By: Erin Gartner, American Red Cross Volunteer
Going through two devastating wildfires on opposite sides of the ocean wasn’t what Angie Johnson had in mind for her summer vacation.
Johnson was expecting a mellow week in Hawaii when she stepped off the plane in Maui in August. Her recently widowed uncle owns a timeshare on the island and had invited Johnson and her nephew to stay with him. They planned to spread the ashes of his late wife, whose favorite place in the world was Maui.
The solitude lasted two days. On the third day, Johnson ran an errand and found herself driving through a wildfire that later devastated the nearby town of Lahaina. Her 17-year-old nephew was with her, but her elderly uncle was still at his timeshare a few miles north— and he couldn’t get out. Officials had closed the only road in and out of the area.
“People began stopping along the road, and I was like, ‘What are you doing? Just drive!’” she said. “Branches were coming down around us because of the wind, and we were seeing fire. There were no alarms, and no one knew what was going on.”
Internet access was out, and cellphone service was spotty at best. Hotels in the area were packed. Scared and exhausted, Johnson and her nephew spent the night sleeping in her car in a Walmart parking lot. The next morning, she heeded the advice of a fellow evacuee and headed to the local American Red Cross shelter.
“I walked in, and I just started bawling,” Johnson said. “All the people there, the volunteers, were so nice. I just felt safe.”
She and her nephew volunteered to sleep in her car for the next two nights in the shelter’s parking lot so local residents could sleep inside the shelter, which was at a local high school. But she did take advantage of the shelter’s showers and free toiletries and services.
“They had so much information for us. There was a board showing who was missing, who’d been found. And there were other people to talk to who were going through the same thing,” Johnson said.
Her uncle finally arrived on a bus for evacuees the next day. He stayed inside the Red Cross shelter that night, and volunteers helped him feel comfortable after several days of not knowing what was going on or what to do.
Once her uncle was rested, Johnson said she and her nephew decided to head home. On the plane back to Washington state, Johnson said she was able to think about everything that had happened.
“That’s when I decided that I could do something, that I could volunteer,” Johnson said. “Just seeing how capable the volunteers were at the shelter. I thought, ‘I can hold someone’s hand. I can help organize.’ I don’t know why I haven’t done it before.”
That feeling was solidified when she returned home to eastern Washington, where just two days later, wildfires broke out. Her home was spared by the fire, but her best friend and many others lost their homes.
“That’s when I signed up to volunteer,” Johnson said. “And even now, Red Cross volunteers are calling me to make sure we’re safe and adjusting well after our experience in Hawaii.”
She added: “I’m just grateful we’re all okay, and that we’re home.”