Story and Photos by Paula Negele and Patricia Kemp
It was a mix of elation and anxiety for residents of South Fork, Colorado, when the evacuation order from the West Fork Complex fire was lifted June 28. People returned home after more than a week at area motels, friends’ houses, and the Red Cross shelter at Del Norte High School.
Although they knew all the community structures and homes were intact, they didn’t know the condition of their property or if they could weather the heavy smoke settling in the valley from the 80,000 acre wildfire.
To ease their transition, the Red Cross set up two bulk distribution centers, one in South Fork and one in Creede, and offered clean-up supplies, rakes and shovels, water and snacks, and access to emotional health resources. More than the items themselves, residents’ spirits were buoyed by the friendly smiles and caring attitude of Red Cross volunteers who staffed the two stations.
They came from newly reopened Highways 160 and 149, points in between and beyond, to pick up more than 400 kits distributed by the Red Cross.
For the first time in over a week, Karla Roquemore could breathe a little easier.
“Red Cross is a breath of fresh air,” said Karla who came for a face mask. She got that and more in the clean-up kit, handed to her by Red Cross volunteer Joseph Baker in South Fork.
In the historic mining town of Creede, tourists were chased away by the fires burning deep in the forest. Local business owners lamented the lack of commerce; nonetheless, beaming smiles, positive attitudes and outstretched hands from Maddy Christman and Kip Nagy of Kip’s Grill welcomed firefighters and Red Crossers, urging all to return to the charming mountain town.
Down the street, the Chamber of Commerce stepped up to partner with the Red Cross, providing their Main Street location as a distribution point for the clean-up kits. The site became a jovial meeting place for community members, like Buck Sneed, who received a kit and clean-up tips from volunteers.
The wildfires continue to burn and ash will linger for some time, but residents found the Red Cross presence in their community a beam of hope that cut through the thickest smoke.
The Red Cross relief response was summed up by, South Fork resident Singrid Baugh as she departed the shelter in Del Norte: “This is my first time receiving services from the Red Cross. I’m just totally impressed; you guys are doing a great job! Sending a donation is one of the first things I’m going to do when I get home.”