern, American Red Cross

Another 536 people were displaced by home and apartment fires in February in Wisconsin and the U.P. of Michigan, the continuation of a busy and tragic start to American Red Cross relief efforts in 2021.

Apartment fires have been rampant to start 2021. The Red Cross helped 25 people displaced by this fire on N. 25th Street in Milwaukee in February. Photo by Justin Kern/American Red Cross

In the first two months of the year, that total of people affected by approximately 180 residential fires helped by the Red Cross topped 1,054. That total is more than one-quarter of the entire number of people served by the Wisconsin Region of the Red Cross through disasters for all of our previous service year.

Along with a few more home fire fatalities, this start to 2021 was also marked by more large-scale apartment building fires, including: 13 people at an apartment fire in Wisconsin Rapids; 8 people at an apartment fire in Clintonville (Waupaca County); 18 people at an apartment fire in Janesville; 12 people at a multi-unit fire in Kenosha; and 25 people from an apartment fire in Milwaukee (pictured at left). While residential fires affected every corner of Wisconsin and the U.P., nearly half of those in need of services happened in Milwaukee.

At this same time, Red Cross disaster teams continued to provide hotel-sheltering for people displaced by a few incidents that occurred in a single day in late January. As of March 1, there were still 40 people displaced by one of those fires, in the Burnham Park neighborhood of Milwaukee. Concurrent to hundreds of nights of hotel room stays with that Burnham Park fire in the past four-plus weeks, Red Crossers have provided 6,787 meals and 4,147 health/mental health contacts. At one point in early February, the number of people helped in local Red Cross sheltering efforts was second only to Louisiana, where hundreds remain without homes after summer and fall hurricanes.

The Red Cross volunteers “take care of things you didn’t even think about,” said James Fair, a veteran who was among 225 people displaced from that fire, the largest single incident in recent Red Cross service history.

American Red Cross volunteers and Wisconsin Veterans Network collaborate on recovery plans for a number of military veterans put out of their homes by a recent apartment building fire. Photo by Leslie Luther/American Red Cross

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.

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.

For a list of home fire essentials and preparedness steps to take with your family today, click here.

Your support brings immediate resources to people in need after a home fire. Thank you for considering a gift to our mission for people affected by fires in our communities.

American Red Cross seeks your community hero nominations for 2021 Brave Hearts honors

MILWAUKEE, Wisc., Nov. 24, 2020 – Do you know a hero living in our community? Someone who has saved a life or whose actions inspire others? Someone who makes southeastern Wisconsin a better place every day?

The Southeast Wisconsin Chapter of the American Red Cross is now accepting nominations of inspiring local people for consideration at our 2021 Brave Hearts community heroes event. We’re looking for your nominations of people who have performed or continue to perform heroic acts in 2020 across a handful of categories.

Brave Hearts heroes are being accepted until Jan. 31 in the following categories:

George Koerner was selected as our most recent Military Hero for his passionate work with fellow veterans.
  • Community Safety, Security & Resiliency – use of knowledge, skills or research to provide aid to the life of another
  • Emergency Response – first responder exhibiting heroism on or off-duty, or in an ongoing and extraordinary effort toward community support
  • From the Heart – blood donor or blood drive supporter
  • Military – member of the Armed Forces exhibiting heroism in response to an emergency situation, on or off-duty
  • Youth – involved in a heroic act at 18-years old or younger

Nominees must live, work or the heroic act of courage or kindness must have occurred in one of the following counties: Dodge, Kenosha, Milwaukee, Ozaukee, Racine, Walworth, Washington or Waukesha. A specific heroic act must have occurred in the past year, from Jan. 1, 2020 to Dec. 31, 2020; an act of courage or kindness can be ongoing or have occurred at a particular time. From the nominees, a committee also selects a lifetime award for the Brave Hearts event.

Nominate a hero before Jan. 31 and find more details here: https://www.redcross.org/local/wisconsin/about-us/news-and-events/events/brave-hearts/brave-hearts-nomination.html

The annual Brave Hearts fundraising gala is slated to be a virtual event in May 2021.

‘Diminished’ after a home fire, a Kenosha County nurse helps others as she rebuilds

Story by Cooper Adams, American Red Cross

Stephanie Mortenson laid down on her hotel bed, sobbing after finally having the chance to process the previous stressful hours. Losing her house, her car and most of her belongings in a devastating home fire, Mortenson now had to figure out how to start over.

“My life was diminished to a razor and a toothbrush,” Mortenson said.

Mortenson had been having a pretty normal night with her husband, watching their two grandchildren, both toddlers. Around 9 p.m., an explosion came from the garage. Their pickup truck caught on fire. Because there were no smoke alarms in the garage, the fire built before the alarms in the rest of the house detected anything. Fortunately, Mortenson heard the explosion, promptly called 9-1-1 and the family escaped the house.

Mortenson admitted that her family should have had a better escape plan in case of a home fire: “We should have discussed it earlier. We didn’t know where we were going to go, just that we had to get outside.”

Everyone made it out of the house unharmed. Mortenson had brought her grandchildren to her neighbor’s house to keep them safe. Shortly after, the fire department and American Red Cross arrived to check on everyone.

Chin Ng Kenosha installs fall 2019

Chin Ng, volunteer with the American Red Cross, installs a smoke alarm during a home fire safety event in Kenosha. Photo by Cooper Adams.

As someone who describes herself as stubborn, Mortenson was initially hesitant having the Red Cross help her that night. “I thought we didn’t need help,” Mortenson explained. “We’re givers, not takers”. After some friendly persuading, Red Cross Disaster Action Team (DAT) volunteer Ben Neal convinced Mortenson to take the first step of accepting a hug.

With Red Cross assistance, Mortenson and her husband are now living in an apartment, with plans to rebuild a new home in the same location as their previous one.

Mortenson’s journey with the Red Cross actually didn’t start with the home fire. Since she was 18, she’s been an advocate for donating blood. She’s donated every chance she’s had since.

Then, about a year and a half ago, she witnessed a horrible car accident involving a truck, leading to severe injuries and even deaths. As a nurse, she sprang into action and helped the passenger struggling for air in the wrecked car, saving her life. For her heroic actions, the Red Cross awarded her with the Brave Hearts award.


Do you know a community hero in southeastern Wisconsin? Click here to nominate them as a Brave Hearts hero.


After her own home fire, Mortenson found a way to be active with the Red Cross that would help others struck by home fires. For National Fire Prevention Week, the Red Cross teamed up with Journey Church and the Kenosha Fire Department to install free smoke alarms throughout Kenosha. Since Mortenson regularly attends Journey Church and remains involved with the Red Cross, she signed up to volunteer.

Mortenson felt moved to help make people safer by recalling the tragic night she had just months before. Mortenson arrived at Journey Church, prepared to go out and make a difference. She stopped when she recognized a familiar face: it was Ben Neal, one of the Red Cross volunteers who helped her the night of her own home fire.

She came up to him and they were able to catch up. Neal asked Mortenson about her grandkids and she replied that they were doing well. She also apologized for being stubborn about receiving help. When asked how she was, Mortenson grew contemplative.

Stephanie

Stephanie Mortenson, left, receives a Brave Hearts community hero award in May from presenter Beth Straka, We Energies. Photo by Front Room Studios.

“We live in a proud fashion,” Mortenson reflected. “People are just going through life, and we need to stop.”

The two continued their conversation until the time came to begin the installations. Mortenson reiterated how grateful she was for Neal and the Red Cross’ assistance that night and the following weeks.

When asked about his experience working with Mortenson, Neal responded that “It was great! I could tell she had a desire to give back and share her story. I began to volunteer so I could give back and help others who are at their lowest.”

After this experience, Mortenson feels as if she’s become a better person. She learned that admitting you need help is not a sign of weakness. She learned how to remove a mask she felt that she was wearing. She learned to be okay with three pairs of jeans instead of a whole closet. Grateful for the help she received, she thanked the Red Cross for providing her with the resources she needed to recover and give again.

You can help families during their moments of need. Join our Disaster Action Team volunteers. Take that first step by clicking here.

Red Cross continues to provide support in Southeast Wisconsin

The American Red Cross continues to provide assistance to Kenosha, Racine, and Walworth County residents after being hit with severe flooding.  Red Cross, with partnering agencies, opened three Multi-Agency Resource Centers where residents were assisted with immediate disaster recovery needs.

To date, the Red Cross has:

  • served 480 clients
  • provided 493 meals
  • distribution 1,689 clean-up kits
  • served 1,748 snacks
  • provided clients with 4,315 bulk items, such as bleach, gloves, and garbage bags

The Red Cross work continues in the Kenosha, Racine and Walworth communities and throughout Western Wisconsin.

If you affected by the storms and have questions or immediate needs, please call 414-345-8678.

How you can help

The Red Cross and the communities it serves rely on local volunteers to provide humanitarian relief during times of disaster. You can become a Red Cross volunteer in your community when disaster strikes. To learn more, visit redcross.org/wisconsin.

About the American Red Cross
The American Red Cross shelters, feeds and counsels victims of disasters; provides nearly half of the nation’s blood supply; teaches lifesaving skills; and supports military members and their families. The Red Cross is a charitable organization — not a government agency — and depends on volunteers and the generosity of the American public to perform its humanitarian mission. The Wisconsin Region serves 5.8 million people across Wisconsin and Houston County Minnesota.  For more information, please visit redcross.org, follow our statewide blog at redcrosswisnews.org and follow us on Twitter @redcrosswis

The Wisconsin Region of the American Red Cross responds to nearly 900 disasters a year. You can help people affected by disasters like home fires and countless other crises by making a donation to support American Red Cross Disaster Relief. Your gift enables the Red Cross to prepare for, respond to and help people recover from disasters big and small. Click redcross.org, call 1-800-RED CROSS or text REDCROSS to 90999 to make a $10 donation. Contributions may also be sent to the American Red Cross Wisconsin Region, 2600 W. Wisconsin Avenue, Milwaukee, WI 53233