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For Creek Fire Evacuees, Medical Needs May Complicate Relief Efforts

Kerry Klein
Valley Public Radio
Robert Alessandro, who was evacuated from his home because of the Creek Fire, receives regular dialysis treatments in Clovis.

So far, the Red Cross has provided hotel rooms for 2,300 evacuees from the Creek Fire and counting. But because of so much demand, people may need to be prepared to stay out of county—and that can prove difficult for those with medical conditions.

When the evacuation order came down on Wednesday, Robert Alessandro wasn’t at his home in Tollhouse. He was at a Clovis clinic hooked up to a dialysis machine. The 62-year-old with end-stage renal disease receives the treatment every other day. “I’m pretty out of it” after treatment, he said. “It takes a lot out of you.”


Alessandro lives alone, and the fact that he wasn’t allowed back through the road barricades meant he came away with no belongings other than his wallet, his phone, and the kit bag of supplies he brings with him to his dialysis appointments. “I tried yesterday to get back to my house just to get medicine, and that's not happening,” he said. “They won't let you through no matter what.”


Eventually, Alessandro found his way to the Red Cross evacuation center at Clovis North High School. Although he usually takes medical transportation to his dialysis appointments, he happened to have his landlord’s SUV the day of the evacuation and had slept in it that night. But he needed a more long-term solution and knew the organization was providing free hotel and motel stays for people displaced by the fire.


When volunteers told Alessandro the nearest available hotel room was in Visalia, however, he said he was concerned that being so far would put him out of range of his medical ride service. So, with a cane in one hand and the free Jersey Mike’s lunch provided by the Red Cross in the other, he opted out and slowly made his way back to his car. “I’ve just got to make do and find a place so they can pick me up on an every-other-day basis, so that’s what I’m doing now,” he said.


"We do not turn away people,” said Red Cross representative Cindy Huge.

Alessandro said he wasn’t sure what he was going to try next, but he said he knew worrying wouldn’t help him. “To be concerned about it is to waste more time,” he said.

Unlike Alessandro, Jamie Neville, who came to the Red Cross after being evacuated out of her North Fork home with her partner, did accept a hotel room in Visalia. It wasn’t ideal, she said, but she wasn’t going to turn down a place to stay, especially since it might be October by the time they’re allowed back home. She said the organization had promised them the room until the evacuation order is lifted. “The Red Cross has been absolutely wonderful, we are so blessed to have them,” she said.

Elizabeth Hutchins-Kipp, chairperson of the Big Sandy Rancheria tribe in Auberry, also said that the closest rooms the Red Cross could find rooms for many members of her community were in Hanford and Visalia. Other evacuees shared that they had left their contact information with the organization, awaiting a call back when volunteers had found a room in a specific location or with other preferred circumstances, like in a hotel that allows pets.


“The Red Cross is going to make sure that everyone is going to have a safe place to stay, because that’s what we do. We do not turn away people,” said Red Cross representative Cindy Huge.


Although Huge couldn’t speak to specific evacuees’ circumstances, she confirmed that people seeking the organization’s accommodations may need to be prepared for traveling out of the area. “Sometimes people want to stay in a particular area, but if the hotels are saturated of course they cannot. They have to stay where we find a room for them,” she said.


Huge also said the centers are staffed with nurses 24 hours a day who can help connect people with medical needs. “If they’ve lost their medication, they’ll discuss that with the nurse and that will be replaced by the Red Cross,” she said.


Robert Alessandro did eventually find a hotel room in Clovis, at least for a few nights, thanks to volunteers with Clovis Hills Community Church. “It was a wild day yesterday, but it worked out,” he said afterward. He’s grateful for what the Red Cross could provide - including that free sandwich.


Update on 9/15/20: The Red Cross was able to find a hotel room for Alessandro in Fresno, in close range of his dialysis clinic and the hospital where he will need surgery later this month.

Kerry Klein is an award-winning reporter whose coverage of public health, air pollution, drinking water access and wildfires in the San Joaquin Valley has been featured on NPR, KQED, Science Friday and Kaiser Health News. Her work has earned numerous regional Edward R. Murrow and Golden Mike Awards and has been recognized by the Association of Health Care Journalists and Society of Environmental Journalists. Her podcast Escape From Mammoth Pool was named a podcast “listeners couldn’t get enough of in 2021” by the radio aggregator NPR One.
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