How California's Sand Fire kindles hearts determined to help

The Sand Fire that ripped through Santa Clarita, Calif., over the weekend forced nearly 20,000 people out of their homes. But also brought out a 'special case' of community spirit. 

Jessica Mendoza/The Christian Science Monitor
Tom Carrano of Duarte, Calif., donates cases of bottled water to the Red Cross shelter set up at Hart High School in Santa Clarita, Calif., Wednesday.

As the temperature grazed 100 degrees one Wednesday afternoon, Tom Carrano decided he had to do his part.

Loading his trunk with seven cases of bottled water for donation, the high school history teacher drove nearly an hour from his home in Duarte, Calif., to Hart High School here in Santa Clarita, just north of Los Angeles. The campus was serving as a shelter for evacuees of the Sand Fire, which by midweek had burned through more than 38,000 acres of Angeles National Forest since sparking the Friday before.

“I got some friends in Valencia,” Mr. Carrano says, referring to a local neighborhood. “I saw one of them posted online how he kind of wanted to do something for the firefighters [out here]. This is just my contribution.”

The community spirit that sent Carrano here has been evident both among local residents and on social media, volunteers and other say. From the flood of donations to crowdfunding projects meant to raise money for those who lost homes, the response to the Sand Fire is again proving that as much as disaster leads to tragedy, so too does it breed compassion and generosity.

And when folks are considerate, cooperative, and calm, firefighters say it makes their jobs that much easier – which means everybody benefits.

“It does make a huge difference,” says Vanessa Lozano, public information assistant for the Los Angeles County Fire Department, which is among the agencies in charge of quelling the blaze. “It was super helpful that [people] were sharing information on social media.”

“We definitely get a lot of calls of people who want to buy us pizza,” she adds. “They want to support the fire department. But in Santa Clarita Valley they were nonstop. This is definitely a special case. People really kind of came together in the area to take care of one another.”

The kindness of a working washing machine

Jeanne Johnson would attest to that. The house on Little Tujunga Canyon Road that she shares with husband Wayne was the only one left standing after the blaze burned through three nearby homes.

“It was a miracle,” she says, sitting in her living room with the doors and windows thrown open in the heat. Outside, the charred remains of a car sit on her scorched front yard. The flames had come almost right to her front door.

“Three houses here were destroyed, and this was the only one that made it,” she says. ”I think it was because people from our church prayed for us.”

At the same time, Mrs. Johnson says that firefighters and the county sheriff’s office were instrumental in saving her home and keeping her family and pets safe.

“My husband didn’t want to go, but we had to leave. We could see the flames,” she recalls. Officers from the sheriff’s department insisted they evacuate, while “firemen put the fire out, quick as you can,” she says.

Since being allowed back home, Johnson says neighbors have offered the couple everything from food to charging outlets to a place to do laundry while their power remains disconnected.

“Everybody’s been calling us,” she says.

The support has not been limited to those who live in Santa Clarita. A GoFundMe page for Sergio Toscano, a local firefighter who lost his home in the Sand Fire while he was out battling a different blaze near San Diego, received nearly $25,000 from more than 400 donors nationwide over four days.

“The response we have gotten I could have never imagined,” writes Brandon Opliger, who started the page for Mr. Toscano, in an email. “There have been donations from all over the country. … I was surprised because I didn't think it would go as viral as it did. I thought just the local fire community would help and that would be that, but it’s gone across the nation with the help of social media.”

Officials have warned the public against scammers – those looking to take advantage of people’s generosity in times of tragedy. But for the most part, the positive response appears to have been helpful and heartening.

'A fantastic way to help'

With firefighters facing prolonged drought conditions and more people moving to rural, fire-prone areas, the kind of community consciousness that Santa Clarita residents showed is encouraging, says Ms. Lozano at the L.A. County Fire Department.

“It’s great to have awareness,” she says. “That’s a fantastic way to help” firefighters do their jobs.

“[It] is a great feeling knowing that the people we are trying to help are appreciative of the efforts all emergency responders make to help avert these disasters,” adds Mr. Opliger, a 12-year fire service veteran. “It's very important for all communities to come together during times of emergency.”

Back at Hart High School, volunteers for the Los Angeles arm of the American Red Cross man the cafeteria-turned-shelter. That Wednesday, only about 10 evacuees were staying in the building. At its height over the weekend, the shelter housed more than 50 people, says Cindy Huge, a public information officer for the Red Cross.

Jessica Mendoza/The Christian Science Monitor
Volunteers with the Los Angeles arm of the American Red Cross load up a van at Hart High School with snacks, water, and other supplies for distribution to residents in areas affected by the Sand Fire in Santa Clarita, Calif., on Wednesday.

Water, blankets, food, and clothes have poured in day after day, she says. It has taken the combined efforts of the Red Cross, the local Salvation Army and Goodwill, and the Los Angeles County Department of Animal Care and Control – among others – to make sure everything was going to the people who needed them most.

Volunteers from all over the Los Angeles area have showed up to lend a hand, Ms. Huge adds, and she expects to see more neighborly support when she and her team begin bulk distribution – handing out dust masks, shovels, gloves, and food and water to affected residents as they begin sorting through the damage on their properties.

“The outpouring has been tremendous from the local community,” Huge says.“We’ve seen neighbors helping neighbors, giving rides, helping the elderly.”

As he stacks the cases of bottled water he brought to the school, Carrano, the history teacher, waves off any praise for making the 45-mile drive from Duarte just to pitch in.

“People have come, right?” he says. “I’m not the only one.”

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