October 17, 2017

Image of two UC Berkeley volunteers in particle masks having a conversation

Shihong Xu, a UC Berkeley junior public health major, and Sarah Petnic, a 2017 graduate of the public health school, converse inside an evacuation center in Santa Rosa on Friday.
Photo // Jeremy Snowden

Matthew Smith spent his Friday night cleaning a toilet at an evacuation center in Santa Rosa. It was the fourth time since Monday the UC Berkeley senior stayed up all night helping the hundreds of Sonoma County residents who fled the roaring wildfires that have destroyed thousands of buildings and killed 35.

On Monday night, Smith, 33, drove to the Santa Rosa Veterans Memorial Building across from the Sonoma County Fairgrounds and started mopping floors, hauling garbage and talking with anyone who needed a sympathetic ear.

No one asked him. He just showed up. By his count he’s missed his mid-term, skipped a term paper and has spent some $750 of his own money to buy and donate flashlights and essential supplies from Target.

“I was there to do the stuff that no one else wanted to do, what needed to be done,” said Smith, a Marine Corps veteran who fought in Iraq. “I know I can work, I can clean. I know about social work. I’m a Marine. I know first aid and triage. I can deal with stress.”

At first it was just Smith driving to Santa Rosa each night, but by Friday he’d called in help: seven other UC Berkeley students, staffers and alumni, all with military experience or training in public health. They were just some of the UC Berkeley students who responded to the devastating fires; others have raised money on Sproul Plaza or opened their fraternity houses to evacuees.

Smith’s group worked for 12 hours, 4 p.m. To 4 a.m., Friday to Saturday, cleaning, sanitizing, mopping and scrubbing the veterans building, normally empty but opened up this week as a shelter for fire evacuees. Around them doctors, nurses and Red Cross volunteers administered medication, served meals and helped people who had lost everything start to piece together their lives.

“It is things like fires that we don’t expect to be part of an infectious disease outbreak,” Allie Jones, who is getting her master’s in public health, said as she sanitized door knobs in a busy hallway. “With all the different tragedies that can happen, this is something I can make a small difference on.”

By Will Kane
Read the full story at Berkeley News