Iraqi war veteran Greg Stell aggravated a combat injury when an Arizona wildfire suddenly became his mortal enemy.
Days later, on Independence Day, Stell turned to a nurse at the American Red Cross evacuation shelter in Wickenburg, Az., where he and his family are staying. Melody Belloff attended to his swollen foot and listened as he told how he made his narrow escape.
Stell and his wife, Kristina, recently moved to Yarnell, Az., south of Prescott, so their five-year-old daughter, Kairi, could grow up in a small town with her grandmother. On June 30, as a wildfire sent smoke towering over the mountains to the west, Stell climbed to a high point among the boulders that scatter the town to get a look at the dramatic scene.
Suddenly, the wind switched; smoke and flames began racing in his direction. As Stell scrambled toward home, his right foot got caught in the rocks. Wrenching it free, he felt a stab in the old stress fractures he suffered in Iraq. Summoning his combat training, Stell powered through the pain to run home.
A few short hours later, the flames had overtaken 19 firefighters defending the community; residents were evacuating in a rush. The Stell family, like many others, headed south to Wickenburg, where the Red Cross has a shelter; scores of others headed north, to Prescott, where the Red Cross had opened another shelter. There, evacuees can get food, water, emotional support and information.
Each shelter also has a nurse on hand, like Belloff, to handle minor issues like bug bites, irritated eyes or skinned knees. She helps evacuees replace medications left behind or connects them to local resources for needs such as hearing aids or prescription glasses. When she identifies a more serious issue, she refers evacuees to the appropriate care in town.
Belloff reminds both residents and Red Cross staff at the shelter to drink plenty of water and to eat and sleep regularly, the better to cope with the stress of evacuation and uncertainty. She encourages evacuees to do as much as they can for themselves, to strengthen their sense of hope and empowerment.
After wrapping Stell’s swollen foot and reminding him to wear sturdy shoes rather than sandals, she offered him a coloring book designed specifically to help children like his daughter deal with a wildfire, and a Red Cross booklet, “Helping Children Cope with Disaster.”
“I try to listen to what people are saying, to their whole situation,” Belloff said. “I tell people, life is like running from an active volcano. If you trip and fall, the Red Cross will reach down and help you up. We can’t carry you, but we’ll help you run.”