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Above: Oak Manor students accept a matching donation from Pamela’s Products, Inc. Together they donated $8,369.

Valley Fire Relief Fund, four weeks in: major progress and a long road ahead

Friday, October 9, 2015

Four weeks ago today, the Valley Fire erupted across Lake County. The third most destructive wildfire in California’s history, it burned 76,067 acres, 1,958 structures, and left thousands homeless and unemployed. With CalFire recently announcing 100% containment, it’s time to focus on recovery.

One element of that recovery is the Valley Fire Relief Fund, run by North Coast Opportunities (NCO) and Mendo Lake Credit Union (MLCU) in partnership with Savings Bank of Mendocino County, Tri Counties Bank, and United Way of Wine Country. To date, the fund has sent 470 checks in $1,500 increments directly to fire victims, for a total of $705,000. This money is not taxable income, and each individual can decide how best to use the funds toward recovery. 

Before money is disbursed, an NCO staff member or volunteer checks the address to verify damage and, in the case of renters, calls the landlord to confirm tenancy. In most cases, the first time an applicant hears that his or her application was approved is when they open the letter containing the check. “With so many applications, we need to focus on getting everything organized, getting addresses verified, and sending checks out,” said NCO CFO Carolyn Welch. “Making phone calls is a low priority right now, though we do our best to return the many phone calls and e-mails we get every day.”

The response of donors and recipients alike to the Valley Fire Relief Fund has been overwhelmingly positive. Donors are happy to have a trustworthy place to give money, and appreciate that no administrative costs are taken out. (In contrast, relief efforts after the Napa earthquake used an average of 30% in administrative costs.) And, of course, recipients are grateful for the financial assistance. “NCO has been so important for us here in Lake County, like a beacon of light,” said one recipient who asked to remain nameless. “The generosity of NCO and its partners is so beautiful; I’m overwhelmed by it.”

Of course, there are frustrated applicants as well. With over 1,000 applications it’s impossible to review them all at once, and many people are still waiting. The managing committee sorts applications into one of four priority levels, and they are being funded in that order. “We understand that everyone has need and we truly are trying to help everyone if possible,” said Connie Conser, a managing committee member. “Of course, that will depend on how much more money we are able to raise.”

As soon as it became clear how devastating the fire was, financial support poured in from around the country. Thousands of donations ranging from $10 to $5,000 were deposited via PayPal, and many hundreds more were taken to MLCU, Savings Bank, and United Way. There were also large donations from organizations, businesses, and fundraising efforts through sites like GoFundMe.

Major donors include the Tri Counties Bank, which raised $40,000 from its customers and contributed an additional $10,000. The Bay Area Real Estate Information Services group raised $36,500, and Sutter Lakeside Hospital donated $25,000.

Redwood Credit Union Community Fund, Inc. (RCUCFI) – in conjunction with Redwood Credit Union, the Press Democrat, and Senator Mike McGuire – has also made a significant initial contribution from the RCU Lake County Fire Victim Relief Fund, thanks to the generous donations of more than 7,500 donors. RCUCFI has worked in partnership with NCO with administrative support from Community Action Partnership (CAP) Sonoma to provide $150,000 to support 100 grants from victims who have lost their homes and have urgent needs for food and housing. Additionally, they provided 350 Lake County students, teachers, and school staff with gift cards to replenish school clothes and supplies. Additional grants from RCUCFI in conjunction with NCO have also gone to first responders including South Lake Fire District and CalFire firefighters who lost their homes while battling the blaze, and Sheriff Office staff who were serving the community while their homes burned.

“We are inspired by how many people, organizations, and groups have come together to support the needs of Lake County in the wake of these devastating fires,” said Brett Martinez, Redwood Credit Union’s President & CEO. “We’re also grateful for the collaboration and partnership with NCO, CAP Sonoma, and so many others in the community who are working cooperatively together to help identify needs and provide relief to our neighbors in need.”

Often, donations are as touching as they are generous. Tuesday McAsey teaches at Oak Manor and helped organized a coin drive. She explains that 90% of their students qualify for free or reduced lunch, and didn’t expect the drive to take off like it did. “We talked to the students about responsibility to the community, and we literally had kids bringing in their piggybanks,” says McAsey. “We’re so proud of them.” When Pamela’s Products, Inc. – a local business that makes gluten-free products – found out how much the students had raised, they decided to match the funds. Together they donated $8,369.

There are several fundraisers planned, including a benefit concert on October 11 at the Empress Theatre in Vallejo, and a “Neighbors Helping Neighbors” dinner and concert on October 25 at the Redwood Empire Fairgrounds in Ukiah, with tickets available for purchase at Mendo Mill.

Even with so much generous support, there is still about $500,000 in unfunded need based on applications received so far. “We’re so grateful for all the donations, which have been truly incredible,” said managing committee member Elva Hohn. “We’re crossing our fingers that we’re able to raise even more so that everyone who was impacted by this fire can benefit from the fund.”

“People think it’s over,” says Tri Counties Bank Middletown Branch Manager Tyler Fowler. “It’s not over. We still have a long way to go.”