Horrified by the sight of carloads of Lake County residents fleeing for their lives in the first hours of the monstrous Valley wildfire Sept. 12, Calistoga resident Wendy Lopez drove straight to the startup emergency shelter at the Napa County Fairgrounds in town and asked how she could help.
That’s where a volunteer in a Red Cross vest tried to turn her away, she said.
Lopez was among a vocal group of people who said they were rebuffed by Red Cross representatives, who reportedly told people to go home and donate money, in what was the start of a series of alleged problems with the national humanitarian organization at the fairgrounds, local officials and volunteers said.
“We just wanted to help. They tried to shut us down,” Lopez said.
Lopez stayed anyway, joining a corps of local residents who spearheaded an effort to accept donations of clothing and other articles pouring into the fairgrounds for evacuees forced to abandon their homes and possessions. The Calistoga site, which is set to close Thursday, has served as the largest of several temporary shelter locations in the Valley fire, which displaced nearly 20,000 people in the first days and burned more than 1,200 homes. Roughly 3,000 people have been left homeless, authorities said.
Volunteers working apart from Red Cross ended up providing the bulk of services given to evacuees at Napa County Fairgrounds, sorting through heaps of goods and arranging daily meals donated and prepared by local restaurants and other groups.
Of the nearly 1,000 evacuees who stayed at the fairgrounds, only about 25 each day were housed in the Red Cross indoor area set up inside one of the fair buildings, with the bulk staying outside in tents or RVs, Napa County Fair chief executive officer Carlene Moore said.
Complaints included those lodged by rebuffed volunteers, others who said their donations of materials were turned away, and officials who said the organization was not a collaborative partner in the early aid effort. Some evacuees and volunteers said aid services provided by the Red Cross fell short.
Several Red Cross officials working in Lake and Napa counties defended the group’s altruistic efforts and track record for quickly dispatching highly-skilled representatives and volunteers able to direct people in crisis to immediate and longterm services.
“The last thing we want to do is to turn away people who want to help,” said Katie Wilkes, a Red Cross marketing manager from Chicago who arrived in Napa County on Thursday. “This is an issue of miscommunication and confusion. It is common for first responders to get stressed.”
Still, the complaints about the Red Cross spurred a backlash against the disaster-response powerhouse since the start of aid efforts in the Valley fire. A firestorm of criticism grew online as people posted rants and photographs showing piles of rejected supplies intended for victims. People rallied to gather donations for local nonprofits instead and at least one organization removed the Red Cross from its website.
Congressman Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, whose district includes Lake County, has spoken with a Red Cross official to discuss concerns that the group’s actions led to confusion and an inefficient provision of services in the wildfire’s wake.
Lake County Supervisor Rob Brown said he had serious concerns about whether donations made to the Red Cross in response to the Valley fire will ultimately benefit local residents.