On March 26, the Lower North Fork Fire broke out near Conifer, just west of the Denver metro area. I happened to be at the Mile High Chapter of the American Red Cross in Denver for a meeting and was quickly recruited into working at the incident.
This fire resulted in the evacuation of more than 900 homes in Jefferson County. The Red Cross quickly opened two evacuation centers and then transitioned into one shelter that evening. Red Cross workers operated the shelter all week, as residents remained displaced from their homes and firefighters battled the blaze.
I witnessed firsthand what the Red Cross means to someone affected by a disaster.
Many people think of a shelter as just that: a roof, some cots and a hot meal. But a Red Cross shelter offers much more.
Many times, residents who have been evacuated from their homes come to a Red Cross shelter but don’t stay the night. They often stay with friends or family but turn to us for a meal, a hot cup of coffee, much-needed information and sometimes a shoulder to cry on.
During the Lower North Fork Fire, that proved especially true. Each day, well more than 100 residents visited the shelter for food, information, support and to connect with friends and neighbors.
During a wildfire, uncertainty rules: From hour to hour, residents don’t know if their homes are still in the path of danger or even if they’ve been destroyed. The Red Cross always has mental-health workers at its shelters to help support people through the fear and uncertainty. Also, fellow evacuees often find comfort in each other’s presence, which makes a Red Cross shelter a gathering place, a town hall and a second home.
I saw firsthand the compassionate service that Red Cross volunteers provide to anyone affected by a disaster. Our community saw this same compassion during the Missionary Ridge fire in 2002, when hundreds of local residents were displaced for weeks. Our community should be secure in the knowledge that the Red Cross would step up again in the face of another disaster. We have agreements in place with many facilities in Southwest Colorado that would allow us to open a shelter quickly and provide a safe place to evacuate to.
Even after most residents were allowed to return home, the Red Cross maintained a presence by transitioning to a recovery center. Side by side with other organizations providing resources and assistance for recovery, Red Cross workers helped residents develop recovery plans, tended to their emotional needs and helped connect them with community resources.
The Lower North Fork Fire provided me with the opportunity to see the positive impact the Red Cross has in communities across Colorado. All of our services are made possible by the generosity of our donors. We depend on you to allow us to continue to serve during a disaster – whether it is in our local community, our state or around the nation.
Cindi Shank is executive director of the Southwest Colorado chapter of the American Red Cross.