As the Blue Cut Fire grew this week, more than 80-thousand people were ordered to evacuate their homes. But where did they go?
The Red Cross organizes evacuation centers for those who are displaced, providing basic needs like a bed, three meals a day, and even works with shelters to park pets.
Larry Fortmuller is the public information officer for the Red Cross of Orange County. He has also spent the last 12 years as a volunteer for the organization. Fortmuller has worked on a slew of natural disasters in that time, including Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Sandy.
At the Jessie Turner Community Center in Fontana, nearly 160 evacuees are currently registered. Fortmuller joins Take Two from the site, to discuss the resources in play for people who have had to leave their homes behind.
For the latest updates on the fire, click here.
What’s the scene like at the center?
We’ve found that most of the residents here have jobs. So during the day, they’re out at their jobs, and they tend to come back at 5 or 6 p.m. That’s when the community regrows at the numbers you mentioned.
Being evacuated from a fire has got to be pretty stressful. What’s the mood like for everyone, not just the people who were evacuated, but also the people helping?
It is stressful. The evacuees range from those who, perhaps have lost a home and know that, to those who are waiting to find out, to those who know their home is okay. But what the Red Cross provides, is not only nurses and a doctor who’s here. We’re also providing mental health workers to help people cope with the kind of stresses that they’re undergoing. As volunteers, we tend to work long hours. We tend to have to absorb a lot of frustration that these evacuees feel. But we’re trained well too by the Red Cross. The Red Cross does not send out “green” people and in my experience over the years, that’s pretty effective.
How are the centers used? Do people primarily just check in?
There’s a check-in station here. We try to take down some basic information. We try not to pry, of course because people deserve their privacy. But we try to know where their homes were, what the situation is, contact information. And then we urge them to use our Safe and Well system, which is an online system to register themselves and indicate to relatives and close friends that they’re okay and they’re in a Red Cross shelter. The way that works is, a relative or friend that lives across the country can go to safeandwell.communityos.org if they know the person’s home address which indicates that they are a close friend and they can get the message that’s been left behind that the evacuee is okay.
How much information do these evacuees at the center get about the property they've left behind?
That varies. This has been a fire where there’s been a lot of difficulty getting information. The containment is still relatively modest and because of that, although we do have representatives from the fire here that are prepped and ready to give that information out, so far not a lot of information has been forthcoming.
Is it too early to think about these evacuees long-term concerns?
The longer term concerns are part of the recovery that each of them has to go through. What the Red Cross provides are caseworkers. So we’ll sit down with each individual family, look at their situation. Help them with their insurance needs and any state or federal aid that might be coming their way. Along with the mental health workers we have, we seek to try to provide [evacuees] with practical information. Our job isn’t done when the shelter closes. Our job is to help people get back on their feet and take advantage of all the resources that may be available to them.
What do people with pets do? Can they show up with their pets?
Pets are welcome, but as you can imagine, other residents may have fears or allergies, etc., so we don’t actually allow them inside the shelter. However, we work with animal agencies including animal services and private and public shelters to arrange for pets. During the day, a group of our evacuees pick up their pets [from shelters] and bring them back here to the center and they can hang out outside in the shade and have a small pet community, so that’s another comfort for those folks.
You’ve worked with the Red Cross during several natural disasters during Hurricane Katrina. How does the Red Cross prepare to receive hundreds, sometimes thousands of evacuees?
That’s the beauty of the Red Cross. There’s over 400 chapters across the country with trained individuals. For example, here in San Bernardino, quite a few people [including myself] are here from Orange County to help out. . . If the fires grow, we can rely on the Los Angeles chapter, the San Diego chapter, the Southern California area and neighboring states. For something like Hurricane Katrina, we mobilized volunteers from across the country.
*This interview has been edited for clarity