‘It’s a changing experience’: how Wisconsin volunteers are helping families decimated by wildfires in Oregon

By Justin Kern, American Red Cross

Hundreds of American Red Cross disaster teams have been working with families in crisis for months after a wave of hurricanes and wildfires ravaging the United States. Hillary Wanecke, of Delafield, Wisconsin has been involved with the Red Cross in humanitarian relief since Hurricane Katrina. Last week, she returned from a deployment in Oregon, where deadly wildfires decimated communities.

In this brief conversation, Wanecke shared with us the differences of deploying for disaster relief during a pandemic and the ways she was still able to let reeling families know that they weren’t alone in this battle.

You are someone known around southeast Wisconsin for your work helping people after home fires or other local disasters. But you’ve also deployed to do different types of roles in humanitarian relief after large-scale disasters. Tell me a bit about your role after the wildfires in Oregon and where you were.

Hillary Wanecke, left, was part of a team that checked on affected homes and residents after wildfires in Oregon. Photo by Lynette Nyman / American Red Cross

Wanecke: On this deployment I went out in Disaster Assessment … so I went into areas that had been affected by the wildfire – it had been burning for about two weeks. We went through trying to find out which homes were affected and which weren’t and that is used for the recovery process, so that Red Cross and other agencies can help people with the things they need to recover. A lot of the roads for the addresses we had were closed, some of the assessments started virtually, where we mapped out the locations of the houses based on what the Sheriff’s [Department] said. When the streets opened up after a few days, we drove by these addresses and verified. It seemed like there was a wind storm that just kicked up this fire and people had to evacuate within minutes. They just had to leave everything. That was heart-breaking. I was around the town of Blue River [Oregon], population of about 900 on the McKenzie River. It burned to the ground. There wasn’t one building left, commercial or home in that little community.

You have hundreds of thousands of acres of woodland [in this part of Oregon]. These fires started from the lightning and the wind. At the beginning, around the beginning of September, they thought that they had these fires contained. These communities have existed here for hundreds of years, beautiful backdrops of the mountains and filled with these pristine trees. And the wind picked up, the fires kicked up and they just rolled down. … What was amazing was in some places, one house was standing and the next three houses were ashes. It seems like luck of the draw but no matter who you were, if you were in the path of it, you were really in trouble.

What were some of the homeowners you talked with saying about how they escaped, what they went through to get out?

Wanecke: One guy was very prepared, a younger man who had a satellite phone, a generator. He had kind of organized people in his community of McKenzie Ridge, for water and necessities, his own little help center. His house wasn’t burned. He said he went to sleep that night, knowing there was a wind storm [coming]. He was prepared for that but he thought the power might go out. So, what did he do? He turned off his phone to preserve power. And he woke up and the fire saved his house, but it torched the rest of the community. He was like a lot of people, he went to bed and it was fine and then it escalated to … people had to flee with whatever they had on them.

You’re just thinking that this fire is still going. If the winds changed, if the forecast changed, it wasn’t good.

What were some of the resources you and your Red Cross teams were able to bring people.

In the town of Blue River, Ore., Wanecke, left, and fellow disaster volunteers gathered information used to provide financial and other assistance to hundreds of families who lost everything to wildfires. Photo by Lynette Nyman / American Red Cross

Wanecke: We’ve got this great technology and we were able to go around, find addresses, locate people who had been affected. Then, we were able to share with victims where they could get help. In the aftermath, they left so quickly, they may have been staying in cars, staying with relatives. They were shell-shocked. We were able to connect with people to get them into hotels from the Red Cross, to get them registered that they were affected by this so that they could start a case with us [for potential financial assistance], with FEMA, other agencies. After the initial days, we were doing “hot shot” calls, for people seeking help. We’d get a call from someone who evacuated who’d say, “My house, I’m not sure if it was affected, it’s at this address.” People couldn’t go back in to their communities. And if we hadn’t identified it previously, we’d go out to see the status of the house.

Now, we’re talking with people who are existing volunteers and recruit new volunteers to help with these wildfires and other disasters going on, either in person or virtually. What would you say to someone about the personal reward you find in deploying like this, even with all the considerations?

Wanecke: I was nervous about going out, during the pandemic. But you’re very well covered. The Red Cross has a lot of good training, specialty training related to COVID-19 … We’ve changed procedures during this. We’ve all gotten very good at [Microsoft] Teams and we’re using other technology more smartly. But we pivot where we have to. Some of the cell towers burned so we were doing work back on pen and paper.

It’s a changing experience. The Red Cross sees a need and it finds a way to fill it. If we can’t serve people out of Cambros, those big, red meal containers, we’ll find a way of packaging those meals and getting them to the people. If we can’t have a large congregate shelter in the basement of a church with 200 people, then we’re going to find a hotel and run it like a shelter, to get the people housed and fed. It’s a little different, you’re not hugging people. But you’re still getting information out to people and there are a lot of people who need this help, between the fires, the storms down South, the home fires locally. It’s a mess out there. But we’ve made it work.

Was there a moment you had with someone from Oregon, affected by these wildfires?

Wanecke: This one couple … she had just gotten out of the hospital and was sitting on her walker while her husband took a sieve through the ashes of their trailer home.

We found out from them that they had evacuated and this was their first time back to their trailer, which was in ash. And they had been sleeping in a tent. She was just out of the hospital … [from] a back surgery. When you think it can’t get any worse …

We let them know that they didn’t have to sleep in a tent. We got them in touch with the Red Cross in Eugene [Oregon] and found a hotel room for them and food was being delivered. … [W]hen you’re knocked on your tail with a disaster like that, sometimes common sense can go out the window. You are so overwhelmed. We were able to tell this couple that they didn’t have to do this by themselves.

You can join volunteers like Hillary in a number of roles that help people in need. Find roles for today’s disasters at redcross.org/VolunteerToday