The response of the Red Cross to wildfires that have swept across California and forced thousands of people from their homes has been condemned by locals, who have formed their own volunteer corps to help victims uprooted by catastrophe.
Viri Agopoff, a Middletown high school graduate and Calistoga resident, said she organized relief efforts after she and others concluded the Red Cross was slow to deliver assistance. “We were frustrated by the initial reaction from the Red Cross, so we are happy to help out,” she said.
Hundreds of locals from the area have come out to support evacuees forced from towns affected by the Valley Fire in northern California. By Thursday, the fire had left over 74,000 acres burned, at least three people dead and others missing. In Calistoga, thousands are waiting to return to their towns, hoping a home will still be standing.
Shortly after the evacuation occurred Saturday afternoon, Agopoff’s team set up a Facebook page, #ValleyFireVolunteersCalistoga, prompting hundreds of locals to arrive at a nearby camp to offer their assistance early on Sunday morning.
“The Red Cross was not welcoming to people who needed help,” Agopoff alleged. “When we got here, there were no batteries, no tape, no sharpies and they were turning away donations.” Agopoff said she and others went out and bought toothbrushes and toothpaste for the evacuees when they realized little was being provided.
Santa Rosa resident and volunteer Andrea Guzman agreed the response was slow. “I heard reports that people needed help and there wasn’t enough assistance going on, so I came out,” she said.
Guzman said she was pleased to see the response, but added: “I would have expected much more organization from those who have experience doing this”.
Middletown native Clint Barber, who arrived at the fairground shelter on Tuesday morning, said that a number of his friends evacuated because of the fires had requested toothpaste, towels and other basic items. “We all are doing what we can,” he said, “and I know that things will get in order, but it seems the first few days a lot people didn’t get the basics that they needed.”
Red Cross media spokesperson Pooja Trivedi said she could understand the frustration over what locals perceive as a slow response, but insisted the relief organization, which responds to natural disasters across the world, was following guidelines that prioritize the construction of shelters.
“It is not our intention to ignore anyone,” Trivedi said on Thursday. She conceded: “Certainly we might not have had everything right away.”
She agreed with Agopoff’s assertion that the Napa County Fairgrounds, where shelters have now been erected, was initially lacking supplies and manpower, but argued it was largely due to having already maintained a shelter in nearby Kelseyville, where hundreds had gathered late on Saturday after fleeing the fires. At that shelter, blankets and other supplies were readily available. “But then we realize that more and more people were coming and we needed a bigger facility,” Trivedi said.
She added: “I can understand why some other volunteers may feel that we were slow, but there are processes we must follow in order to maintain a facility for potentially weeks.”
Cynthia Shaw, the regional communications director for the Red Cross of California Northwest, praised the community: “In disasters it is never one organization that does everything, local communities are [a] big part of the response.”
She said there are currently only two paid Red Cross staff at the Fairgrounds and the rest are volunteers, bolstered by an additional 38 Red Cross volunteers, running the shelters 24 hours a day.
Agopoff, however, said problems persisted until as recently as Wednesday. Her team had gone out to get essential items, including tarps ahead of rain that day, after discovering the Red Cross did not have the equipment. “It was slow,” she said. “That’s certain.”
Trivedi said this often happens in the immediate stages of a crisis and as the Red Cross gathers personnel and equipment there can be a void, but she added that by Wednesday morning, the shelters in Calistoga and Kelseyville were at full capacity.
Whatever frustrations may have existed over the Red Cross’s response, hundreds of volunteers are out, cooking food and helping those evacuated from their homes. Youth old enough to help are also coming to the camp to help, urged on by their parents’ example. “It was my mom’s idea,” Windsor high school sophomore Kayli said. “For me, I like helping people and making people happy.”
Her friend, fellow sophomore Olivia, who also declined to give her surname, said she saw that people were “thankful for all the help”. The pair were permitted to miss school in order to assist the evacuees who have made it to Calistoga.