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Red Cross volunteer helping counsel wildfire survivors in Montana

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Posted: Saturday, July 7, 2012 12:13 am | Updated: 10:37 am, Mon Jan 21, 2013.

FAIRBANKS — As a veteran of nine Red Cross deployments, Fairbanks volunteer George Kirchner is no stranger to disasters.

A trained mental health professional, Kirchner has traveled all over the U.S. to counsel victims of hurricanes and floods but has never responded to a wildfire disaster. Now, with wildfires raging across the Western states, Kirchner, 69, will spend his 10th deployment in Montana, working in the Billings area as a disaster mental health supervisor.

“These days they’ve decided I’m good enough to be a manager,” Kirchner said, pointing out that while his work sounds somewhat mundane, it needs to be done.

“They’re going to stuff me in a car and send me out to make sure that everything is going well in the four shelters they’ve got in Billings. I’ll be all over that area there,” Kirchner said. “You’ve got to get out there and make sure everybody’s doing well, that you’re finding what their needs are, getting people there, intercepting crisis’ for personnel and people in the shelters, arranging for all the logistics that need to happen to keep somebody going.”

Kirchner said that even though his volunteer work takes him away from his job and his home for weeks at a time, he loves doing it and doesn’t plan to quit anytime soon.

“I’m looking to celebrate my 90th birthday doing this,” Kirchner said.

A record-breaking wildfire season has forced evacuations in Montana as well as Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico, Idaho and California. Colorado has been hardest hit, with more than 35,000 residents forced to evacuate.

As of Friday, the Ash Creek Complex Fire burning in the Custer National Forest in eastern Montana had consumed 248,600 acres, up from 170,000 acres on July 2, according to the NASA website.

Volunteers interested in deploying to Colorado may contact the Fairbanks Red Cross office at 456-5937, according to Disaster Services Training Lead James Benzschawel. Several volunteers are needed to do client casework, work in supply warehouses and to handle logistics, Benzschawel said.

Contact staff writer Dorothy Chomicz at 459-7590.

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