By Marcy Stamper
Experts in managing emergencies such as a massive wildfire know they have to be prepared for collateral events that radiate out from the central crisis.
“The donations are an event in themselves,” said Mike Dingle, emergency management specialist for Douglas County, who was assisting Okanogan County Emergency Management last week.
Indeed, local social-service agencies, international relief organizations like the Red Cross, and independent groups that have sprung up in the wake of the fire are all trying to coordinate the deluge of responses to assist fire victims.
“We’re working hard to consolidate and coordinate relief efforts,” said Adrianne Moore, interim executive director at Room One. The groups are trying to draw on existing expertise and to avoid duplicating efforts, but that in itself is a mammoth task.
With a break in the most critical emergencies, evacuations lifted, and the restoration of most power and phone service, Room One and groups including The Cove, Aero Methow Rescue Service and Carlton Complex Assistance Network have been trying to devise an effective plan to meet the needs of the many hundreds affected by the fire.
Room One plans to help people navigate the recovery systems and serve as a clearinghouse. It will also assist people in applying for benefits and registering fire losses with the state assessor.
The Cove has expanded its hours to assist people who have lost a home or property, lost income during the fire, or had additional expenses for gas for generators, said Cove Executive Director Glenn Schmekel.
Many of the people The Cove typically serves already exist on a tenuous financial footing, said Schmekel. In just two days The Cove took in 32 new applications for its Aid and Assistance program, which can help people with utility bills or rent. Schmekel expects the needs covered by the program to double or triple this year.
Local groups are also planning to hire a disaster case manager. “The person would provide wraparound care for people affected by the fires; for example, from loss of housing or income,” said Moore. Details of that position are still being worked out.
Room One has also been in discussion with TwispWorks about assisting local businesses affected by the fire. “Small businesses have been hugely affected and will continue to be for the next few years,” said Moore.
A flood of donations
A more-visible challenge is dealing with the mounds of goods donated by individuals and groups looking for a way to help. The flood of donated items has been so great that the Okanogan County Sheriff’s Department issued this statement on Monday: “Effective immediately, donations will no longer be accepted for victims of the Carlton Complex wildfires. Items already collected will be moved to a central location, and later distributed to members of the community.”
Local social service agencies also circulated a reminder on their resource list: “NO MORE GOODS DONATIONS! We are inundated and bringing in outside goods negatively impacts our local economy.”
The Cascade Bible Church in Twisp has converted the adjacent Master’s Christian School building to a warehouse, with food, toiletries, bedding and phones for fire victims. Volunteers from around the state were sorting through items, while others were interviewing people about their needs and distributing the items.
Many people who left town are now returning to assess the damage to their homes. Others are still doubled up with friends and family. “That need [for housing] will be real in the coming weeks, but we don’t know what it will look like yet,” said Moore.
This week the Okanogan County Housing Authority had 19 vouchers available for low-income families displaced by the fire.
The Cascade Bible Church has been an independent source for connecting people with short- and long-term housing, said volunteer John Breslin, who was staffing the reception desk there on Monday (July 28). The church has had 40 offers of houses and rooms for people needing a place to stay, some from as far away as Wenatchee, said Breslin. The church has placed about five people but many others have found housing on their own.
The state has launched a long-term housing task force that will work with regional partners, including Room One and the Housing Authority, to find long-term solutions, according to Okanogan County Emergency Manager Scott Miller.
At latest count, 231 homes were lost to fire in the Methow Valley, Pateros and the Okanogan Valley, but there is no current tally for the number of people who have been displaced.