Celeste Stimpson Contributed image

TOPSHAM — As wildfires rage in California, a Topsham woman has joined other American Red Cross volunteers to help victims who have had to flee their homes or lost them to the inferno.

Celeste Stimpson is a disaster program manager for the Midcoast region of the American Red Cross. She flew to Sacramento, California, Wednesday to join more than 1,200 other Red Cross volunteers responding to the wildfire disaster as part of a two-week deployment.

“Our priorities are making sure our clients have somewhere to sleep and are being fed daily and we also provide support for health services, mental health and spiritual care,” Stimpson said.

The American Red Cross is a not-for-profit organization that shelters, feeds and provides emotional support to victims of disasters, among other humanitarian services.

Since the beginning of the year, more than 8,200 wildfires have burned more than 4 million acres in California, killing 31 people and destroying more than 8,000 structures, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Stimpson is volunteering mainly in hotel shelters in Placer County. which is in the Greater Sacramento metropolitan area. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Red Cross has had to change how it operates. Instead of setting up congregate shelters in gymnasiums, families are being housed and fed in hotel rooms. Any congregate shelters have much smaller populations than normal to avoid spreading the virus.

Stimpson is part of a four-person team going door-to-door to check daily on clients in Placer County. As of Thursday, there were more than 660 occupied hotel rooms and one congregate shelter open within that county. Stimpson said there is a mix of families who have been evacuated from their homes due to smoke and poor air quality, and families who have lost their home to the fires.

The fires also create challenges for relief workers traveling to hotel shelters. Stimpson said Red Cross volunteers get daily briefings and taught how to avoid driving into a wildfire.

“We have to make sure we know where we’re going, the routes and if there are any reports of fires in those areas,” Stimpson said.

Stimpson said disaster relief requires empathy so she tries to put herself in the position of those she’s trying to help. She may encounter people who have just lost their home or don’t know what is going got happen to their home during active fires. Some wildfire victims need to talk to a disaster mental health counselor to be able to cope with what they have experienced.

“It’s high stress and high emotion and knowing where (clients) are at with that,” she said. “There are times they’re not in a good place to talk.”

This is Stimpson’s first deployment with the American Red Cross but she’s no stranger to disasters. The 34 year old has provided disaster relief through many small organizations both at home and internationally. She’s cleaned up after floods, earthquakes and tornados and sent care packages to college students living in hotel rooms because their college dorms were destroyed.

“I grew up in the southeast so I just am very familiar with tornadoes, hurricanes, wind storms, floods … it sort of became who I was,” Stimpson said. “At a young age, it just became a calling for my life.”




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