Club meets as wildfires threaten Paradise
Smoke from wildfires will continue to create a health hazard for weeks to come in northern California, USA. Rotary clubs like the one in Paradise have been supporting firefighters and handing out dust masks to residents. Photo by Douglas Keister.
Even as forest fires threatened the town of Paradise, California, USA, local Rotary club members decided to hold their weekly meeting 10 July.
As one Rotarian put it, "I may not have a house, but I still have to eat," recalls John Touchette, president of the Rotary Club of Paradise.
Since the fires started, club members have been keeping busy by offering lodging and meals to firefighters battling the blazes, donating phones to an emergency center, and distributing dust masks to residents.
Touchette and his family spent several days living out of his wife's office, away from any immediate danger, after they and almost a third of the town had been evacuated from their homes. "My six-year-old rather enjoyed it initially," he said. "But we weren't getting that much sleep, so we were happy when the evacuation orders were lifted [12 July]."
It was the second time this year that Paradise had been threatened by wildfires; an earlier forest fire had destroyed 70 homes on the west side of town.
Given the circumstances, Touchette sent an e-mail to Paradise club members asking whether they still wanted to meet. He got 30 affirmative responses in the first half hour alone.
The meeting quickly turned to how they could help.
Calls for help
When the club learned the Paradise Emergency Operations Center was having trouble with its antiquated telephones, club members spent $2,240 on 16 phones that flashed when they rang, along with compatible headsets.
Rotarians have also been providing meals, lodging, and showers for out-of-town firefighters -- "adopting fire engines," as Touchette put it. Though most firefighters from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection have housing, many who have come to help from community fire departments do not, forcing some to sleep in their fire trucks.
"I am really proud of my club," Touchette said. "They immediately saw the need and opened their homes. Over the weekend, we served 350 meals to firefighters."
The Paradise club also tracked down and delivered 270 dust masks to the town hall, which had run out after distributing more than 4,000 the previous week. Stan Thompson, an assistant governor for District 5160 and a painting contractor who has access to masks at wholesale prices, ordered an additional 1,560, which are expected to be handed out this week.
"As of right now, the town is safe, but we have had unhealthy air for the past three weeks," Touchette said. "We mainly pray for favorable winds to keep the fires out of town and clear away the smoke."