Randallstown nurse volunteering at California wildfire shelter says she has much to be thankful for

Charlene Harven has faithfully kept a “thankfulness journal” for the last two years. Inside, she’ll scribble notes about the little things that remind her to be grateful.

As a Red Cross volunteer who often meets a person right after the worst day of their life, she says it’s easy to find reasons to count her blessings.

When the Randallstown resident boarded a plane heading to fire-ravaged California last week, she tucked that journal into her luggage. She knew she wanted to keep it close.

On Thursday, Harven celebrated Thanksgiving in a Red Cross shelter in Chico, Calif. She ate turkey and stuffing alongside people who, just weeks earlier, had lost their homes to the devastating Camp Fire as it incinerated the small town of Paradise.

Between the long hours working as a shelter nurse, she’s found time to fill her journal.

“I wrote that I’m thankful that I can volunteer for the Red Cross in Chico,” said Harven, 64. “I had both my knees replaced earlier this year and I'm thankful I can work without incident.

“I wrote that I'm thankful that in Maryland, we don’t have these wildfires.”

The Camp Fire’s death toll continues to grow — it had killed 83 people, as of Thanksgiving morning. Its flames have consumed nearly 14,000 residences and roughly 500 commercial buildings, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Some survivors of the wildfire had to escape on foot, reportedly running from the flames as the heat melted the soles of their shoes. While they made it out, many of their homes and belongings have turned to ash. Harven said the people she’s been volunteering with have lost “everything.”

She’s seen some of the devastation for herself. During the drive from the airport to the shelter, Harven looked out her window and saw endless burnt fields. State officials estimate the fire whipped through more than 150,000 acres, about 90 percent of which is now contained.

“It was just black, black, black fields,” she said. “The grass was all burnt and there were no trees. Just acres of black.”

Whenever she goes out into the street, she has to wear a smoke mask to protect her lungs. She wrote “clean air” down in her thankfulness journal.

Her 10-day deployment hasn’t been all bleak. There have been joyful moments, like the day a missing woman rolled into the shelter in her wheelchair.

“Unfortunately, there are still several that haven’t been found,” Harven said. Hundreds of people remain unaccounted for. Some of their names and faces are posted on a bulletin board at the Chico shelter.

But on Thanksgiving Day, she said, the mood was celebratory. About 100 people — victims of the fire alongside volunteers and emergency management personnel — were expected to feast together. The shelter is located at a local junior high school, with the cafeteria perfectly suited for this kind of event.

“You can’t really replace having Thanksgiving at home,” said the shelter’s manager, John Stone. “But we’ll get as close as we can.”

More than 500 Red Cross disaster workers have been helping support those affected by the California wildfires. They’ve helped serve more than 60,000 meals and snacks and distributed more than 16,000 relief items. Harven has contributed to the more than 18,000 health, mental health and spiritual care contacts made.

For Harven, who has spent many years as a Red Cross volunteer, this deployment to Northern California feels especially personal.

Just days before she left, her cousin’s Baltimore home was destroyed in a fire in the middle of the night.

“I’m so grateful,” she said, “that the Red Cross was able to help my own family.”

trichman@baltsun.com

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