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Posted on Fri. Jul. 25, 2014 - 12:30 am EDT

Volunteer offers succor amid disaster

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Julia Bauer is at a picnic table somewhere in the Cascade Mountains, a few hours east of Seattle.

She’s talking on a phone, describing to a stranger the peach and pear trees and the vineyards. There’s a valley with a dozen or so small towns, mostly filled with those who make their living off agriculture.

There’s a river that would be perfect for fly fishing.

“It’s a gorgeous area,” she says.

“I’m sure you would like it,” she says to the stranger, as if he were a longtime friend.

She says: “It would be the perfect place to come visit – under different circumstances.”

Right now, that area of Washington is besieged by the largest wildfire in the state’s history.

With a little help from lightning, what started out as four smaller fires this month spread and merged into a 28-square-mile fire.

Then it expanded into a nearly 336-square-mile fire.

Which is what brought Bauer there.

Along with a lot of people like her.

An American Red Cross volunteer, the Fort Wayne resident was deployed to Washington this week to serve as a disaster mental health counselor for families dealing with the stress of the devastation left in the wake of the fire.

There’s been one death during these wildfires, the result of a heart attack that befell a man fighting to save his home.

There have been plenty of homes lost and people displaced by the devastation.

Bauer has seen plenty of devastation in her work with the Red Cross that began around the time of Hurricane Katrina.

She went to New Orleans to help those in that disaster.

She’s been to places including Oklahoma City and Little Rock, Arkansas, helping people through the destruction left by tornadoes.

This is the 24th time she’s been sent to a disaster, according to the local Red Cross.

“Dedicated staff and volunteers like Julia are meeting one-on-one with affected individuals providing mental health services and determining what other needs they have,” said Katherine MacAulay, executive director of the American Red Cross of Northeast Indiana.

In the wake of the wildfires, people are thankful to be alive, Bauer says.

That’s how it always starts, though.

“Then reality steps in,” she says.

They’re living in shelters, in contact with insurance agents – if they have insurance – while living in tight quarters with many other people. They may get tired. They may get agitated.

Bauer is there to help.

“You want to assure them this is perfectly normal,” she says of their feelings.

The idea is to get them back to their normal life as quickly as possible, providing them with clothes or shelter, food or toiletries or even mental health counseling in the process.

Bauer, a licensed counselor who worked for the University of Saint Francis for a time, thrives on helping this way.

It’s easy to see how comforting she can be when she’s talking to a stranger from thousands of miles away, describing the scenery.

“Wish you were here,” she says, without hesitation.

It’s not the only thing she’s done for the Red Cross. In fact, she and her husband have been on the organization’s emergency response vehicles several times, meting out food to those who have needed it in Oklahoma, Arkansas and Alabama.

“It’s what we should be doing,” she says. “It’s no big deal. It’s the right thing to do.”

She’s on a picnic table on the doorstep of a blazing fire, and in three hours she’s scheduled to meet with displaced farmers who have been pushed to their limits, going to work and then, instead of going home, going to a cot in a shelter.

People have not died here like in other places she’s been, which is a ray of hope.

So is the fruit stand she and her partner have spotted nearby.

Inside, there’s a generator going – something still running among all that’s been brought down or torched.

“They supposedly have great peach shakes,” she says.

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