Story by Michele Maki, American Red Cross
I was visiting the Red Cross Client Service Center recently in Ojai, California where Red Cross volunteers were assisting the impacted residents following the devastating Thomas Fire. The acrid smell of smoke still lingered in the air on this otherwise pleasant, sunny day. As I approached the service center, I was met by several volunteers who said I should meet with a Red Cross volunteer who had a remarkable story to tell.
They drove me up into the blackened hills to meet her and along the way I saw mile after mile of charred hillsides and ash. There were ribbons hanging in front of some properties to indicate that this had been a home that had burned to the ground. The fire had burned so hot that there was nothing but ash in many places. In others, green deciduous trees stood untouched.
When we arrived at Bettye Berg’s property she pointed out where the homes of her neighbors once stood and shared her experience with the Thomas Fire.
Berg and her husband had been enjoying a dinner out when her son called her concerned because there was a brushfire in nearby Santa Paula. The Santa Ana winds were gusting, and he was concerned for their safety. She and her husband decided to head back home immediately. They found several roads blocked but after several hours, they managed to make their way through so they could get home to evacuate.
They arrived home to find embers and ash raining down on the entire neighborhood. They rushed into the house to grab the important papers and their beloved puppy, “Buddy” and ran for their RV. In less than the 15 minutes it took to grab and go, Berg witnessed several of their neighbors’ homes explode into flames. “I saw what looked like a cyclone of fire hover over one of the homes and drop down on top of it. It was like an explosion of fire,” she remembered. “It was terrifying.”
As they drove down the winding road, the wind was blowing so hard that it was blowing flames across the road. “We were driving through the flames.” Berg recalled. “It was hot, almost unbearable. But we made it out. We knew after what we had witnessed that our home was gone. All our neighbors’ homes were on fire, and we just knew ours was too.”
Bettye Berg has been a volunteer with the Red Cross for over 30 years, serving during Katrina, Sandy and countless other disasters. “I never, ever, thought I would be a client in need of services from the Red Cross. Never,” she said. She and her husband arrived safely at the Red Cross shelter and checked in as evacuees. “I now understand a little more of what they feel - that uncertainty, that fear. I’ll never forget it. It’s very different to be on the other side of this,” Berg recalled. She and her husband parked their RV and Berg wasted no time. “I had to do something. I knew I could help. There were hundreds of people showing up that needed help, so I pitched in.”
That night 837 people checked into the shelter. Many drove their RVs in, there were about 45 of those. For 6 days, Berg helped manage the shelter.
“There were many people there with special needs and it was a very challenging task, addressing these needs and leading the other volunteers, but Bettye made sure they were seen by the nurse and their needs met,” commented Spiritual Care Team member Norita Cassou. “Nothing escaped her. She made sure everyone who needed attention, got it, even the evacuees in the RVs.”
“I knew they would need to dump their tanks. They’d been here 6 days, and as an owner of an RV, I thought this needs to be addressed too,” Berg said. So, she put a call out to someone she knows in Public Works and they came up with a solution. “You might say, I have friends in low places too!” she laughed.
Berg described returning to her neighborhood. “When it came time, the California Highway Patrol was going to caravan us in for one hour to grab anything we could that might have survived the fire, and then get out. I just knew our home was gone, but there was this little, tiny hope. That ride back up the mountain was the longest 20 minutes of my life. Ash, charred trees and all my dear neighbors’ homes were gone. Then we came around the corner and our home was still standing. I couldn’t believe it, even the trees were still there. I don’t know why or how. I have no explanation. But I’m so very, very grateful.”
She pulled her beloved puppy, Buddy, close to her heart and nuzzled him. “I won’t be bothering with Christmas decorations this year. This is enough,” she said. A second RV survived and Berg has given it to her neighbor to live in while they rebuild.
After helping people in need for years, the Thomas Fire led to Bettye Berg being the one who needed help. But even during a time of such uncertainty for her, this Red Cross volunteer pitched in and made sure people in her shelter got the help they need.