By: Gordon Williams, Northwest Region Volunteer
It’s not unusual for a Red Cross volunteer to get a frightening glimpse of fire and smoke while bringing relief to the victims of a raging wildfire. But for volunteer Joyce Cabildo of Medical Lake, WA, the Gray wildfire that burned out of control near Spokane in mid-August brought smoke and flame much too close for comfort.
Joyce and husband Ben outran the fire to reach safety, but their home in Medical Lake burned to the ground. They were just one of many households to suffer great loss in the Spokane County wildfires.
The Gray fire began on August 18, 2023, and burned more than 10,000 acres. At almost the same time the Gray fire broke out, a second blaze — the Oregon Road fire — started, also in Spokane County. Between the two fires, more than 21,000 acres were burned and hundreds of structures were destroyed.
For Joyce and Ben, the fire day dawned without incident. The fires were burning, but they seemed far enough away to not seem like a danger. But the heat had been intense — more 100 degrees for three straight days – drying out trees and grass, making conditions ideal for the fire to spread. Then winds began to pick up, becoming strong enough that helicopters, which took water from Medical Lake to pour on the fire, were having trouble staying aloft. As the winds picked up, they began driving the flames. When Joyce stepped outside, she realized she could smell smoke.
Next came phone calls alerting them to the danger and suggesting they should prepare for a possible order to evacuate. Ben gathered up important papers and Joyce made sure she had the couple’s two dogs under control. Then, around 2:30 p.m. on August 18, came the order to evacuate. Because they had prepared, both were able to leave home within minutes — Ben in one car with their vital papers and possessions, and Joyce in a second car with the dogs. Then came the race to safety. Joyce says she realized just how much danger they were in when they kept passing burning houses and trees.
“I was very scared when we came around a corner and saw trees burning,” she says.
Fire came so close that at one point Ben thought his car’s tires were on fire. However, both cars finally made it to the home of Joyce’s sister. That's where they learned that their own home had been affected by the fire. When they were able to return home, they found the dwelling a total loss.
“There was nothing left,” Joyce says. “It burned from top to bottom.”
Joyce says returning to her fire-gutted home was traumatic in the extreme. Of the 20 or so homes in her Medical Lake community, only four or five survived.
“The houses were gone, and the trees were badly charred,” she says.
Thankfully, her neighbors were all able to evacuate safely. Even one neighbor's cats, who panicked and fled their home through an open door when the wildfire broke out, eventually returned home safely.
Among the most ironic moments of the day, Joyce said, was receiving a call from the Red Cross she was about to evacuate, asking if she was available to join the response to the fires.
“They asked if I was available to work at a shelter,” she says.
That's because Joyce has been a Red Cross volunteer since August 2020. She is a trained nurse who is still working, and volunteers in her free time. Given her schedule, she isn’t free to deploy to disaster scenes. What she does do is contact Red Cross clients to see if they have medical concerns that must be addressed.
“I ask them if they have any medical needs,” she says. “I try to replace any medical equipment they need. I try to get any prescriptions filled.”
These calls typically take place after a family has experienced a disaster like a home fire or wildfire.
“I call as soon after the fire as I can,” Joyce says. “I try to get as complete a picture as possible.”
When she isn’t satisfied with what the client has told her, she will seek the information elsewhere. That may involve calling the client’s doctor. “I keep calling until I know the person is okay,” she says.
Once she has collected the information, Joyce follows up by providing what it is the client needs.
But this time, Joyce experienced a disaster through a different lens. This time, she herself was the one who lost her home. Since the fire, the couple is living with Joyce’s sister while they decide on what to do next. Their home is totally gone, with only a staircase still standing. When they reviewed the history recorded by their door camera, they realized the fire had consumed their house within minutes of their leaving. The dogs are safe now, also staying with Joyce’s sister. But they remain confused and skittish.
Little remains of the community where they lived for years — many homes are gone and the residents are scattered far and wide. Coming to terms with the degree of loss is not easy. “This was a whole community devastated by the fire,” Joyce says. “We are trying to absorb that.”
The American Red Cross was on the ground immediately as the Gray and Oregon Road fires broke out on August 18. Multiple shelters were opened to provide care for evacuating residents. Click here to learn more about how the Red Cross responded, or click here to hear from clients who sought shelter with the Red Cross.