In the aftermath of the North Bay wildfires’ destruction of about 5,700 structures and the thousands of evacuations, a group of UC Berkeley students traveled to Santa Rosa to help with relief efforts at local evacuation centers.
Matthew Smith, Jose Ramos Mora and Shihong Xu, all student veterans, were three of the eight volunteers who left from UC Berkeley to Santa Rosa on Friday afternoon, remaining there until early Saturday morning. The group bounced from center to center, helping wherever they could all day.
The group came together after Smith, a campus senior social welfare major and U.S. Marine Corps veteran, posted in the Cal Veterans Facebook page and reached out to the UC Berkeley School of Public Health, seeking extra help with cleansing and sanitizing the evacuation centers in Santa Rosa.
“Once (Matthew) put up the word, it was an easy choice,” Mora said. “Why wouldn’t I go?”
Initially, Smith went to Santa Rosa early Monday morning after the fires first started to check on his girlfriend’s family. Monday evening, Smith picked up some supplies and headed to the evacuation centers, spending most of the time at the Santa Rosa Veterans Building and assisting in other centers as he was needed. His first task was to deliver supplies to evacuation centers and offer assistance to those who needed help evacuating the general area.
Because he was in Santa Rosa all week, Smith missed a midterm, a term paper and spent hundreds of his own dollars on supplies, according to a campus press release.
Later in the week, when Smith noticed a need for sanitation in the centers, he decided to reach out to the campus community for more help.
The team of eight was met with hundreds of evacuees and other volunteers, including those from the American Red Cross. Xu described seeing senior citizens sleeping in cots in the hallways as people passed them by.
“While I was mopping, a lady approached me to ask, ‘Could I do that?’ ” Xu recalled. “She said, ‘If I do something, time goes faster.’ Because they’re struggling, and they’re having a hard time.”
In an evacuation center packed with hundreds of people, the main focus of the team was sanitizing. The eight volunteers started cleaning soon after they arrived, scrubbing toilets, disinfecting surfaces and mopping the floors.
“Sanitation is really important,” Smith said. “If we hadn’t done that, more people would’ve gotten sick. And those old people, they can’t afford to get sick.”
Keith Gilless, chair of the California State Board of Forestry and Fire Protection and dean of UC Berkeley’s College of Natural Resources, discussed the challenges of recovering after evacuations and destroyed structures. The mechanics of restoring housing in California are particularly complicated, he said, calling it “a complex regulatory environment.”
In terms of the time it takes to rebuild houses, Gilless said it varies broadly. For those rebuilding homes, municipalities may expedite the process with one-stop permits from evacuation centers. According to Gilless, this would allow multiple services, such as insurance companies or the Federal Emergency Management Agency, to consolidate at one meeting point where citizens would have access to all of their services for long-term help.
“Students that were helping in the short run — just that somebody is there and cares — is really important,” Gilless said. “I was really impressed that some of our students went up there.”
When asked if he plans on returning to Santa Rosa, Smith replied that he intends to keep going back every night.