By D.B. Lewis | The Columbia Press, Warrenton, Oregon
What do Martin Sheen, the water lady and Army veteran George Everts have in common?
They all volunteered at Red Cross emergency shelters crowded with evacuees from California's largest-ever wildfire disaster.
The Thomas Fire, which started in early December, continued to burn this week after destroying nearly 300,000 acres.
It started in Santa Barbara County and quickly spread east to Ventura County in just a few hours. On Christmas Day, there were 2,500 firefighters still struggling to put it out.
By the time Everts, a Red Cross volunteer from Astoria, arrived for his deployment, Martin Sheen had delivered a truckload of emergency supplies and a local citizen was bringing in $125 worth of bottled water every day.
Known to volunteers simply as the Water Lady, she showed up with her donation each day for 20 days.
Everts completed Red Cross shelter training in December 2016 and was on the list for Puerto Rico when the California fires began growing. He got an email requesting his deployment there instead on Dec. 5, followed the next day by a phone call to make travel arrangements and run through a lengthy checklist ensuring his fitness.
Two days later, he was at the Red Cross temporary regional headquarters in Camarillo, along with fellow volunteers Sue from Beaverton and David and Judy from Indiana. They were soon whisked away to their assignment, the 35-bed Red Cross shelter set up at Oxnard College.
Beds and personal storage for evacuees lined the walls of the campus gymnasium. An elderly couple came with their dog, Scrappy, who interacted with everyone and brought some light to the otherwise gloomy situation.
Although the shelter was west of the blaze, strong winds blew in so much smoke that doors and windows were shut tight while heavy-duty air scrubbers ran 24/7 in the center of the floor.
Everts helped manage the tons of supplies and donations arriving day and night. He had free time after each 12-hour work shift and used it to visit nearby places remembered from his childhood growing up in the same area. Nights were back at the shelter in his own sleeping bag, a part of his personal emergency "go pack," originally meant for deployment to Puerto Rico. The motto "Be Prepared" applies to many circumstances.
By Dec.13, the Thomas Fire had burned 273,000 acres, destroying neighborhoods and entire communities. It generated 60 mph winds, knocked out power lines, blew over trees and ripped roofs from houses, some of which had not burned.
The devastation patterns were sometimes bizarre. On some streets, every home was burned except one lucky one. It was just the opposite on other streets. In one driveway, a motorcycle was burned to a hulk while 3 feet away, a plastic garbage can was untouched.
Everts, after a week at his shelter post, was redeployed to a Disaster Emergency Supplies team. Their job was to drive through neighborhoods distributing free relief supplies to returning evacuees: blankets, water, food and "sifters," handmade by Red Cross volunteers. The sifters are for sifting through rubble in hopes of salvaging something precious.
Everts' roving team came upon an elderly couple returning to their destroyed home. As the couple unlocked their gate, a young fireman approached with tears in his eyes. He wanted to apologize that he and his crew had been unable to save their home. Three trucks had sprayed thousands of gallons of water on the house while the surrounding neighborhood burned.
"We really, really tried as hard as we could," the fireman said. '
His volunteer deployment complete, Everts returned to Astoria just in time for Christmas.
"I could hardly believe the generosity of the people of Ventura County," he said of the people he met in his childhood home area.