Resource center at the Corralitos Community Church.
(Nick Ibarra/Lookout Santa Cruz)

Training program seeks to shrink number of ‘spontaneous volunteers’ during wildfires, disasters

During wildfires and disasters, well-meaning but untrained “spontaneous volunteers” emerge to defend lives and property but the lack of training can sometimes mean they are putting themselves and others in danger. It’s a controversial issue but a nonprofit group has a middle-ground solution.

When the CZU Lightning Complex fire devastated Santa Cruz County last summer, officials were faced with an odd predicament — what was to be done about the well-meaning but untrained “spontaneous volunteers” who put themselves and others in danger while attempting to save property?

It’s a controversial issue.

Without the proper disaster response training, officials say volunteer disaster responders can potentially risk their own lives, the lives of others and delay or divert assistance from those already in urgent need. But the SLV Civilian Fire Responderswhich was criticized by local fire officials for its members’ untrained fire mitigation efforts during last year’s blaze — claimed they needed to defend their properties as the state’s fire agency struggled with low staffing while faced with a historically devastating fire season.

In an attempt to reach a middle ground, the Santa Cruz County Community Emergency Response (CERT) team, conducts a free online 20-hour training course for novices to get up to speed with safe mitigation practices. The group is made up of volunteers certified in response methods by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Originally, firefighters conducted the CERT training, but with sluggish funding the training stopped. In 2015, the CERT Auxiliary was formed as a nonprofit organization designed to mirror fire support agencies, with each branch supporting its local fire department.

Officials hope the program, which has branches all over the county, will help reduce the number of well-meaning but untrained volunteers. In the wake of the CZU fire, Mary Edmund, who heads CERT’s Santa Cruz Auxiliary says she has seen a surge of interest. The more people who complete the training, she said, the better it is for the community.

The Santa Cruz Auxiliary has more than 1,500 members, though Edmunds noted the number of active volunteers is smaller.

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CERT’s mission, Edmund says, is “to provide surveillance info for first responders who get overwhelmed,” while battling increasingly large and uncontrollable fires.

The CERT training, which is open to people of any age and physical ability, consists of six modules covering topics such as fire safety, disaster medical operations, search and rescue, and more. Volunteers are needed for many different purposes including administrative tasks and neighborhood mapping and everyone who completes the training receives a pack of personal protective equipment and supplies: a backpack, vest, first aid supplies and more.

In Boulder Creek, William Monroe leads CERT’s efforts as team leader and acting logistics & operations chief.

At pre-pandemic Boulder Creek meetings, “we had advanced training in topics like PG&E hazards, CHP Traffic Control, Stop the Bleed, CPR/AED, Red Cross Shelter set up,” he said. “We also had various drills for earthquakes, mass casualty or search and rescue. We helped Cal Fire and the Sheriff with road closure control for both Bear Fires.”

But much like all other aspects of life since March 2020, the course has had to be adjusted to fit COVID safety restrictions, with the group indefinitely suspending the in-person components of the program.

But despite the pandemic, Monroe and his Boulder Creek crew have been busy.

“We helped with traffic control for Sergeant Gutzwiler’s memorial, gave out water after the SLV water lines were destroyed, staffed phones and Cal Fire in Felton, surveyed over a thousand people with the County Sheriff for debris flow evacuation issues, helped staff fire evacuation centers in Santa Cruz, TEP Debris Flow Evac in SLV, and help with vaccine clinics in Santa Cruz,” he listed.

However, not all volunteers are required to participate in all activities, he said. “You can volunteer for as little or as much as you have time for and back off when you don’t.”

To that end, CERT offers three tiers of training, depending on people’s abilities and interests:

  • Training for people to learn how to keep themselves and their families safe
  • Training for those who want to stay and help within their neighborhood
  • For people who are willing to help outside their own neighborhood

A fourth tier is also available for those who want to become members of CERT leadership. Seacliff resident Eileen O’Connor, who has taken on a leadership role, says she started with the basics: survival.

“If you don’t survive, the rest doesn’t matter,” she said. “First, are you okay, is your family safe? Then you can decide if you’re ready to move outside and work as part of a team at that point.”

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Are you ready for a wildfire?

Don’t get caught off guard. Use Lookout’s Wildfire Resource Center to get you and your family ready for the high-risk summer months as well as everything you need in the event of a fire.