Most of us see the footage of a disastrous event on the news. Wildfires blazing. Mass evacuations. We watch it; we feel terrible about it; we go back to our lives and move on.
But when the burning neighborhoods on TV are your neighborhoods, it’s not that simple. There’s no going back to normal the next day, or the next week, or maybe even the next month.
When it’s your own community that’s affected by a disaster, things are different.
The Thomas Fire was a 2017 wildfire that devastated parts of Ventura and Santa Barbara in Southern California. Investigators believe it started as two separate brush fires that quickly merged into one giant monster, burning for three weeks and resulting in $2.2 billion worth of damage over 440 square miles.
For the Boy Scouts and adults in Troop 111 out of Ventura, things definitely did not go back to normal for a long, long time.
Several families were forced to evacuate. Some could not return for many months.
“It was scary,” assistant Scoutmaster Craig Carey says. “School was closed. The boys were really upset.
“But it also galvanized them. It was one of the reasons the kids were really motivated.”
For Troop 111, it was time to get to work.
One of the local Ventura elementary schools was fortunately mostly unharmed. It just so happened that a Cub Scout pack meets at that school. Thanks to the positive relationships formed over the years between Scouts and the school administrators, the principal knew just who to call for help.
“He said, ‘We’ve got a bunch of displaced families coming here tonight,’ ” Carey says. “They were going to open up the cafeteria and bring in support services for people.”
One problem: Even though the school was OK, the surrounding area was not. Without help clearing away downed limbs and other trash, residents were going to have a hard time getting into the building.
“I said, ‘Let me gather the boys who are available,’ ” Carey says. “It was a completely different campus when it was over.”
Some neighborhoods were still under mandatory evacuation. City officials set up a bus service to allow people to go back into their homes for just an hour or so to gather some belongings before leaving again.
Some citizens would exit the buses with tons of belongings. The Scouts were there to help them load up their cars and be on their way.
“We do tons of service projects, but this was a lot different,” Carey says. “This time, when we were helping folks in line, it was like, ‘That’s my neighbor, and she’s holding a suitcase with the last of her worldly possessions.
“ ‘That’s my second-grade teacher. That’s my gym teacher.’
“This is where they really saw for the first time how important their service to the community was.”
Meanwhile, a local fitness center had been converted into a distribution center for supplies. A group of Scouts showed up to help organize and distribute everything.
A few days later, the owners of the facility were eager to get their business back up and running. With tons of supplies remaining, the Scouts volunteered to move everything to their Scout meeting room so it would be available to more residents down the road.
“I was like, ‘We’ve got space; we’ll take it,’ ” says Cory Friend, chartered organization representative for Troop 102 in Ventura. “We took all the clothes. The leftover water. Food. Toiletries. Diapers. Pet food.
“We said, ‘Let’s get this to people who need it.’ ”
It wasn’t always easy.
The diapers and food had to be transported to one place. Pet supplies had to be driven to a local humane society facility. Other supplies had to be taken to different collection points across the area.
In the end, nothing went to waste, thanks to the Scouts.
“We recite the 12 points of the Scout Law at every meeting, but this is like putting our words into action,” says Zac Leppaluoto, 13, of Troop 102. “We are actively helping the community we live in.
“It also gives the first responders and other adults one less thing they have to do. We’re providing aid for those in need so they can put their efforts towards higher priority or dangerous efforts.”
Then there was the matter of Arroyo Verde Park, a valuable part of the Ventura community. Everybody has heard of it, and most of the Scouts either played there when they were little or hiked there as teens.
The fire was devastating to the park. Grass, groundcover, shrubs, trees … all gone. It needed tons of work even to begin getting back to normal.
Since the Scouts had done service projects on local trails before, park officials knew exactly who to call.
The troop sent Scouts to the park to pick up trash and do erosion prevention on two different occasions.
“Ventura is a small town, so you can really get affected by that kind of damage to the community,” 13-year-old Brayden Jones says. “It was sad, but it also gave me more motivation to help out.”
Whenever a natural disaster strikes, there’s always a well-intentioned initial desire to rush in and help. However, not only could you be interfering with first responders, but you could also be putting your Scouts in danger.
One safe way to help your community after a disaster is to contact other relief organizations like the American Red Cross to find out what they need. Gathering and organizing supplies is not as glamorous as entering a building that has just burned down, but it’s a lot more practical.
Scouts should not be allowed to enter structures that have been severely damaged by storms as part of official Scouting relief work. Damaged structures have been known to collapse, and houses that have been damaged by, say, flooding might be home to any number of toxic chemicals or hazardous materials.