South Louisiana disaster relief workers have experience with many different kinds of emergencies, but the Colorado wildfires will send them home with new perspective.
The High Park wildfire, in the mountains west of Fort Collins in Larimer County, Colo., began with a lightning strike and was discovered June 9. The Waldo Canyon forest fire broke out June 23 about four miles northwest of Colorado Springs.
While the High Park fire continues to smolder, it was declared 100 percent contained on June 30 after burning 87,250 acres and destroying more than 250 homes, according to media reports.
The Waldo Canyon fire, the most destructive in Colorado state history, has burned about 18,247 acres, caused more than 36,000 residents to evacuate, destroyed at least 346 homes and is projected to be 100 percent contained sometime Saturday, officials have said.
“In south Louisiana, we’ve responded to hurricanes, oil spills, floods, water and wind. Never fire,” said David Aguillard, executive director for Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Baton Rouge.
Aguillard was asked by Catholic Charities USA to use his experience from prior disasters to provide technical support and serve as a communications coordinator in Colorado Springs.
“They frequently tap us because we have so much disaster experience,” Aguillard said.
In fact, Aguillard said, he already knew many of the national-level responders he’s working with in Colorado, including one of the Federal Emergency Management Agency representatives, from his work during Hurricane Katrina.
The kind of eerie devastation wrought by the wildfires has been far less familiar, he said.
“A lone house standing in the middle of scenes that remind me of pictures from Atlanta after the Civil War,” he said. “Red tomatoes sitting on a bush in the middle of an ashen gray and black, stinking landscape.
“It almost seems to have an intent, an evil purpose of its own, the way it selects a house to burn and leaves a clean line of greenery untouched,” he said.
With such stark contrasts from one house to the next, residents’ needs must be assessed on a much smaller, more individual scale.
Wildfires also differ in the way they disperse a population, said Jonathan Hammett, an employee with the South Louisiana Region of Red Cross, who lives in Baton Rouge.
“Not as many people needed to seek a public shelter because they were able to stay with family and friends,” Hammett said. “For each family in a neighborhood affected by the fire and evacuation, odds were high that grandma or a sister didn’t live in the same evacuation zone, and the family could just go and stay there,” he said.
Thursday night, for example, there were only 60 wildfire evacuees staying in Red Cross shelters in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and Montana combined, spokeswoman Nancy Malone said.
In a typical hurricane scenario, a much larger area would have to be evacuated, sending everyone looking for shelter, Hammett said.
The more immediate needs are for food distribution, as well as items to help residents with their cleanup efforts, Malone said.
Red Cross has sent more than 11,000 relief items, including rakes, shovels and gloves for residents returning to their homes, and helped deliver more than 45,000 meals and snacks across the state, Malone said.
In Denver, where the organization has set up a headquarters between the High Park and Waldo Canyon fires, Hammett is helping to coordinate efforts with other community service and nonprofit groups to meet the needs.
“Today, for example, I’m trying to figure out which of our partners is best able to receive an in-kind donation from Sports Authority for a truckload of coolers, sleeping bags and camping equipment,” Hammett said Thursday evening. “It’s my job to find out who can store that large of a shipment while we’re working to get it distributed.”
Hundreds of Red Cross staff and volunteers, including a handful from Louisiana, are working with groups such as Adventist Community Services, Salvation Army, Southern Baptist Disaster Relief and Samaritan’s Purse to meet the residents’ needs in terms of food distribution, basic supplies and health services, Hammett said.
Hammett’s experiences in Colorado will shape the work he does back home, developing partnerships between Red Cross and local churches, student groups and businesses to recruit shelter teams for a hurricane event, he said.
“I now know what type of things I need to be ensuring are in place to make disaster relief operations down home run more smoothly,” he said.
The wildfires also have reinforced the notion that disaster recovery is not just local, but state-to-state and national.
“People in this very community reached out and opened their homes to those displaced by Katrina. Now several thousand of them are left homeless,” Aguillard said. “They’re our neighbors. They’re our neighbors who helped us, and we should help them.”
“We have so many volunteers from other places that come to help us. It’s really important that Louisiana give back,” Hammett said.
Help Colorado Now, a partnership between the Colorado Division of Emergency Management and Colorado Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster, provides information on ways to get involved in the relief efforts at http://helpcolo