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VFW Magazine October 2016 : Page-34

SIFTING THROUGH THE ASH VFW TO THE RESCUE VFW’s Department of California continues to lead aid efforts in the wake of one of the worst wildfires on record in Kern County. Posts from across the state have given support, and community members continue to help after the smoke cleared. B Y K ELLY G IBSON D 34  VFW ale Evans has lived in South Lake, Calif., for 40 years. Of the 200 people in his community, 40 of them are veterans. And on June 23, Evans and his family lost everything when a class-5 fire ravaged the area and decimated the town. “There’s nothing like this,” Evans remembers thinking when he saw the flames. “This is unreal. There was no grabbing keepsakes or important papers.” His son, who lived across the street, helped a neighbor escape her home. Meanwhile, Evans’ son’s fiancée hopped behind the wheel of her truck to drive  OCTOBER 2016 the family to safety. “She froze,” Evans recalled. “She was trying to go but she froze in fear.” The family rallied and caravanned down the street toward the highway. It only took six minutes from when they heard about the fire for Evans and 13 of his family members to lose everything. “In that time, our houses were burned,” Evans said. “Everything was black and at the very end of the street was some day-light, so we just drove toward it.” ABOVE: Little remained of homes in the path of a fire that swept through South Lake, Calif., in June, destroying some 300 homes and displacing nearly 40 veterans. Post 7665 in Lake Isabella, Calif., served as a command post for veterans affected by the blaze. includes South Lake, Bakersfield and Lake Isabella. The county is quiet and partially rural—a vacation destination for older folks and those who enjoy the tranquility of canyons, mountains and lakes. Bakersfield is the county seat, and it takes about a 50-mile drive through the canyon to reach Lake Isabella, a town of some 3,500 people. South Lake ‘EVERYTHING WAS ON FIRE’ Kern County, Calif., is located a three-hour drive north of Los Angeles. It

Sifting Through The Ash: VFW To The Rescue

Kelly Gibson

VFW’s Department of California continues to lead aid efforts in the wake of one of the worst wildfires on record in Kern County. Posts from across the state have given support, and community members continue to help after the smoke cleared.

Dale Evans has lived in South Lake, Calif., for 40 years. Of the 200 people in his community, 40 of them are veterans. And on June 23, Evans and his family lost everything when a class-5 fire ravaged the area and decimated the town.

“There’s nothing like this,” Evans remembers thinking when he saw the flames. “This is unreal. There was no grabbing keepsakes or important papers.” His son, who lived across the street, helped a neighbor escape her home.

Meanwhile, Evans’ son’s fiancée hopped behind the wheel of her truck to drive the family to safety. “She froze,” Evans recalled. “She was trying to go but she froze in fear.” The family rallied and caravanned down the street toward the highway.

It only took six minutes from when they heard about the fire for Evans and 13 of his family members to lose everything.

“In that time, our houses were burned,” Evans said. “Everything was black and at the very end of the street was some daylight, so we just drove toward it.”

‘EVERYTHING WAS ON FIRE’

Kern County, Calif., is located a threehour drive north of Los Angeles. It includes South Lake, Bakersfield and Lake Isabella. The county is quiet and partially rural—a vacation destination for older folks and those who enjoy the tranquility of canyons, mountains and lakes. Bakersfield is the county seat, and it takes about a 50-mile drive through the canyon to reach Lake Isabella, a town of some 3,500 people. South Lake is another 18-minute drive away.

“We’re a small community in the Central Valley,” said Paul Petersen, Post 7665 quartermaster, who is located in Lake Isabella. “We all work together; we’re all members of multiple veterans service organizations.”

This conflagration, known as the Erskine Fire, started on June 23. After 19 days, firefighters were able to suppress the flames, which damaged some 300 homes and 48,019 acres.

“When this thing started, the fire was moving fast,” said Petersen, who nearly lost his own home to the blaze.

“It moved 11 miles in 12 hours. Fire moves uphill quickly, but it takes awhile to move down. In the initial roar, you could hear propane tanks exploding. Everything was on fire. It was so sad to see. The fire department did all it could to save a lot of homes.”

When fire reached a quarter-mile from his home, Petersen, who is a retired police officer, prepared to evacuate.

“When this fire first started, I had my truck hooked up to the RV so my wife and I could leave quickly,” the Vietnam veteran said. “Everything started around 4 p.m. By 6 o’clock that night, I couldn’t see across the yard because the smoke was so thick. It’s worse at night. You can see the red and the flames.”

A CALL TO ACTION

Deborah Johnson, VFW District 6 commander in California, lives in Bakersfield, so this particular fire hit home for her. She heard on the national news the fire had started, and she immediately picked up the phone.

“I needed to know that my Post was OK,” Johnson said. “Getting in touch was difficult. By that time, they had already lost the cell tower and service was spotty.” When she got in touch with Post Commander Tom Varble, she learned that Post 7665 wasn’t in imminent danger, and firefighters had sprayed the building to keep the flames on the hill at bay.

“VFW wanted to be a command post,” Johnson said. She contacted local media to spread the word that the Post would be a centralized location, stocked with goods.

Over and over, VFW members named Johnson as a powerhouse. The 1991 Persian Gulf War veteran runs a nonprofit organization called California Veterans Assistance Foundation. The group works with homeless, at-risk or low-income veterans to help them secure employment and housing.

She has been in the business of assisting homeless veterans for more than 20 years. Johnson is uniquely poised to serve her community in light of the tragedy. She credits VFW—and the man who recruited her—for helping her find a passion and talent for aiding homeless veterans. Johnson said her organization and being a leader with VFW “go hand in hand.”

VFW worked with Johnson’s organization, as well as other veteran service and fraternal organizations, to find housing for as many people as quickly as possible. One of the areas hit hardest was South Lake, only 10 miles from the Lake Isabella Post.

‘LIKE A NUCLEAR BOMB’

“We drove through there and the devastation is like a nuclear bomb had blasted and leveled everything,” Johnson said. “For many homes, maybe concrete steps were left. Everything else is ash. Asbestos, lead… it’s toxic.”

The VFW Department of California quickly coordinated with Post 7665, as well as other area veterans service organizations.

“American Legion doesn’t have a Post in Lake Isabella,” Johnson said. “It’s the largest town in the area, and it made sense for VFW to be a veteran-servicecentered area. VFW and Steve [Milano, Department of California adjutant/quartermaster] went to two other VSOs to get help for other veterans. Just because you aren’t a VFW member doesn’t devalue your service. We were still able to provide help.”

Working with Johnson, the Depart– ment set up three different financial accounts so it could help veterans immediately.

“When the fire kicked off, it went extremely fast,” Wayne Wright, Depart– ment senior vice commander, said. “We were able to give [displaced veterans] $1,000 in cash so they could go buy clothes, food … the essentials to live.”

Donations started pouring in from across the state. The Post was filled with items people might need after being dislodged— clothes, food, camping supplies and cots. “Whatever you can think of to help people who lost everything,” Wright said. When he first visited the Post, he brought 40 pizzas so veterans who walked in for assistance could eat.

Petersen and his wife worked from “sun up to sun down” helping anyone in need. Petersen said they have been in touch with some 34 veterans in the community who lost everything. Post members have offered nearly 500 volunteer hours and Auxiliary members have given around 400 hours. Even civilians off the street have donated some 300 hours of their time to help the cause.

“In a crisis like that, you really find out who your friends are, and everybody here bent over backward,” said Wright, a Vietnam veteran who served as a Navy diver. “No one is looking for recognition. We’re just looking to help.”

Wright said one of the early challenges they faced was getting the word out to the community that the Post was a place to seek help. Without the Internet or telephone service, Post members had to approach communication tactics the old-fashioned way. “You drive over, and you talk,” Wright said. “No one has the Internet, and that limits your ability to accomplish what you need.”

Relying on word of mouth takes time, but slowly veterans trickled in. The Post expects more veterans in need will emerge in the coming months.

“When someone got burned out and then someone else knew someone else who got burned out, they spread the word to come to the Post,” Petersen said. “Posts are doing great things to help our veterans in times of need. I can’t think of much more need than when you lose your entire life [worth of possessions] in a fire.”

PICKING UP THE PIECES

Evans, who was drafted into the Army in 1967 and served with a MASH unit in Vietnam, saw the fire from both sides— as a victim but also as the Post 7665 service officer.

“I was a displaced human being and I wasn’t alone,” he said. “I walked my way through the process. I became aware of what was available to me so I could help veterans who turn to us.”

Veterans in the area are, on average, between 70 and 80 years old. They have specific needs, pets to rehouse, medications and health concerns. Many lacked homeowner’s insurance.

“You run into all sorts of different combinations of things that people need to survive,” Wright said. “I can’t stress enough the networking within the Department to accomplish what we have accomplished. We made it happen pretty fast.”

Fire victims lost homes, family heirlooms, and, in some cases, their identifications. Johnson recounted the story of a veteran who lost his dentures in the fire. She was able to work with a local dentist to get him a new set free of charge.

Wright remembers a veteran who went to live with family members who didn’t have the means to support themselves, let alone another person. Evans shared the story of a WWII veteran who lost his wallet, and therefore couldn’t withdraw money from the bank to feed himself or his family.

“We had old people and young people putting boots on the ground, taking care of business,” Evans said. “In this particular situation, we went around to other organizations—churches, businesses, anyone who may respond when there is a necessity to assist.”

Evans credits VFW for helping him through this tragedy, physically and emotionally.

“We are in shock,” Evans said. “We have battle fatigue. I’m very fortunate to have something to do to keep me busy. Most people want to help and are compassionate, and we’re doing all we can on a local level.”

FULFILLING A NEED

VFW’s support was immediate, and it plans to be available well after the flames die down.

“When a fire or something like this happens, when veterans have family or friends in the area, they go stay with them and don’t need our immediate services,” said Milano, who served during Operation Just Cause (1989) in Panama and joined VFW in 1998. “After it’s all said and done, they have to return home and worry about everything they’ve lost. Now we have to be aware, now that the fire is over, people will be seeking assistance.”

At the District level, Johnson and Wright continue to monitor the area, supporting veterans when they come forward for help.

Johnson also stressed her gratitude to the Auxiliary for its tremendous continued support.

Part of VFW’s follow-up plans include meeting with victims and community members one-on-one to make sure everyone has the support they need.

“We ask how they are doing and if they need anything,” Evans said. “They need TLC right now.”

The Post plans to use funds to help families rebuild the lives they had before the fire.

“Once they have a new home, we can help get furniture, stock the fridge, buy them towels so they can shower,” Milano said.

Wildfires are common in the area, thanks, in part, to the drought that has ravaged much of southern California. But VFW remains steadfast in its community support.

“That’s what we do when things like this happen,” said Dale Smith, Department of California commander. “In Ramona [Calif.], we had two massive fires in the past few years, and Posts have come together to help us in our time of need. That’s what our job is. Helping veterans is what we do, and we take care of the vets and our families.”

A COMMUNITY ON THE MEND

To start the healing process, Smith and his Post (3783 in Ramona) sponsored a barbecue at the Lake Isabella Post. They wanted to thank the first responders and treat the community.

“Bring them back to a positive reality,” Evans said. “This was a remarkable thing—a first. Dale Smith came down as soon as he could and found out what we needed.”

The 200 community members who attended appreciated the gesture—not just because they enjoyed the free roast beef dinner, but because the Department showed that it cared for the Post.

“To be a small Post in the middle of nowhere and have the state commander come in and put on a barbecue is incredible,” Johnson said. “They need to feel supported and know that people care. This is the family organization we always talk about. We act when someone is in need.”

Unexpectedly, the Department gained eight new VFW members, who signed up as a result of the kindness and support they received from the organization.

“What people won’t forget is we went up there and helped out the best we could,” Milano said. “It’s in our congressional charter that we help veterans and their families. We get wrapped up in other things, but at our roots, that’s what we do. This situation, as sad as it is, is what VFW is about, contrary to what others out there might think.”

Read the full article at http://digitaledition.qwinc.com/article/Sifting+Through+The+Ash%3A+VFW+To+The+Rescue/2573544/333680/article.html.

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