‘We do what the Red Cross won’t’: a day in the life of a wildfire Relief Angel | Climate crisis in the American west
Valerie O’Dai takes a drag from her cigarette at a donation site in Bly, Oregon, black sunglasses on, ash smeared across her face. She hasn’t showered or seen her husband and children in almost 48 hours. Firefighters may be gaining ground against the Bootleg fire, the largest wildfire currently burning in the US, but the urgency of her work has just begun.
She leans out the side door of her lifted Chevy truck, emblazoned with “Relief Angels” in blue letters, and waits for a phone call, an update on a big donation. Her crisis response team delivers aid to victims of natural disaster in the rural Pacific north-west, to the people O’Dai says are often the most desperate and hardest to reach.
On any given day, that work sees O’Dai drive her truck uphill, winding to her dark green all-terrain vehicle where she loads boxes of supplies before traveling through miles of remote, dusty roads to find the hundreds of families who live here, off the grid and tucked away in the trees.
“This is what grassroots disaster relief looks like,” O’Dai says after another 18-hour day of coordinating supply runs and delivering aid. “We do what the Red Cross won’t.”
The Bootleg fire was sparked in early July and has since swept through more than 413,000 acres of forested hills in southern Oregon. Throughout, the Relief Angels have been soliciting donations from far and wide: farm supply shops, local grocers, home appliance stores, beverage corporations, and locals living in central and eastern Oregon who, like her, understand the needs of rural folks.
“These people don’t have your high-tech 4G, 5G phones,” O’Dai said. “If they have a cellphone at all, it’s probably a flip phone. They aren’t going to be checking online sources. They’re going to be going to their community centers or hear by word of mouth.”
To those made homeless by the wildfire, she brings tents, sleeping bags, blankets and flashlights. To those who’ve lost their belongings, she brings shovels, masks, gloves, shovels, axes, tarps and cleaning supplies. Everyone gets plenty of food, water, and animal feed.
She gives out coolers, freezers, or generators when they become available. She’s overseen the donation of four RVs so far to people who’ve lost their homes. She’s cut down burnt trees threatening to topple over, taken injured animals to the vet, corralled lost cattle, and tracked down stuffed animals for children made homeless by the blaze.
It’s a job that comes with hard decisions. On a recent July day, O’Dai found herself playing Sophie’s choice with a valuable donation: a 27ft RV. It’s between an elderly man and a large family with kids – both of whom have lost their homes in the fast-spreading flames.
“He’s a Vietnam vet and he can’t really see well, so I think he might get it,” says the 32-year-old. “He’s super shaky and has extreme difficulty standing. Medically, he’s not doing great, so sleeping on the ground is just not an option.”
Help for the stranded
The Bootleg fire has reduced miles of pine trees to rows of thin, blackened trunks. Everywhere, smoldering trees topple over, sometimes blocking roadways.
The Bootleg fire incident command center estimates the blaze has so far burned 161 homes, along with close to 250 outbuildings – sheds, outhouses, greenhouses, pantries, barns, carports, and the like – and 342 vehicles.
In the fire zone, up the hill from the tiny town of Bly, hundreds of landowners live off-grid, separated by long, windy, primitive roads, making disaster relief uniquely challenging. They raise livestock, grow their own food, and use generators and solar panels for power. Despite evacuation orders, some have been reluctant to leave their belongings and risk not being allowed to return.
“They love this kind of life, having to go miles to see another human being,” O’Dai says.
At the start of the fire, the Red Cross opened up an evacuation shelter 70 miles away in Klamath Falls, the closest major town, but many here couldn’t afford to make the drive, O’Dai says. “The number one complaint I heard out of almost every single evacuated person I spoke to is they didn’t have the gas money to drive to Klamath Falls,” O’Dai says. “So rather than drive into Klamath Falls and become stranded there without gas money to get back, they choose not to go to the shelter at all.”
Red Cross workers have been seen driving through off-the-grid areas, handing out relief kits: bags with gloves, tarps, bottles of hand sanitizer, shovels, sifters and a lot of ready-to-eat meal packets of beef stroganoff.
From the sprawling, forested area of Sycan Estates – one of the hardest hit in the Bootleg fire – Gage Clark has been helping the Red Cross to distribute relief aid among his neighbors. “They ask too many questions,” he grumbles of the organization. “They want addresses and a lot of us don’t don’t have addresses. They wanted to know who was taking what, and I was like: ‘Dude, how can I tell who needs what yet?’”
Clark’s home was reduced to mangled metal and burnt appliances. The fire gutted his belongings, including several keepsakes from his now-deceased father. Eager to distract from his grief, Clark offered to help O’Dai with relief efforts to get supplies to other Sycan Estates residents.
“We’ve got boxed milk. Baby wipes. Solar showers for people,” Clark says, pointing to the boxes of donations to Relief Angels. “We’ve got cook stoves, food, blankets, tents, tampons, cooking ware … We’re to the point where we’re more than just getting by.”
Spokesman Dale Kunce said the Red Cross offers survivors supplies with no questions asked. The relief organization has also been processing $500 payments to roughly 100 families affected by the wildfire. But, “if there’s another set of hands, we welcome it”, Kunce said of the Relief Angel’s work.
“We acknowledge that there’s many other pieces of the community that need to contribute to support.”
Clark helped O’Dai come up with a list of residents needing help: people like Raul, a middle-aged and medically fragile man who lost everything he owned, including his house, cars, and three cats. Or Mary and Steve, a younger couple living out of a tent on their charred property. Or Sayyid, who lost his home and most of his belongings and was camping with his son on the remains of their home.
‘This is where God wanted me to be’
A mother of four and wife to a military contractor on disability, O’Dai started volunteering in disaster relief in 2015 after the Canyon Creek Complex fire in Oregon swept through her hometown and burned 43 homes. She threw together a last-minute auction that raised roughly $14,000.
“I absolutely loved it,” O’Dai said of her introduction to fundraising. “For the next three years, I started just doing fundraisers and whatnot for various disasters throughout the Pacific north-west.”
In 2018, as O’Dai was working the phones to coordinate supplies to areas affected by wildfires in Idaho, Washington, and Oregon, she noticed donations piling up at different evacuation centers or donation drop sites – what she dubbed “donation inundation”. She got a moving truck and began transporting excess donations to less well-stocked relief centers.
When the Bootleg fire sprang up 50 miles east of her house in Klamath Falls, O’Dai was ready. As the fire spread to 39,000 acres, she reached out to chiefs of volunteer fire departments and offered care packages that included water, Gatorade, protein bars, Chapstick and blister protection.
When the wildfire doubled to 78,000 acres and prompted widespread evacuations, O’Dai worked on getting the word out, sending volunteers to distribute flyers with numbers to Relief Angels, Red Cross and licensed veterinarians to help with animal and livestock.
By the time the fire reached 150,000 acres, O’Dai was frantically collecting donations and driving boxes of necessities like food, water, and camping gear up to off-the-grid residents like Clark and others – all while dodging flames and smoldering, falling trees. “This was where God wanted me to be,” she recalled.
At 227,000 acres, the Bootleg fire had already swept through the more populated areas of the forest, and O’Dai began to distribute creature comforts: cookies, candy, chips, “anything that gives them a sense of normalcy”, she said.
When the fire crossed 413,000 acres, O’Dai began working to get survivors RVs, generators with fuel, and a washer and dryer. In a week, she’ll deliver a sawmill so that people can start cutting two-by-fours and rebuilding.
Next comes excavators and backhoes, “so they can clear off their properties and get four walls around them before winter hits”, she says.
It’s still early in the fire season, and she knows all indications point to busier months ahead. Officials have predicted it could take months to put out the Bootleg fire, let alone what fires may come next.
Back at the parking lot in Bly, O’Dai loses patience after waiting hours for a donor to show up with a washer and dryer unit and decides to return to Klamath Falls to shower and finally catch up with her family.
“It’s not the first time,” O’Dai says of leaving her family for days at a time. “And it won’t be the last.”
She rubs her left eye, irritated from frequent exposure to dirt, dust, and smoke, and turns the truck’s ignition. She decides against going to the doctor and drives towards home, resolving to return the next day with an eye patch.