Sonoma County fire survivors embrace roles as guides and counselors to latest wave of disaster victims
Vita Iskander had no intention of taking a leadership role when she walked into Santa Rosa’s Unitarian Universalist church on Oct. 25, 2017. Seventeen days earlier, her home in Hidden Valley Estates had burned in the Tubbs fire. Still in something of a daze, she attended a meeting held by United Policyholders, whose bland name belies its righteous role as a consumer advocacy group in the murky world of insurance.
Iskander was there to gather information. She could not foresee that night that she would soon become an expert on insurance issues herself, and go on to create a blog and website that would help thousands of fire survivors navigate the ordeal of settling claims with their insurers.
The speaker advised those with the same insurance companies to band together. Iskander looked around at her fellow State Farm customers and waited for someone to take the lead.
“Honestly, I didn’t want to form a group,” she said. “I really wanted someone else to form a group.”
She shared that account earlier this month on a Zoom webinar called Survivor 2 Survivor, moderated by Jenny Chamberlain, district director for Sonoma County Supervisor James Gore. The conversation series, at 6 p.m on Wednesdays, gives recent wildfire fire survivors the chance to engage with and learn from survivors of past infernos ― those who’ve “been there and done that,” said Brad Sherwood, like Iskander a block captain in his neighborhood and Tubbs fire survivor.
They belong to a growing club they wish did not exist ― a band of fire survivors burned out of their homes. “It’s a s--t club,” said Iskander, “and we don’t want any more people in it.”
Still, in that Sonoma County club of thousands, the willingness of people like Iskander, Sherwood and others to share their time, advice and empathy with new disaster victims isn’t just generous. These days, it’s increasingly necessary. The frequency of catastrophic wildfires in the region and across the state has created ever larger numbers of people burned out of their homes. And many of those survivors are turning to Sonoma County for direction.
“Unfortunately, you all are looked to as experts in this area,” said Ryan Coonerty, a Santa Cruz County supervisor whose district was badly damaged by the CZU Lightning Complex fires. One of the first calls Coonerty made, after that fire gained a foothold in his district, was to Gore.
Coonerty’s goal: “To get some wisdom from people who have already learned how to effectively respond to this, so we’re not reinventing the wheel.”
Sherwood and his fellow block captains have heard from survivors from Santa Cruz, Southern California and Oregon. “We’ve even heard from communities yet to be impacted by fires, but they’re trying to proactive,” he said.
He, for one, is glad to help. “Other than being with my family,” he said, “there’s nothing I’d rather be doing than helping a stranger who just lost their home.”
’We can’t help ourselves’
Five months after Iskander walked into that church, she unveiled her new website, Neighbors Together. It is packed with practical information that has saved fire survivors time, heartache and ― conservatively ― hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Had she always wanted to start a website? “Are you kidding?” she said. “I didn’t know anything about them.”
But she dove in. Her site became a clearinghouse of information for fire survivors. “Then I could direct people to it” so they “were not out there in the cold, possibly getting shafted because they didn’t know something,” she said.
Lately, she allows, the website has gotten “stale.” Between her full-time job and the time demands of renovating her new house in Sebastopol, she has less time and energy for it.
But in the next breath, she talks about how she reflexively sprung into action after the Walbridge fire destroyed more than 150 homes as it burned across 86 square miles of northwestern Sonoma County this month and last. She jumped on the phone with fellow helpers Janet Leisen, Lisa Frazee, Anne Barbour and Pamela Van Halsema, marshaling the supplies they would bring to aid centers for survivors. Jennifer Gray Thompson of the Rebuild Northbay Foundation approved a quick grant to pay for those items.
Said Iskander, “We can’t help ourselves.”
Survivor goes to Sacramento
Lisa Frazee was never “a joiner,” as she puts it. After losing her Wikiup home in the Tubbs fire she became a block captain “for a selfish reason ― I needed help rebuilding my house. I could not figure out how to get through it by myself.”
But the work became “therapy,” said Frazee, a teacher, who soon became an activist and dynamo. Volunteering at the Healdsburg aid center after the Walbridge fire, she met a survivor who’d just spoken with her insurance adjuster. The woman was relieved: the adjuster had informed her she would receive two years of rent and other payment to cover additional living expenses.