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Red Cross Planning Drought Aid In New Way, Fires Plus Dry Wells

Jun 17, 2015

With summer right around the corner and triple digit temperatures here to stay the American Red Cross of Central California is gearing up for a hot forest fire season. The organization is a first responder for small scale problems like power outages and large scale disasters like floods, fires and tornadoes. But as FM89’s Ezra David Romero reports the agency’s aid for the first time is extending beyond disaster centers and into the arena of drought relief for people with dry wells.

“Alright, the first group of neighbors is coming in at you guys," says Katrina Poitras with Red Cross. 

About 50 volunteers are in the process of training at a mock evacuation in the Central California town of Madera on how to respond in the moment of crisis, like a forest fire burning in and around a mountain community.

One of the volunteers is acting like she's a mother with a newborn baby in need of formula. 

“Hi, I don’t have no food for the baby. This baby won’t stop crying. What do I do?" says a mother with her baby. 
"My baby needs soy milk,” says the mother.
“We’re waiting on the milk. It will arrive here shortly," says the nurse. 

Each of the volunteers is given a role to play at the evacuation center for the three hour training. Some are ill residents. Others are drug addicts or late on a dialysis treatment because of the fire.

“I’m feeling really sick," says a woman acting like she needs to go on dialysis. 
“Transportation is on the way to take you to the hospital for your dialysis," a mock nurse says.
“OK," the dialysis patient says. 
“I am going to figure out what is taking so long," says the nurse.

The volunteers must figure out how to quickly help these people in distress. Katrina Potrias leads evacuation trainings and disaster centers across the region.

"When an evacuation center opens up you get a flood of people. When the Courtney fire broke last year we ended up with 80 people at the evacuation center within an hour to two hours. When you're trying to push that many people through on a registration it can get crazy." - Katrina Poitras

The group set up their first forest fire related center a few weeks ago when the Fox fire hit the mountain community of Mariposa. With the lack of rain and snow the forest is drier than normal and the Red Cross is on edge over forest conditions created by the drought. More fires for the Red Cross means more evacuation centers, which means additional volunteers and need for resources.

ROMERO: “Are we preparing for the worst to happen this summer?”
POTRIAS: “Absolutely, we’ve positioned water throughout the region and getting as many volunteers trained so when the call does come we are able to respond.”

This year the Red Cross is not only helping those affected by forest fires when it comes to drought relief. Jessica Piffero is the Red Cross Regional Director for communications. S he covers eight counties from the Central Coast to the Sierra Nevada.

Credit Ezra David Romero / Valley Public Radio

"First we have the drought, which is drying out the foliage, the forests and the surrounding communities," says Piffero. "That can provide fuel for the fire for the wildfire season. Once the wildfire season has died down then we have the possibility for landslides.”

What this means is that when a county can’t bring water for whatever reason to a resident with a dry well, then a Red Cross volunteer will deliver drinking water to that home. 

"We're having to look at this in a new way of how do we respond to this. It's truly been a partnership all the way around because not one agency can handle it. It's going to take everybody to do this." - Katrina Poitras

To receive Red Cross water the person must have tried to get help from every avenue possible, it must have come as a surprise and they must not be able to afford water.  

“A lot of them financially just can’t," Poitras says. "I mean you’re talking a gallon per person per day. Even at 99 cents a gallon if you have a larger family that can be quite expensive very quickly.”

The water delivery is significant because it’s the first time the Red Cross has been asked to help provide water because of the drought. It’s also an added load for the group.

“We’re having to look at this in a new way of how do we respond to this," Poitras says. "It’s truly been a partnership all the way around because not one agency can handle it. It’s going to take everybody to do this.”

Most of the residents the organization has helped so far live in Tulare County where over 1,200 of the state’s 1,800 private well failures are. However, as temperatures soar the group expects to distribute emergency water across the region.