U-Haul Helped with Disaster Response to California Fires

Dark red skies, thick black smoke and clouds of glowing embers became too familiar a sight for northern California residents. Lake County faced four major fires during the summer months as wildfires spread throughout the western states.

For Desiree Mcalear, residential site manager at Empire Mini Storage Middletown, a U-Haul Neighborhood Dealer, the devastation of the Valley fire that began Sept. 12 seemed like a scene out of a movie.

“The lights at the office were flickering and it started raining hot embers from the sky,” Mcalear said. “The wind was awful. The sky was orange and black and there wasn’t a single firefighter yet.”

The wildfire quickly overtook Cobb Mountain, leaving hundreds of people trying to evacuate via a single road leading to Middletown and surrounding areas. “Traffic was bumper to bumper,” Mcalear added. “People were literally walking down the mountain with babies and pets in their arms. It was upon us so fast.”

Valley Fire in Lake County, CA
Looking through the smoke-filled air of the Valley fire in Lake County, California

Lake County was facing the third worst wildfire in California history. But with the assistance of U-Haul, an official American Red Cross Disaster Responder, residents found a glimmer of hope and a helping hand.

U-Haul donated two trucks, 10 U-Box portable moving and self-storage containers, a pallet of large boxes, 100 medium boxes, 100 small boxes and 15 cases of water to aid the Red Cross in its efforts to relieve Lake County.

“We weren’t near the fire, but it was amazing how there were so many people getting involved,” said Chris Watson, U-Haul Company of Northwest California president. “The sheer appreciation from the Red Cross was great.”

Mcalear spent a year as a firefighter at Clear Lake Station No. 70 and is EMT trained, so when the winds shifted as people were fleeing, she could tell the fire was headed for her facility.

“I stayed to help get the facility under control,” Mcalear said. “I grabbed my daughter’s birth certificate, my car title and my keys and when I turned around, the whole wall was on fire.”

The office and on-site house where Mcalear lived completely burned down, leaving only the storage units standing. According to Cal Fire, 1,958 structures faced a similar doom.

Results of the Valley Fire in Lake County, CA
Results of the Valley Fire at Empire Mini Storage Middletown

This is where the Red Cross steps in. And while the Red Cross doesn’t directly accept donations of food, clothing and household items, that didn’t prevent the community from donating by the truckload.

“While we didn’t accept these donations, we used U-Haul in order to help the community groups that do accept donations,” said James Knowles, Red Cross Manager of Donor Relations. “Distributing donations is not the Red Cross’s area of expertise, but we’re certainly going to help if we can, and that’s what U-Haul allowed us to do.”

A Colorado resident, Knowles didn’t hesitate to take a break from fundraising and managing individual donor relationships to play the role of an in-kind donation supervisor in the heart of disaster.

In Middletown, Knowles and his fellow responders were passing out rakes, shovels, tarps, ash sifters, masks and water when an 8 year-old boy felt the urge to thank them for their help.

“I was talking with one of my fellow Red Crossers when all of the sudden I felt a hug from a young boy,” Knowles said. “I’m a hugger, so I really appreciate this form of gratitude. I’m also a high-fiver, so after the hug, I asked him to wind up and give me the hardest high-five he could. He backed up about 10 feet and let ’er rip! This seems like a small thing, but personal interaction goes a really long way when you’ve lost everything.

Disaster Responder logo

“We couldn’t do what we did without U-Haul,” Knowles added. “The communities affected by this disaster are better off because of U-Haul’s donation. If I was going to apply single words or phrases to what U-Haul’s support provides they would be words like ‘hope,’ ‘survival’ and ‘the means to keep going.’”

U-Haul has been aiding communities in times of trouble through the Red Cross for many years. Now as an official Disaster Responder, U-Haul has embraced a clearly defined role that enables it to bring help and hope to those dealing with devastation.

Were you impacted by the California fires or have you benefited from U-Haul Company’s disaster response in the past? Please share with us in the comments box below.

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