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Red Cross fights fire despair with ‘help and hope’

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Dave Schreiner of Kansas and Kathy Catania of San Diego, California talk about client needs at the client casework desk of the Red Cross headquarters in the Pioneer Middle School cafeteria.

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WENATCHEE — Staff and volunteers of the American Red Cross raced last week to North Central Washington to form what group leaders believe is one of the largest disaster relief forces in the region’s history.

Emergency operations for Okanogan County’s Carlton Complex Fire and other blazes near Leavenworth and Entiat drew more 210 Red Cross experts from around the country to help deliver food, water, clothes, shelter, medicine, communications and other items and services to residents burned-out or displaced by raging wildfires.

This is unique, maybe unprecedented for this area,” said Red Cross spokeswoman Megan Snow. “We only ramp to this level when the disaster ramps to this level.”

Scores of Red Cross specialists — many veterans of relief efforts for Oklahoma tornadoes, the Japanese tsunami, hurricanes Katrina and Sandy — have set up a bustling operations center in the cafeteria of Pioneer Middle School.

Power cords and computer cables criss-cross the floor. Determined staffers walk briskly with clipboards. Volunteers check spreadsheets and flow charts to give directions into headsets.

The spontaneous headquarters — it sprang to life Wednesday — is where strategies are formed and orders given to guide scores of field volunteers and staffers. They provide on-the-ground counseling, health care, supplies and emergency help to fire victims — from finding valuables in knee-deep ash to hauling livestock to greener pastures to getting replacement dentures for those vaporized by the firestorm.

Help and hope is what we take out to the field,” said Nicolle LaFleur, executive director of the Apple Valley and North Cascades Chapters of the American Red Cross.

Relief for local wildfires has been a massive undertaking, said LaFleur, that required reaching out for Red Cross’ global resources. “Our local volunteers are incredibly dedicated,” she said, “but we couldn’t have done this by ourselves. We don’t have the staffing. We don’t have the technical skills or equipment.”

What locals do have in abundance, LaFleur said, is expert knowledge of the area. “The names of towns, mountains, valleys, creeks. The roads and trails. How to get from one place to another. They have these maps in their heads.”

And locals know the people and area organizations that can get things done, said LaFleur. At Public Affairs, one of 19 makeshift emergency departments tucked into the middle school cafeteria, local residents help guide the media, set up public meetings, give advice on where to take and store donations and counsel community centers on serving residents in fire-scarred towns.

These folks know people around here who can get things done,” said LaFleur. “The Red Cross never wants to step in and take over a community. Our job is support rebuilding. That’s what we do best.”

In this crisis, the Red Cross has set up a handful of shelters to provide food and sleeping space for displaced residents or tired relief workers. The group has also opened service centers where residents can receive counseling, medical attention, replacement medications or guidance from caseworkers on where to begin, how to re-start life.

Cathy Click, at the Disaster Health Services table, said she’s helping organize volunteer nurses, emergency medical technicians and medical equipment suppliers in the fire-ravaged areas. Her crews offers medical help, of course, but also provides easy availability of much-needed meds, walkers, wheelchairs and other personal items.

Sometimes the best help we can give is the simplest,” she said. “Provide new eyeglasses for a fire victim, and it can change their world.”

Reach Mike Irwin at 509-665-1179 or . Read his blog Everyday Business or follow him on Twitter at @MikeIrwinWW.

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