In the summers of 2015 and 2016, Northern California experienced an especially devastating wildfire season. The Rocky, Valley, and Clayton Fires severely impacted Veterans who receive care at the Clearlake VA Clinic – part of the San Francisco VA Health Care System. VA employees worked diligently to maintain clinic operations while providing key services to affected Veterans on the ground. In response to these fires, these dedicated VA employees embodied the I-CARE values while taking care of the Veteran community in extraordinarily difficult circumstances.
On July 29, 2015, the Rocky Fire ignited near the Clearlake VA Clinic. Many residents, including Veterans, were evacuated. In the face of road closures and air quality concerns, the VA response team worked around the clock to make sure the clinic stayed open to ensure affected Veterans had access to health care. The team organized an all-volunteer phone bank to contact nearly 2,000 affected Veterans to ensure their well-being and assess their needs. Because of these efforts, the team was quickly able to provide medication and social services to Veterans in need. The team also deployed a mobile satellite unit to key fire shelters in Lake County to provide mental health and medical services to displaced Veterans.
Just a few months later, the Valley Fire started on September 12, 2015 also near the Clearlake VA Clinic. It was the third-most destructive fire in California history. The clinic continued operations despite the loss of one provider’s home and the evacuation of many clinic staff. The team again contacted almost 2,000 affected Veterans to provide key services. A Mobile Vet Center provided social services, medical aid and mental health services for Veterans who were affected by road closures. Additionally, our Voluntary Service staff collected $5,000 in Wal-Mart gift cards to distribute to Veterans in need. This concerted team effort ensured that Veterans affected by these devastating events had the resources they needed to recover and thrive.
The experiences of summer 2015 prepared VA employees to respond quickly when the Clearlake area was threatened by its third major fire. As soon as the Clayton Fire broke out last month, on August 13, 2016, staff started contacting all of the Veterans in the affected area once more to perform welfare checks. Local VA social workers visited all official – and several unofficial – evacuation sites to find Veterans and connect them with the services they needed to get through this difficult time. Now almost a month after the Clayton Fire began, the San Francisco VA is playing an instrumental role in helping the Clearlake community recover from the devastation.
“These people have endured so much in the last year, and so many people have lost everything,” says Mary Ann Nihart, chief nurse of ambulatory care for the region’s Community Based Outpatient Clinics. “You just want to give them all you have. So many of our staff have been enthusiastic about connecting with our Veterans and helping them get back on their feet. We’ve had an overwhelming number of employees volunteer to be a part of the outreach effort, from front line staff all the way up to senior leadership. It’s truly incredible to see.”
Clearlake Veterans have appreciated VA’s efforts to reach out to them during the fires, especially Veteran Don Paulic who took the time to write a thank you letter.
“I would like to take a moment to recognize Clearlake staff for their efforts and assistance during the Clayton Creek Fire and tell you my story,” he wrote. “The Clayton Creek fire was headed straight for my home. I had 10 minutes to get what I needed and evacuate the area or risk getting stuck and being trapped. I hadn’t had time to take ANYTHING and had nowhere to go. The first few nights I spent living in my car thinking the next day I could go home.”
“When it became obvious this wasn’t going to happen anytime soon, the people at the Clearlake VA, where I was staying in the waiting room during the day, found lodging for me.” – Don Paulic
“In addition to that I was given a survival kit which included necessities like soap, toothbrush, flashlight, t-shirts and so on. Everything I really needed to have. All during these days the outdoor temperature was over 100 degrees. The cool waiting room felt great; what a relief! These people have been a tremendous help and I consider them my friends now,” Paulic wrote.
“I know all of the staff went above and beyond the call of duty. Fortunately, the fire was stopped half way up the field in front my home and I suffered only minor damage in the end; although, there was evidence of the fire everywhere. The Clearlake VA was very supportive at just the right time.”
About the authors: Matthew Coulson is a public affairs specialist with San Francisco VA Health Care System. Gary Hicks provided the excerpts from Mr. Paulic’s letter.
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