Picture a city the size of Manhattan. Now picture 10 Manhattans ablaze.
Nearly everything is gone. Seared car frames line the street. People sift through the ash where their homes used to be for whatever may have survived: jewelry, wedding gifts, a vase their mother gave them. Everything smells like melted plastic and smoke.
That is what James Frost, a natural resource manager at Berlin Lake in Ohio, walked into when he volunteered to help Paradise, California, recover from the 2018 Camp Fire. The fire is the largest and deadliest wildfire in California’s history.
Frost traveled 2,500 miles from his home in Ohio to help these communities recover – no easy task.
The blaze covered more than 153,00 acres of land, forcing 52,000 people to evacuate from their homes, destroying 18,000 buildings and causing more than $16.6 billion in damages.
“I was overwhelmed, to say the least,” said Frost. “These people lost everything in the blink of an eye. All of it – their homes, their infrastructure, everything – up in smoke.”
Clad in steel-toed boots, a hard hat and safety gear, Frost began the first of 72 days working as a quality assurance inspector trying to help put the community back together.
Debris-removal missions for disaster responses are assigned to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Working as a quality assurance inspector, Frost ensured on-site contractors accomplished this task. Clearing scorched infrastructure from the area gave property owners a clean slate to rebuild their homes.
Frost is no stranger to deploying. Since he began working for the Pittsburgh District in 2017, he has volunteered to support eight relief missions, including Hurricane Maria and Tropical Storm Michael.
According to Al Coglio, chief of Emergency Management for the Pittsburgh District, relief deployments are unique opportunities for Department of Defense employees. Anyone can volunteer to deploy to communities devastated by hurricanes, wildfires, earthquakes, or other disasters.
Once a district personnel volunteers, they are instructed to be ready to deploy with little to no notice. Having a “fly-a-way” bag ready that contains protective gear such as gloves, hard hats, eyewear is a must. Sometimes personnel will be alerted in as little as six hours that they need to board a plane to disaster areas.
Nearly 100 district personnel have deployed since 2019 to myriad places such as Florida, Guam, Saipan, and the Northern Mariana Islands.
“We have a saying: ‘all disasters are local,’” said Coglio. “We get temporary power units to communities that don’t have power, so their critical infrastructure is back up and running. They can start to recover.”
Power impacts everything in a community, from critical facilities like hospitals and police stations to simple home amenities like running water. Seeing these areas without power is a major paradigm shift for many who deploy.
“In Puerto Rico, they didn’t have power for more than 100 days. I can’t imagine what that was like,” said Frost. “Seeing these communities without power makes you realize how much you take for granted and how fragile our livelihoods are.”
Deployments are not just about helping communities rebuild their infrastructure. For Kristen Day, an emergency management specialist for the Pittsburgh District, they are about the people getting their lives back.
“Powering up a community with FEMA generators brings life-saving and life-sustaining functions, but it also brings joy and happiness to these devastated communities,” said Day, who has deployed six times in the past few years to places like Guam, Puerto Rico and North Carolina. “Witnessing these people, who haven’t had basic amenities since the disasters, get their hospitals and clean drinking water back is sheer magic.”
For Frost, he was astonished by how resilient people can be.
“They survived a horrible disaster, they lost everything, but they banded together to help one another, friends and neighbors alike,” said Frost. “They took care of each other.”