Summit County Red Cross volunteers sent to fires, floods
FRISCO — A volunteer’s work is rarely done. They follow their calling and provide help wherever they can, day after day. While the coronavirus pandemic has changed normal operations, humanitarian organizations like the American Red Cross are just as busy as ever. Recently, five Summit County residents were deployed to assist with food, shelter and other needs in response to Colorado’s wildfires.
Jody Acres, who was the local deputy director, has been helping others on behalf of the Red Cross for 12 years. She was inspired to join the organization after a wildfire near Highlands Ranch had people sheltering in her children’s high school. Service runs in her blood. She and her husband are both retired from the U.S. Air Force as are her dad and grandfather. She didn’t hesitate in August after the Pine Gulch, Grizzly Creek, Cameron Peak and Williams Fork fires started to pop up across the state.
“I just came off two weeks of hurricane duty, so I wasn’t really looking to do anything,” said Acres, referring to Hurricane Hanna in July. “But when it’s your local chapter and local volunteers, you feel like you have to. … Every day, there was a new fire. You never know if it’s going to be one that sends 100,000 people running, or are they going to get it under control.”
The speed of the growing wildfires reminded Acres of the Waldo Canyon Fire from 2012, but luckily this season’s fires have yet to be a major threat for residents, and evacuations were minimal. Yet Acres and her crew still dealt with 14-hour days in preparing for the worst. The situation had her remotely working in Frisco using Microsoft Teams to video chat instead of gathering in a large conference room. Acres likes the fact that she’s been able to sleep in her own bed, yet she misses the instant connection of meeting face to face.
The team coordinated to make sure buildings were available as shelters and that shelters had enough blankets, cots, personal protective equipment and other supplies. Some acted as liaisons with other nonprofits and governmental agencies, others were recovery leads in case houses were destroyed and a few went to the Battle Mountain High School shelter to sanitize and get ready for evacuees. But sheltering this year is different than others due to physical distancing protocols.
“We limit our shelters now only to 50 people, so they can spread out real well,” Acres said. “But if you have 5,000 people (evacuate), you have to have a lot of shelters you have to put them in. It’s changed the game quite a bit.”
Many of the roughly 25 Summit County Red Cross volunteers are retired and in the high-risk age group, so they were hesitant to do more than virtual work. Those who did travel stayed in single hotel rooms without roommates, as did any evacuees if the standard shelters were full.
The limited physical deployment hasn’t stopped Frisco Town Council member Andrew Aerenson from traveling to hard-hit areas. After working remotely on the Colorado wildfires as operations lead, he’s now in Louisiana helping folks recover from Hurricane Laura.
“I’m attracted to disasters as opposed to repelled by them,” Aerenson said. “The first time, I was living in Delaware when the World Trade Center got hit. It was one of those times when everyone was collecting supplies and somebody needed to take them from where we were collecting them up to the towers.”
He then joined the Red Cross in 2012 during Hurricane Sandy and does about one to two deployments a year. He’s been with the organization in Texas after Hurricane Harvey, North Carolina for Hurricane Florence and California to assist with the past wildfires that ravaged Sonoma and Napa. This is his second time in Baton Rouge, the first being to help after the floods in 2016.
While the hurricanes can be bad, the worst deployments he’s worked in — as a volunteer and taking into account what residents have to recover from — were the wildfires. In Santa Rosa, California, he saw a street where everything burned. Puddles of glass turned out to be remnants of collected recycling materials ready to be picked up. Wheels of cars were melted and made metallic streaks on the ground. He recalled a scene of a woman sifting through debris in the back corner of her house, thinking the pile might hold her wedding ring from the second-floor dresser.
“The conditions for us while we’re deployed are terrible because of the smoke. But fire also destroys everything,” Aerenson said. “When I’m down here in a flood, generally, the water goes up, the water goes down and now the person has a mud-filled house. There’s an element of, ‘I can do something to help my recovery.’ … There’s a difference between patching a roof and having to completely rebuild your house.”
Along with wearing a face mask in the Louisiana heat, a major change of this deployment due to the pandemic is the food deliveries. Organizing routes and drivers, preparing the meals and distributing them is usually his most common — and favorite — task. However, fixed pickup centers have replaced the targeted drop-offs.
“Now it’s much more prepackaged foods,” Aerenson said. “There’s less touch, less connection.”
Still, despite the ordeals being frequently draining for the volunteers and the people served, he finds giving back to the communities energizing. The Red Cross is still ready to mobilize within two hours if the fires are to flare up again. In the meantime, Aerenson and others will continue to go wherever they’re needed.
“We have one volunteer who is 80 years old, and he keeps deploying,” Acres said.
Aspen’s Fourth of July festivities came to a close after the sun had set on Monday with a laser light show.
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