The sky is an alarming swirl of gray and orange. You can’t tell just by looking if it’s day or night. Everything smells burnt. Chaos surrounds you. You’re standing in a parking lot of a WalMart in Clearlake, experiencing firsthand the Mendocino Complex Fire of 2018. Your family is huddled inside someone else’s tent, under donated sleeping bags. You’re not sure what you long for most at this moment: information about what’s happening to your home and your neighborhood, or a lungful of clean air.
For most of us, the lucky ones, this is just the stuff of nightmares. But for the thousands displaced by the wildfires that have raged across California the last couple of years, the nightmare became reality.
It’s all too easy to imagine the panic, the anguish, the sense of adrenaline-soaked high alert that that person in the WalMart lot is grappling with. Imagine then, in that state of dread, seeing a soot-covered Dodge Ram pickup pull up and a stranger step out wanting nothing from you other than to help. He’s got water, clothing, supplies. He’s got pet food—he’s particularly concerned about your animals. He gives you what information he has. He asks about your immediate needs. He gives whatever comfort and kindness he can give. Then he’s off to the next family.
There is no time to ask the man where he came from. If there were, he would have told you he was from Morgan Hill, an almost three-hour drive to the south in normal circumstances. You didn’t catch his name, either.
It’s Michael Lancaster.
In the last three years, Lancaster has found himself in the middle of just about every major environmental catastrophe the state of California has experienced. He was there at the Sobranes Fire in Big Sur, the Thomas Fire and the resulting mudslides in Santa Barbara County, the ruinous Carr Fire near Redding and many others. His job, as he saw it, was just to lend help to people (and animals) in distress.
He was not at any of these places in any kind of official capacity. He is a trained firefighter, but asthma took him out of circulation years ago. He now works installing fire-prevention sprinkler systems in commercial and residential buildings. He goes from one crisis to another solely as a volunteer, to put his experience and know-how to service in helping people who are desperate for help.
Obviously, Lancaster is on the receiving end of a lot of gratitude for what he does, and on Saturday, Oct. 6, friends and associates in Morgan Hill will come together for a party to celebrate Lancaster’s impulse to help in a crisis.
The event is the idea of Marsha Edick, a local private investigator and friend of Lancaster, who accompanied him on his most recent trip to help the relief efforts in Clearlake. Edick and another of Lancaster’s friends, Pam Cummins St. Cloud, are arranging the event that will honor Lancaster with food and drink, testimonials and even a short film on his charitable work.
At first, Lancaster wanted nothing to do with such a party. “I was embarrassed at first,” he admits. “I don’t do any of this for recognition. I do it only because it needs to be done. But now, I’ll just go with the flow, because Marsha just would not let it go.”
“This is not his job,” said Edick referring to the many rescue missions that Lancaster takes on. “He is not compensated for it. He’s just one of the kindest hearts I’ve ever met.”
From Lancaster’s viewpoint, the Oct. 6 event isn’t really about him but about the community behind him. “I’m just a guy who loads stuff up in his truck,” he says. “This community backs me tremendously by donating dog food, cat food, supplies—whatever is needed. I don’t even pay for my gas. The gas money is donated, too. My community backs me up.”
There is an enormous difference between people who are willing and able to help in a crisis—that would include a lot of us—and those who actively look for such opportunities—an exceeding rare number. In his home west of Morgan Hill, where he lives with his wife Cortney, Lancaster has three police/fire scanners running around the clock. He’s looking for any situation, from San Jose to San Benito County, where he might be able to do some good.
If a fire breaks out locally, he jumps into his truck no matter the hour. Often, he beats firefighters to the scene, looking specifically to help with animal rescue. “I want to make sure that the animals are OK. They can’t speak for themselves. We have to speak for them and help them out.”
The Dodge Ram remains fully loaded at all times, with water and supplies but also with medications, bandages, ropes, kennels and animal food. He is always poised to help. When he sees a homeless person in or around Morgan Hill, he’ll often help with clothing and supplies
Last summer, he established a Facebook page designed to keep people informed about the humanitarian needs of South County, titled “On the Scanner Happening Now Morgan Hill South County.” In just over a year, it has attracted more than 5,700 members and acts as a kind of community warning system on everything from fires to traffic accidents. He has worked closely as a volunteer with the local non-profit All Animal Rescue & Friends (AARF).
“He responds to every single incident,” said Edick, who added that Lancaster is particularly good at dealing with livestock in a crisis. “He’s very familiar with livestock and how they behave in panic mode,” she said. “They can be dangerous because of their size, but he very calmly gathers them and gets them out of there.”
Lancaster, who turns 40 next year, grew up in the small foothills town of Rough and Ready, just west of Grass Valley. Reared by his grandparents, young Michael was in 4-H and FFA, and was an Explorer Scout at 14. He joined the local volunteer fire department at 16. “They put me through all the training,” he says of his youth in Rough and Ready. “Got my license to drive the big fire truck, EMT, the whole thing.”
Even then, wildfires were a common occurrence around Rough and Ready, and when he wasn’t fighting fires, he was living an idyllic rural American youth, hunting and fishing. Asthma prevented him from pursuing a career in firefighting, so instead he’s made it a calling.
Still, he insists he’s little more than an instrument in the community’s desire to look out for its own. “The very first trip I ever did, up to Lake County, I just put out a message on Facebook that I was going. The community bombarded me (with offers of assistance). It was, ‘Where do you want us to meet you? Where are you going to be?’ My truck was full of stuff in no time.”
Marsha Edick says that Lancaster is “almost a part of my family.”
“When I first met him,” she said, “we became fast friends. “We both grew up on a farm; I grew up on a farm in Ohio. We have the same values. Let’s not complicate things. If you say you’re going to do something, you follow through with it. You’re honest to a fault. You don’t take credit for something you didn’t do. And Michael is like that. He would give you the shirt off his back if that’s what it takes.”
Honoring Michael Lancaster
Saturday, Oct. 6, 1-5pm.
Morgan Hill Grange Hall, 40 E. Fourth St, Morgan Hill
$10 suggested donation. [email protected]