Last summer as fire swallowed dozens of homes in a wide swath across southern Montana, Billings Red Cross volunteer Jill Washburn spent 91 days in the field.
It was the worst fire year since 1910, especially in the Bull Mountains near Roundup, where 73 homes were reduced to ash. The dispossessed needed shelter, food and help starting anew.
The year before, Roundup, Crow Agency and Lodge Grass were swamped in record floods. Washburn was there, too, assisting newly homeless families and evacuees.
If disaster strikes again this summer, she and 33 volunteers on her Yellowstone County Disaster Action Team can deploy in about two hours. Washburn is chairman of the team.
“We’re doing a lot of readiness work,” the 36-year-old disaster veteran said. “A lot of it is just trying to meet the needs of people.”
Although floods are always possible — especially in bare and vulnerable fire scars, what Washburn fears most for the summer of 2013 is another season of fierce wildfires.
The Red Cross has been working to get the word out on its new “Get Ready Montana” campaign. It’s an effort to persuade Montanans to anticipate potential disasters by attending preparedness workshops. The organization also is hoping to recruit new Red Cross disaster responders.
“You can give an hour; you can give 40 hours,” she said. “There is a lot of work to be done. There are opportunities everywhere.”
Washburn's team covers disasters in nine counties — Big Horn, Carbon, Golden Valley, Musselshell, Rosebud, Stillwater, Treasure, Wheatland and Yellowstone — plus the Crow and Northern Cheyenne reservations.
Since June 2010, the team, one of 23 in the state, has responded to 300 emergencies, she said. Not all of the devastation came in the form of catastrophic wildfires and floods. Much of the job is helping families recover from individual tragedies.
“We want Montanans to understand that we are just as committed to helping the victims of smaller-scale emergencies, like home fires, as we are to larger disasters that make the evening news,” said Colleen Tone, disaster director for the Montana Red Cross.
The Red Cross hasn’t maintained an office in Billings since 2008, but volunteers who live here respond quickly when called, Washburn said.
“Four walls won’t make a difference in how we help people,” she said. “We’re here 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.”
She said her team has currently confirmed 15 shelters in the district that can be activated in times of emergency. The team is working on signing up another 15, with the ultimate goal of getting 40 shelters ready to go.
Washburn works her volunteer hours around two jobs — one at Rocky Mountain College, which has the benefit of summers off, and the other at the Montana Harvest store, which has been flexible when duty calls.
“I love my jobs,” Washburn said. “My Red Cross job is full time. I’m on call 24/7.”
Washburn began her volunteer career in 2005 while working at a college in Vermont. Teams from the school were sent south to help deal with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
“Once you really start helping people and making a difference, you can’t go back,” she said.
Much of her work is partnering and communicating with other emergency responders and agencies that can assist victims.
“We do a lot of resources matching,” she said. “It avoids duplication of services.”
In February, Washburn’s team received a Ready Montana Award from the Governor’s Office of Community Service and the Montana Commission on Community Service.