10 Years Later: Local Red Crossers Remember the Cedar Fire

American Red Cross San Diego/Imperial Valley Counties Cedar Fire Relief
When you’re stretched to those limits, you somehow find a way to do it. Everyone steps forward to help at the time you need them most. It was a major test and I’d like to think we passed that test pretty well. - Gayle Falkenthal, Red Cross volunteer

Friday, October 25, 2013 marks the tenth anniversary of the devastating 2003 Cedar Fire where the American Red Cross provided shelter, food, water, supplies and emotional support to thousands of San Diegans – thanks to the generosity of donors and strong network of compassionate volunteers and partners.

Gayle Falkenthal, a longtime Red Cross volunteer and Scripps Ranch resident, was one of the first volunteers to respond and recalled the moment when she got the call at 1 a.m. to deploy to a shelter, “Little did I know that four days later I would finally come home – it was quite an experience,” she said.

Gayle soon found herself in a similar situation to the clients she was serving. “I arrived at our main shelter in Ramona at two or three [o’clock] in the morning… and about seven or eight hours later my own neighborhood was evacuated, which has to be about 30-40 miles to the east,” she said. “Nobody had any idea that the fire would move so fast.”

Fortunately, Gayle’s house didn’t suffer any damage but others throughout the county were not as lucky. The Cedar Fire scorched a total of 273,246 acres and destroyed 2,820 structures. Within San Diego city limits, it burned 28, 676 acres and destroyed 313 structures, becoming the largest fire in California's history.

In the days after the fire struck, trained Red Cross caseworkers met one-on-one with those affected to help find new places to live, identify available social service programs and provide financial and emotional support, playing a pivotal role as victims worked to put their lives back together.

Debra Lorenzen described one of her most memorable personal experiences as a caseworker when she visited the Alpine area to meet with clients. “Unless you’ve lost absolutely everything I don’t think you can have a real good idea of how that feels. People were devastated; they were looking through piles of ash to find any little treasure they could keep -even if it was a broken saucer for a teacup or a ring that was half-melted– just anything they could keep.”

Years later, Debra continued her involvement with people displaced from their lives and homes, providing long-term recovery assistance from the Red Cross. “People of San Diego and California, and probably around the country donated funds so we’d be able to help the clients get back into their homes.” She added, “It was a very emotional thing for people. Whenever we were able to get a house done and someone was able to go back home, we’d always have a dedication ceremony. Every agency that assisted would come and we would celebrate the new home. There were always tears of joy. It was really a beautiful thing.”

Recovery and rebuilding are undertakings that address the unique needs of individuals, families and communities reeling from disaster. In contrast to immediate response, much of the recovery process is less visible.

This milestone anniversary of the Cedar Fire should be a reminder that the unthinkable can happen and we all must do our part to get our homes, businesses and communities prepared.

Recently the Red Cross along with key partners announced Prepare San Diego, a four-year regional resiliency initiative driven by the Red Cross to help prepare the San Diego region for human emergencies and disasters. Through Prepare San Diego, the Red Cross brings together key business and community leaders from the region to create a sustainable network that encourages preparedness, carries out response and recovery plans, and strives for resiliency in the face of disaster.

Based on research we know that only 7% of households in San Diego County are prepared for a disaster – that's not good enough," said Tony Young, CEO of the local Red Cross. "Prepare San Diego is a single integrated program that brings the entire community together, shoulder-to-shoulder, to make preparedness a priority. We must look at everything through a preparedness lens and it's yet to happen as a collective effort until now."

Kat Greenhill, a 50-year Red Cross volunteer and logistics manager during the Cedar Fire now serves as the Disaster Services Volunteer Lead and witnessed the growth in how the local Red Cross responds to the disasters. “As an agency we have grown tremendously in our capabilities to deliver services and our training. We’ve always been trained, but we’re more technological than we were back then with our Chapter Disaster Operations Center.”

When asked her thoughts on being prepared for disasters, Red Crosser, Vicki Holland stated, “The chapter itself is more prepared. We have people who are extremely well-trained, we have better resources and I think the people in the community understand preparedness more so now.”

We learned from the Cedar Fire and other large disasters that disaster preparedness is a community effort; it can only be effective if it has the full backing and power of the entire San Diego region. Learn how to get prepared and trained to respond to disasters as a Red Cross volunteer at www.preparesandiego.org.

As we remember the devastation of the 2003 Cedar Fire, it's important to know the Red Cross relies on the public to support relief efforts of large and small disasters all year long. Please make a financial donation to support our ongoing disaster relief by going to www.redcross.org/sandiego or call 858-309-1278.