The apocalyptic orange skies in photographs of wildfires ravaging Oregon and California are images Lynette Nyman has seen before.
The Minnesota Red Cross worker was met by the Mars-like skies and charred landscape when she was sent to Colorado Springs a few years ago. Now, she’ll board a plane Saturday to Portland, Ore., to again help a community in crisis — one of at least 75 Minnesotans responding to the massive wildfires on the West Coast.
“It’s harrowing and tragic,” said Nyman, of Minneapolis, who’s been part of disaster relief in places from Haiti to Bangladesh as a communications manager for the Red Cross. “All those unknowns really are wrenching for people and hard to deal with, especially in this COVID environment.”
Along with Nyman, the American Red Cross in Minnesota and the Dakotas is sending nine volunteers to Oregon and two mobile trucks from Duluth and Minneapolis to distribute food. Another 65 Minnesotans, mostly firefighters and other support crew, are battling blazes in California, Oregon and Washington as well as Idaho and Montana, according to the Grand Rapids-based Minnesota Interagency Fire Center, which coordinates with multiple state and federal agencies.
Leanne Langeberg of Grand Rapids is one of them, passing charred ponderosa pines and grasslands as air tankers dropped fire retardant and helicopters released buckets of water in Montana.
She’s been in Roundup, a small city about an hour north of Billings, since last week and will stay at least until next week, assisting with communications about the BobCat fire, which has burned 30,000 acres and is 60% contained.
While she’s not on the front lines, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources employee, who handles public information for the Interagency Fire Center, is providing critical behind-the-scenes support, working 14-hour shifts listening to briefings and giving updates to the Red Cross and the public. Then Langeberg gets a brief respite, sleeping in a tent on the county fairgrounds, where the temps have swung from below freezing to 100 degrees.
“To be able to come together and help our neighboring state in need and just being a part of an experience at a national scale is quite incredible,” Langeberg said. “When we are in our time of need, they will step up.”
Nyman, who will provide community updates in Oregon for the Red Cross, is preparing for the inspiring aspects of responding to a disaster but also the heartbreaking stories of families who have lost everything.
“I have this unique opportunity to see people at their most trying time, at their most grateful time and really see the humanity at its best,” Nyman said as she packed her comfortable clogs, sleeping bag and hand sanitizer for the trip. “It’s a great privilege to be a witness to these moments in people’s lives.”
Minnesota crews have also assisted the similarly named Bobcat fire near Los Angeles, which has devastated more than 26,000 acres since it started Sunday, according to the U.S. Forest Service. Despite Blackhawks overhead and fire crews on the ground fighting the fire along steep terrain and in poor air quality, the fire remained only 6% contained as of Friday.
The Minnesota Interagency Fire Center says it has also sent two dozen fire engines and other vehicles to help fight the West Coast fires. More help is on the way, with the Minnesota Red Cross likely sending more volunteers to the region in the weeks to come.
“This is an incredibly large disaster,” said Carrie Carlson-Guest, spokeswoman for the Red Cross.
The wildfires come after an already busy year for disaster relief organizations. Just in the last month, the local Red Cross has deployed nearly 150 people to disasters out of state — from Texas and Louisiana to help with the Hurricane Laura aftermath to eastern Iowa after it was hit by a derecho.
“This is kind of nonstop,” Carlson-Guest said of 2020. “Thankfully we don’t get earthquakes, we don’t get hurricanes [in Minnesota]. We do have these generous volunteers.”
To donate money or blood or to volunteer, go to redcross.org.