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North Bay Fire Relief fund reaches $18 million in donations for victims

Richard Vignone and his neighbor Joe Montano greet one another after seeing their homes, Monday Oct. 16, 2017 in Larkfield. (Kent Porter / Press Democrat) 2017

ELOÍSA RUANO GONZÁLEZ,

Donations continue to roll in to the North Bay Fire Relief fund from all corners of the globe, as organizers look for ways to expand their reach, providing support to individuals who lost jobs and wages in the region’s wildfires.

The effort, spearheaded by the Redwood Credit Union, state Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, and The Press Democrat, has now raised nearly $18 million from more than 25,000 donors across the Bay Area and as far away as the United Kingdom, Switzerland and China. An anonymous donor from New York sent a $1 million check just this past week.

“It’s becomes so clear over the past couple of weeks that the impact of the fires goes well beyond those who lost their homes,” said Steve Falk, CEO of Sonoma Media Investments, which owns The Press Democrat.

The deadly, wind-fueled fires that ignited Oct. 8 across the region leveled thousands of homes, as well as hotels, restaurants and wineries, affecting landscapers, housekeepers and service workers who depended on them to earn a living.

So far, $11 million has been allocated for wildfire victims, and more than 3,000 people in Sonoma, Napa, Mendocino and Lake counties have received funds. The aid recipients include at least 80 first responders who lost their homes.

“We’re working to equitably spread the funds across the four counties,” said Matt Martin, the Redwood Credit Union’s community and government relations vice president.

Over the past few weeks, fund officials have been working with nonprofits such as the United Way of the Wine Country to distribute $1,000 checks to about 1,500 people who lost their homes, regardless if they owned or rented. They also worked with Redwood Empire Food Bank and Community Action of Napa Valley to provide those families with food.

Now, they’re hearing from families who didn’t lose homes but are struggling to put food on their tables or cover their rent or mortgage after losing jobs or work hours.

McGuire estimated up to 7,000 jobs were lost in Sonoma County alone since the fires — most of them in the tourism and service sector.

“You have restaurants that burned down. You have wineries that have been impacted,” McGuire said. “Many hotels closed or saw significant drops in bookings during the fire.”

Martin said the relief fund is teaming up with Community Action Partnership of Sonoma County and Santa Rosa-headquartered California Human Development to reach out to farmworkers and service workers who need aid.

Many have been afraid to seek services at the Local Assistance Center set up on the first floor of The Press Democrat building on Mendocino Avenue because they’re undocumented, said Anita Maldonado, CEO of California Human Development.

They’ve instead come to her agency, which provides assistance and outreach to farmworkers, low-income families and others in the North Bay and Central Valley.

Her agency will receive $500,000 to assist families impacted by the wildfires, Maldonado said.

“We want to make sure that the folks who are here, who made Wine Country what it is, stay here,” she said.

A nonprofit organization, the relief fund was created by the three partners with support from emergency and relief agencies, including Cal Fire, the state Office of Emergency Services, local and state officials, nonprofits and community leaders.

Redwood Credit Union is covering all administrative costs related to the fund to ensure 100 percent of the donations go to supporting fire victims.

The fund also has teamed up with school districts and community colleges to assist students who lost homes in the fires. McGuire said fund officials have been handing out over the past week $500 gift cards to hundreds of children to replace school supplies, books and clothing. Nearly 150 children in Mendocino and Lake counties received cards, while 80 others got them in Napa County, he said.

In Sonoma County, the Rincon Valley school district received 110 gift cards for its students. Santa Rosa City Schools, the largest district in the county, is expected to get nearly 800 gift cards for students who lost homes, while Mark West Union will receive about 230 cards.

Fund officials are still waiting on tallies from Piner-Olivet and Sonoma Valley school districts, McGuire said.

“We’re talking 2,000 to 3,000 students across the four-county region,” he said, referring to those displaced by the fires.

School districts only provide the number of students — not names, McGuire said. Superintendents then work with their staff to hand out the cards at each of the school sites.

McGuire encouraged anyone who lost homes, jobs or wages to apply for assistance, regardless of their immigration status.

“We do not share any information with any government entity,” he said. “It’s 100 percent confidential.”

You can reach Staff Writer Eloísa Ruano González at 707-521-5458.