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Taking Care of Our Neighbors and Communities: Sheltering Dixie Fire Victims

Monday, August 16th, 2021

By Jeremy Couso

It was as if small towns had suddenly sprung up on the Lassen College and Lassen High School campuses last week, as evacuees fleeing the massive Dixie Fire, nearly 300 of them, many with only the clothes on their backs, were forced from their homes with nowhere else to go.

The evacuees, half of them from Plumas and the other half from Lassen County, fled to the east as flames destroyed homes in Greenville and Canyon Dam and threatened the Lake Almanor and Westwood areas.

Many arrived in Susanville in vehicles packed with belongings and no place to go. Some had family and friends they could stay with, some locals even welcomed fire refugees into their homes, but for some the solution was to stay in one of the two shelters opened by the county.

The responsibility for this mass care and sheltering fell squarely on the shoulders of Lassen County’s Health and Social Services Department. And while their staff oversees the sheltering of fire refugees, they rely on a close partnership with non-profit agencies to provide food and other necessities.

Feeding the evacuees, both at the shelter and around town, when possible, is the responsibility of the Susanville Salvation Army.

According to Salvation Army Field Representative Juanita Williams, there are 50 volunteers working every day the shelter is open, with those volunteers providing about 120-hours of work each day.

“It’s a unique partnership,” explains Jenna Aguilera, Lassen County’s Community Social Services Director. “Our County joins in a partnership with Salvation Army and American Red Cross to serve evacuees. And it works here, it works for us.”

Because services for the shelter are directly tied to the number of evacuees who are registered at the shelter, it is difficult for the County to serve those who have not registered and are typically not willing to stay at the shelter.

However, Williams and the Salvation Army, who are tasked with feeding the 300 evacuees at the shelter, are also making sure that any meals left after shelter residents have been fed are being distributed to other evacuees at approximately five sites throughout town.

Any remaining meals after those sites are visited are then delivered to Crossroads Ministries so that no food goes to waste. The Salvation Army’s aim is to make sure that nobody goes hungry, but the best way to ensure an evacuee gets meals is for them to register and stay at the shelter.

“Folks need to register,” said Williams. “They have laundry service, showers, food and a community here at the shelters.”

“What the Salvation Army provides for feeding is based off a count that is calculated multiple times per day,” says Aguilera. “We have had instances where food has run out at the shelter because non-evacuees took advantage of the feeding. Which is why we heavily rely on our local non-profits like Salvation Army, that are able to support feeding, outside of the shelter.”

Along with the Salvation Army the shelter also relies on the American Red Cross for a variety of services.

“Red Cross is a great partner and has been providing staffing for our outside support. They have been taking out trash, running laundry service for people who can’t get to the trailer, if people need rides they have a golf cart, if people need items taken to and from their car, they provide those services.”

Red Cross along with Lassen County’s Public Health nurses have been providing a 24-hour nursing team, which is important because with residents who average in age between 60 and 70, along with a variety of medical needs, the nursing team has been a great support for the evacuees.

“We have individuals who need 24-hour care, who need assistance with basic living activities, along with many additional needs. This is my main priority right here, protecting those who need our assistance.”

“We experienced some people who did not bring their walkers or wheelchairs, and through the County’s Emergency Preparedness team, we were able to order wheelchairs, walkers, oxygen, oxygen concentrators… along with other medical care supplies that were needed.”

The Red Cross has provided 23 volunteers, to assist Lassen with shelter operations, from all over the United States – Maryland, South Carolina, Minnesota, New Mexico – working twelve hour shifts.

Terry Vollrath, Site Supervisor for Red Cross

Terry Vollrath, Site Supervisor for Red Cross, is impressed with the shelter residents.

“Every single shelter is different, but I will tell you that the clients [here] are resilient, they get along well, a lot of them are neighbors – they are gracious and cooperative.”

It’s a great group of people according to Vollrath, who are anxious to go home. “It’s a stressful situation to start, then you put on top of that you’re in close quarters or you are out here in the tents and its hot.”

Vollrath explains that within the community of evacuees there are those that have volunteered to help make the shelter a better place. One evacuee even went through the process to become a Red Cross volunteer right there at the shelter and is now working for the organization.

That Red Cross volunteer, by the name of Bruce, along with some fellow evacuees, found a laptop and a sound system and a projector and were able to show kids’ movies on the side of a trailer among the tents at the shelter. Families were able to watch the movies from the lawn in sleeping bags that were donated by the California Correctional Peace Officers Association.

It’s all about making the shelter a community.

For mass care and sheltering in California, the responsibility falls with Social Services agencies and departments. Each county has the choice on how and who manages their shelters in emergencies. From choosing to manage their own, to asking a partner agency, like Red Cross to manage and provide the sheltering on their behalf.

“Lassen chooses to manage our own. We prefer to provide in-house staffing support which is one of the main reasons why we chose to manage our shelters in partnership with non-profit agencies.”

Non-profit agencies have the ability to support those who choose not to utilize the shelter, and perhaps have another place to stay or the means to find their own accommodations. Salvation Army has been able to provide evacuees in these situations with fresh food for cooking meals, along with water and a variety of drinks.

“The shelter is here to support those that don’t have those extra means or accommodations,” explains Aguilera.

“You never know what’s going to come and you have to be prepared to make those really difficult calls. I don’t think a lot of people recognize that we are making decisions for an entire community. We are going to make mistakes, we are not going to be perfect, but we learn from each one of our shelters.”

The college has provided maintenance and staffing for the shelter and the area opened to evacuees is huge, spread across the campus, with ball fields and arenas open for tent camping and RV parking.

For those who are dreading the thought of sheltering in a cramped room, there are many opportunities to spread out and seek some peace and quiet among the chaos.

“We have plenty of room here. We have not exceeded our indoor sheltering guideline capacity, at either site. We haven’t exceeded our numbers for either shelter site,” says Aguilera.

The shelter is for the most part self-contained, running mostly off of generators so as not to overburden Susanville’s already-stressed electrical system. Massive cooling systems for the inside shelter are also powered by generators. Being self-sufficient the shelter can stay open , as needed, and especially through potential power outages.

There is a process through the State of California where Lassen County can order supplies and services in support of mass care and sheltering. The greater the number of residents at the shelters, the more services can be provided.

This is the single largest sheltering operation in Lassen County’s history, which means that many services have been made available to evacuees at the shelter.

“When we get to this size it allows for different services to be ordered that may not be able to supported locally,” says Aguilera. “We have two laundromats in Susanville and trying to figure out how we have 300 people, in addition those locally, do their laundry in these two laundromats wasn’t feasible.”

Instead, the shelter ordered a laundry trailer with wrap-around services. This trailer has more than 2-dozen high-capacity washers and staff who will wash, fold, bag and return laundry to evacuees. It’s a complete turn-key operation with water, power and staffing supplied as part of the wrap-around services.

Showers and bathrooms, and ADA compliant showers and bathrooms were another service ordered in support of the shelter. Wrap-around services for these facilities include cleaning, waste removal and potable water.

The shelter now also has a regular security presence, 24-hours a day, which is another service ordered to support the shelter.

“Making sure that everybody feels safe and comfortable here is really important for us,” says Aguilera.

Elyn Hudson, who was evacuated from Chester on August 5th calls her experience at the Lassen County shelter, “a blessing.”

“I want to take these people home as my grandchildren,” says Hudson. “They have not only met our needs, but they made us feel safe and secure and we know they are there for problem solving.”

Hudson is staying at the shelter along with her 96-year-old mother.

“She is just doing very well. I was concerned because we had just moved her in with us and I didn’t know about the change and how much that would affect her. She has flourished here.”

On Friday the Plumas County Sheriff’s Department had originally planned to let Chester residents go back to their homes. The plan was changed at the last minute as active fire burned alongside Highway 36 east of Chester.

With fires still burning is Hudson worried about going home? “No,” she says, “they aren’t going to let us go home until its safe.”

Aguilera explains that evacuees are allowed to remain sheltered here as long as there are areas still under an evacuation warning, and a lot of the evacuees want to stay until they know it is completely safe to return home.

“Plumas County should say a big thank you to Lassen County for stepping in when our need was great, and they did a wonderful job. Plumas County needs to know that we had great assistance,” said Hudson.

Chester evacuee Elyn Hudson

The situation is different for Greenville resident Ray Casanova whose house on Wolf Creek Road was a confirmed loss after fierce winds drove the Dixie Fire through the little mountain town on August 8th.

He is a determined man though, with plans to head home, assess the damage and begin to rebuild. He says he will return to Greenville, find what he can salvage and take it all, “one step at a time.”

Casanova, who says the shelter staff is like family, looks to the future and is trying to decide if he wants to put in a double-wide modular or a log cabin on his property when he rebuilds.

“This shelter here has been beautiful. They go out of their way to help you. You got your meals, your bedding and you are allowed to have your pets with you. If you need anything they are right there for you,” said Casanova.

Hopefully this will end up being the single largest mass care and sheltering operation that Lassen County will ever have to support – but it is good to know that in times of need, when we can be of assistance to our neighbors, that we are able to be there for them.

Greenville evacuee Ray Casanova with Director of Community Social Services Jenna Aguilera

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