Conducting Assessments After the Valley Fire

Jason Keller

Army veteran Jason Keller learned hundreds of acronyms during his time in uniform, but he'll hold on to two new ones after providing wildfire relief in Northern California.

After spending eight years in the United States Army and another five years with federal civilian service, I have learned hundreds – maybe thousands – of acronyms. Very few of these have any meaning outside the work place, and most don’t send chills down your spine when you see them.

Growing up, my grandfather always kept a POW-MIA sticker on his vehicle. That acronym is a simplification of something so meaningful and encompasses the lives of so many. It reminds us of Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines who endured serious struggles leaving scars (both visible and invisible) on them, their families, and on a nation.

I can honestly says that prior to the Army, there was never another acronym that meant so much to me. After I deployed abroad, I started losing track with what was going on in Iraq and Afghanistan. While I was elsewhere in the world, my good friends were in harm’s way and being outside the States, I had to rely on military reporting to understand what they were going through. That’s when I learned two new acronyms: KIA and WIA. Killed in action, wounded in action.

Then on Monday 21 September 2015, I entered the city of Middletown, California. The community had recently been affected by the Valley Fire. The event consumed over 1,000 homes and affected many more. When I arrived at the Red Cross headquarters to meet with our points of contact to begin Operation: Mountain Woman, I figured it was going to be a relatively simple operation. Team Rubicon does disaster assessments and we do them well.

Army veteran Jason Keller logs damage assessments during Operation: Mountain Woman in Lake County, CA.

Army veteran Jason Keller logs damage assessments during Operation: Mountain Woman in Lake County, CA.

When I met the two volunteers responsible for the coordination of the Red Cross disaster assessments, they took me outside and gave me an overview of what they needed us to do to assist the community. The task was simple enough: identify the type of structure, the address, rate the damage, and then notate a code to identify observations. The most common I was told we would be logging that day was BTG. I paused for a moment and when the woman recognized I did not know what she was telling me, she said, “Burnt to ground.”

It would be two days later before I would begin doing assessments myself. On a Thursday morning, I hit the road with a partner to assess our identified zones miles away from our staging area. It was getting out to the field that would truly show me what BTG meant. There are a few things comparable to going through an entire neighborhood where people’s homes once stood to see the devastation that such a large fire had left behind.

Thousands of homes were affected by the Valley Fire, hundreds were logged as BTG or "Burnt to Ground."

Thousands of homes were affected by the Valley Fire, hundreds were logged as BTG or “Burnt to Ground.”

BTG meant nothing was left. BTG was an ending to so many stories each of these families had built in those homes that once stood where only rubble was left behind. BTG was the code I noted on a sheet of paper underneath one address on one sheet, that meant the U.S. Marine who once lived at that address must now hold on to the memories of his service because so many treasured possessions had been lost.

This was not the lone acronym I would use that day, however. Across dozens of square miles we would occasionally find a miracle of sorts. NVD. We were able to identify homes that were still standing. For those lucky enough on our assessment sheets we were able to write NVD for “No Visible Damage.”

Both of these acronyms have meaning to the families we would never meet. For myself, they’re acronyms I will never forget.

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