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After the fire: UDW caregivers step up to help those in need

Kesha Haynie and her husband Vince

On the morning of November 8, Kesha and Vincent Haynie were leaving their home in Magalia to start their regular commute into Chico where Vince cares for an elderly man and Kesha—a caregiver herself—works as a UDW staff member. They noticed plumes of smoke and heard a loud, ominous, “BOOM.”

“It must have been a propane tank,” Vince said. “They were going off like firecrackers.”

On the road to town they saw the actual flames. They called Kesha’s mom, who was still at their house with their dog, and told her to leave the area and head to Chico immediately. For the rest of the drive, they watched with a rising sense of alarm as emergency vehicles and unmarked police cars rushed back up the hill.

The fire quickly grew into an unstoppable inferno, burning hot and moving fast with plenty of fuel from the tinder-dry landscape and the structures—homes, schools, churches, local businesses—it devoured. The sky went dark and the smoke travelled hundreds of miles.

“It looked like the end of the world,” said Kesha. “It looked like Armageddon.”

The speed and intensity of the fire took the sleepy communities by surprise and led to unprecedented loss: Eighty-five people died in the Camp Fire, the deadliest wildfire in California history. Many of them were seniors and people with disabilities who were unable to escape in time. UDW’s Butte County membership was hit hard by the Camp Fire. UDW represents over 800 IHSS providers who lived in the evacuation zones of Paradise and Magalia before the fire. While damage is still being assessed, the town of Paradise is considered a near total loss and huge swaths of Magalia are now charred ruins.

UDW members delivering items to the Salvation Army in Chico

UDW’s Chico office quickly converted into a temporary disaster relief center. Kesha joined other staffers and went to work fielding calls and texts from UDW members, finding out who was OK—and who wasn’t—collecting lists of needed items, and helping coordinate the many donations that started coming in. Kesha and Vince set up camp in the small church they began in 2009 and used that as a base of operations for more donations and an emergency shelter for others who needed it. UDW also launched a Go Fund Me page to raise donations for members impacted by the Camp Fire.

The labor community quickly joined the statewide UDW membership in providing support for our Butte members. Our Butte office received donations from AFSCME Local 2620 and Council 57, AFSCME International, SEIU Local 2015 and other community groups. With the help of these donations, UDW has distributed gas and Visa gift cards, clothing, sleeping bags, blankets, hand sanitizer, Clorox Wipes, toiletries, feminine products, children’s books and toys, Advil packs and N95 Masks. We also arranged for the donation and distribution of medical equipment such as hospital beds, lifts, and shower chairs. To help displaced members receive pay while they are displaced, we helped dozens of providers sign up for direct deposit, E-Timesheets, and the IHSS Help App. And our County Rep and member volunteers visited shelters to identify IHSS providers and provide assistance as needed or direct them to our office.

UDW member Jennifer Blum and family

UDW member Jennifer Blum’s home was among those destroyed by the fire in Paradise. Jennifer cares for her wife, Alicia, a cancer survivor. They moved to Paradise in 2017. They were looking to be closer to family and found the little Butte County town to be welcoming and beautiful, much like the eastern Wisconsin area they were moving from. But that beauty turned to terror on the morning of November 8. They woke to a world gone dark and the fire so close they could hear the roar of the flames. They loaded what they could in their cars, including their autistic son, and set about trying to roust all their neighbors—mostly older folks—before reaching Jennifer’s parents’ house outside the fire zone.

UDW member Tina Cuadra also lost her home in Paradise to the fire. Because her husband is the recipient of a liver transplant, they needed to relocate farther away than Chico or Oroville or the other nearby areas that were choking in smoke in the week following the fire. Tina’s husband does not have an active immune system and the toxins in the smoke could be especially dangerous for him. So they checked into the Motel 6 in Anderson, California, approximately 60 miles north of Chico. Tina’s insurance company covered the costs of the motel, but had a hard time accessing disaster recovery services and resources because they were located in Chico and her husband’s condition made travel difficult.

Tina’s union was there for her. UDW staff drove to Anderson to hand deliver clean clothes, food, and a gas card. Tina was grateful for the personal response of her fellow members—and also for the understanding that they just need a helping hand to get on their feet again.

“We are homeless, not helpless,” Tina said.

Alicia and Jennifer are also grateful for the help they have received from their union.

“UDW has been amazing to us,” said Jennifer. “I never thought that this could be something that my family would ever have to experience.  All I can say is that we were put on this earth to help each other. Give even if you know it’s not going to come back to you at least you know you have helped someone in need.”

UDW Executive Director Doug Moore said that supporting our Butte County members, their clients, and their families in times of crisis is why we are here.

“Our hearts broke when we heard hundreds of our union brothers and sisters were homeless or had lost precious loved ones,” he said. “Everyone immediately asked ‘what can we do to help? We were there for our members then, and we will be there for them in the future as they rebuild their lives and help rebuild their communities in Butte.”

But Moore said much more needs to be done to keep a tragedy like this from happening again. “Yes, we must address climate change and the other factors that made this fire so deadly,” said Moore. “But we must also find ways to better protect the seniors and people with disabilities that are always disproportionately affected by disasters—natural and otherwise.”