A member of the Community Emergency Response Team assists an injured woman
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FEMA’s National Youth Preparedness Council Member Deploys to California

March 2019

Written by Grace Harris from FEMA’s Youth Preparedness Council

About a year ago, I was looking forward to taking my first class with the Sacramento Community Emergency Response Team (CERT). Today, I am a member of FEMA’s National Youth Preparedness Council from FEMA Region IX. I am also the Assistant Public Information Officer and Media Facilitator for Sacramento CERT. Sacramento CERT can deploy me anywhere in the state of California for up to two weeks at a time. That’s exactly what happened when, on November 10th, I received deployment orders.

As the Camp Fire spread in Butte County, California, I wanted nothing more than to be there and help. We were told to bring food, water, and shelter for ourselves. The disaster was rapidly changing. It became the most deadly and destructive wildfire in California’s history.

Once sworn in, our team drove to our mission site at the Chico Airport. Together, our team turned a jet hangar into the largest small animal shelter in Butte County. We helped over 3,000 people in the search for their pets. The team worked up to 20-hour shifts and improved our processes at each turn.

Former FEMA Administrator Brock Long takes a photo with Grace Harris in Butte County, California.
Former FEMA Administrator Brock Long takes a photo
with Grace Harris in Butte County, California.

We used digital technology, made signs, and communicated with animal control officers and others to help reunite families with their pets. We also established an information center for the public. There, we distributed donated food and clothing, too. At one point, then-FEMA Administrator Brock Long visited the shelter and thanked us for our efforts.

Near the end of my deployment, North Valley Animal Disaster Group asked me to go behind the police and fire lines to help with animal recovery in Paradise, California. Firefighters covered in soot brought my team crates of tiny burned kittens, dogs, chickens, other birds, and even a bearded dragon. We triaged and moved animals out of the burn area for treatment.

I will carry the devastation that I saw in Paradise with me for the rest of my life. Pictures can never do justice to how the smoke clouded the sun, bringing an intense cold. Nor do they show how we inhaled smoke from the fire. Firefighters in their dull yellow gear dotted fields of smoking rubble and char.

These personal connections strengthened my love for emergency response. It reaffirmed my knowledge that I want to help people in tough situations for the rest of my life. It changed my view of humanity. Lending emotional support to the survivors was the most exhausting, yet rewarding, part of my mission.

I learned the surprising importance of adapting skills. You don’t have to be a firefighter or a paramedic to be helpful in a disaster. The true heroes of the shelter were also those who fulfilled a need we didn’t expect. Website development, chicken care, calligraphy, and typing might be the last skills that we think of as useful in a major disaster. However, they were crucial to us in Butte County, California. Because of this, I encourage all people to take the basic CERT training so that they are better prepared to share their skills in emergencies.

I would like to thank my family for being so supportive. They have always encouraged and helped me pursue my love of emergency response. I would also like to acknowledge Lisa Walda for her tireless work as my partner in shelter intake. Finally, I would like to thank Robert Ross, Chief Operations Officer of Sacramento CERT, for being so welcoming and encouraging and trusting me to uphold the reputation of our team. I am honored to do so much at such a young age.

Grace is a senior at South Sutter Charter School in Placerville, California. She currently serves as a social media facilitator for the Sacramento Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) by producing videos. To view Grace Harris’ self-made deployment video, click here
This article first appeared in the monthly Individual and Community Preparedness Newsletter. Subscribe here.