Verizon responds to worst ever western wildfires

By the numbers, the 2015 wildfire season in the Western U.S. is now the worst on record, with 11 million acres burned (according to the National Interagency Fire Center), at least twenty lives lost, and thousands of homes, buildings and businesses destroyed. This is why the Verizon Foundation approved grants totaling $25,000 to the American Red Cross. ARC shelters housed 1,130 people in six Northern California shelters on just a single night in September.

Spurred by the California drought and hot, dry weather throughout much of the West, a devastating fire season that began early in Alaska and Washington is now nearing completion in California. In September, the Valley Fire in Napa and Sonoma Counties, and two smaller blazes burned 2,000 structures, claimed 6 lives and forced more than 12,000 evacuations, causing an estimated $2 billion in damages. 

In Washington State, wildfires consumed 1,150 square miles; breaking the previous record set during 2014. Across the West, tens of thousands have evacuated their homes and millions have been breathing smoky air filled with wildfire particulates.  

  • 11 million acres burned in the West, most since records began in 1960
  • Alaska: most acres burned—nearly 5 million
  • California’s September fires: most homes destroyed—1,300
  • Washington: 3 firefighters killed in fast-moving Chelan Complex fires

Numbers and headlines only tell part of the story. During a wildfire, the Verizon network team responds immediately to service outages, knowing how much first responders and citizens rely on wireless service in time of crisis. The combination of wildfires, loss of power and cell service outages can isolate a community. That’s why Verizon network technicians answer midnight calls to repair cell sites and refuel the generators that keep cell service operating when commercial power is down.  

This is a season of firsts for the Verizon Crisis Response Team (VCRT) which provided more than 300 smartphones and other devices at one time to support firefighters in Oregon and Washington. Among that record number are several network extenders—delivering improved call performance at remote fire command centers. When necessary, the Verizon network team also provides temporary, mobile cell sites to help firefighters, including COWs (Cells on Wheels), (COLTs) Cells on Light Trucks and Rats (Repeaters on a Trailer). Firefighters in remote camps even used Verizon wireless connections to download infrared heat photos taken during overnight flyovers—to help identify hotspots and shifts in direction.

The $25,000 in Verizon Foundation grants goes to the Red Cross Western Wildfire fund to help cover the cost of emergency shelters, meals, relief supplies and cleanup kits for evacuees. Beyond those immediate needs, the Red Cross provides counseling support as fire victims struggle to cope with the intense stress of losing homes and loved ones.

“Everyone who goes through a disaster experiences some level of stress, grief, fear and loss,” says Tory Fiedler, a Red Cross mental health worker who is on the front lines of wildfire disaster. “Our goal is to help people move toward recovery—and essential to moving toward recovery is to begin addressing and coping with the intense stress as quickly as possible.”

Together with firefighters, Red Cross relief workers and many partners in social services agencies, Verizon employees will continue to run to the crisis to maintain the critical lines of communication that keep us all connected.