Dave and Claudia Warner heard many tales of survival in the aftermath of the recent California wildfires. Homeless men who were reunited with their family after years on the street. Disabled people living without cars, who were driven off the mountain by neighbors at the last minute. It was tough to believe that so many had survived the deadliest fire in American history.
“We would look at some of these cases and go, ‘There’s no way they made it out alive.’ But we would go out and start looking and most of them we found alive,” Dave said.
The Warners had initially joined the Red Cross in San Diego before they retired in Ammon. In the two years since moving here, they helped provide relief after house fires in Idaho and were deployed in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. Last month, the couple was deployed to California in the aftermath of the Camp Fire as part of the Red Cross reunification team, helping to track the missing and give them some happiness amid the ashes.
Reunification teams were in charge of tracking every missing person and helping them get back in touch with the family or friends that were looking for them. This meant making sure people were listed on the Red Cross Safe and Well website, the major database of the survivors of disasters across the country, and later helping people reconnect with their families. Other volunteers from the Idaho Falls area had done that work after other disasters, including Hurricane Florence earlier this year and had even led some response teams in the past.
“It says a lot about our local group. We’re not a large group but we are all more than willing to be deployed nationally,” Dave said.
The Warners had never been involved with reunification before they were sent to Paradise, Calif. Few of the volunteers who arrived in Paradise had seen a disaster like it. The Camp Fire was the deadliest wildfire in a century and the most devastating in California history, burning more than 150,000 acres of land and leaving 88 dead and thousands more evacuated from their homes. Dave said the couple never visited the remains of the city after the fire went through, but they talked to plenty of survivors about the burn while they worked in the nearby towns on reunification.
Dave and Claudia started behind the scenes of the operation. They worked mostly online for the first week outside the remains of Paradise, searching Facebook posts for people who had escaped and police records to make sure the missing had a chance to be found. One woman called asking about her mother, a 100-year-old woman she had not talked to for over a decade before the fire started. Once the couple determined that the woman had not died before the fire started, they began the process of finding her.
“That’s when we got to start being detectives,” Claudia said.
There was plenty of ground to cover to track all the missing. Some survivors had let parts of their family know they had escaped the fire and not others, which made it difficult to determine who was actually missing. The Red Cross had established six shelters in the area and others were built by churches and other community groups. The Warners also checked with hospitals and medical facilities to find the 100-year-old missing woman, using a description of her medical issues to narrow down the search.
For two weeks, the couple slept in a gym alongside more than 100 other volunteers from the Red Cross and other relief agencies. They worked with a team of between 10 and 17 Red Cross volunteers from across the country, including a team leader from Alaska who left the region early to respond to the earthquake in her home state.
“You meet a lot of like-minded people who want to serve the community and give of themselves,” Dave said.
The Warners and their reunification team eventually found the centenarian woman and got her back in contact with her daughter, along with five other missing persons they had personally found during their time there. They weren’t so fortunate with every person they looked for. By the time the Warners returned to Ammon, the case list for their team had dropped from 30 people to three and most other volunteers had already gone home.
The Red Cross headquarters had a wall of photographs of the missing and Claudia felt her heart sink when she looked at the wall and found the names of people that had been reported dead. But she and Dave say that they prefer to focus on the help that they provided and the lives of the people that escaped.
“Being able to reunite family and friends with the missing means a lot. In times of disaster, there can still be moments of hope,” Claudia said.