North Bay Fire Relief Fund a powerhouse that raised $30 million

The North Bay Fire Relief Fund emerged literally within hours of the outbreak of the fires. The story is one of selfless determination and deep experience with an earlier fire disaster.|

Nearly four months after the October fires burned through Sonoma County, the North Bay Fire Relief Fund - the region’s largest charitable relief fund with $30 million - is still receiving donations. It’s also determining how to spend nearly $10 million of the money donated by people throughout the state and around the world.

The first $20 million raised went to solve immediate needs. Fund administrators said the remainder will be distributed to local nonprofits that are directly supporting the needs of fire survivors. A committee is reviewing grant applications, and plans to distribute funds to qualifying nonprofits now.

The Redwood Credit Union Community Fund, in partnership with Redwood Credit Union, The Press Democrat and state Sen. Mike McGuire, created the fund within hours of the fires’ outbreak. How it came together so quickly and successfully is a story of selfless determination on the part of many.

For Cynthia Negri, board president of the credit union’s Community Fund, Oct. 8 was the usual pleasant Sunday spent with family at her Santa Rosa home. But things were far from ordinary after midnight, when she and thousands of residents awoke to the smell of smoke.

“My husband said it was coming from a fire in Kenwood,” she recalled. When the smoke grew more intense, Negri walked to the front of her house and discovered that a nearby ridge was completely on fire. “We started calling family and preparing to leave the house,” she said. “We evacuated shortly after.”

Over in Hidden Valley, Matt Martin –– Redwood Credit Union’s VP of community and government relations –– had noticed an uptick in wind conditions around 10 p.m., when a strong gust toppled a backyard umbrella.

The family went to bed as usual, but around 1:50 a.m., Martin was awakened by a reverse 911 call about the fire and “went into reactive mode.” He dressed, began waking up neighbors and returned home.

By that time, “about 2:10 a.m., Fountaingrove was clearly ablaze, and we’re just south of there.” Martin began watering down his property, even climbing onto the roof with a hose.

In between wielding the hose and packing for a possible evacuation, Martin was communicating with “the leadership at RCU and RCU Community Fund about what we needed to be doing. Many of us were texting in the early morning hours, discussing the work ahead.”

On Monday morning, despite her temporary displacement, Negri began talking with her board and others about establishing a relief fund.

“We immediately began getting phone calls from the community,” she said. “People asked if we had a relief fund. We’d created a fund for flooding in West County last winter, and we’d had funds for other fires in the past, so there was a precedent. But did we have the resources?

“After all, members of our own staff had been evacuated, someone on our board had lost a home, and the credit union needed to be running and viable to members.”

In Hidden Valley, fire conditions around Martin’s home stabilized by late morning, so he left home around?11:30 a.m. to meet with key staff members at the credit union’s Novato branch to discuss the feasibility of starting a fire relief fund.

“Not only was our Cleveland Avenue building off limits in a fire zone,” he said, “but many of our employees had lost their homes or were evacuated and were fire survivors themselves. We had no idea if we would even have a team to help do the critical setup, and we also needed to get the credit union up and running to take care of member needs. So the first point on our one-page 10-point bullet list was to have a strong community team able to report for work on Tuesday, Oct. 10.”

That’s exactly what happened.

“We were able to get back into the Cleveland Avenue building,” Martin said. “We were wearing masks, there was no power, and we were literally keeping everything together with duct tape and bubble gum. But we confirmed everything we’d been texting and calling about, and went live with the North Bay Relief Fund on Tuesday, Oct. 10, at 6:30 p.m. at a Town Hall at Santa Rosa High School.

“It wasn’t a lightly taken decision to initiate the fund, but it was a very fast decision. We never looked back.”

“I think the North Bay Relief Fund got started so quickly because we had also founded the Lake County fire relief fund two years before,” Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, said. “Nearly $3.5 million was raised in 2015.

“Redwood Credit Union stepped up at that time like I have never seen before. It was a team effort on all sides, that’s the bottom line. And now, by kick-starting the North Bay Fire Relief Fund, we were doing it again. But who would have imagined that we’d raise more than $30 million?”

As of mid-January, nearly $31 million had been raised, making North Bay Fire Relief Fund the largest one dedicated to the immediate needs of North Bay fire survivors. Redwood Credit Union is covering all related administrative costs, including those of partner nonprofits, so that fire survivors receive a full 100 percent of donations.

In addition, nonprofit grants were made to agencies supporting immediate needs of fire survivors, including California Human Development, Catholic Charities of Santa Rosa, Center for Volunteer and Nonprofit Leadership, Community Action Napa Valley, Community Action Partnership, La Luz Center, Lake Area Rotary Club Association, North Coast Opportunities, Petaluma People Services, Redwood Empire Food Bank, UndocuFund and United Way of the Wine Country.

“Out of more than 32,000 individuals and organizations that donated,” said Negri, “about 66 percent are outside the four impacted counties, and we’ve received monies from 21 different countries.”

“The North Bay never ceases to amaze me,” McGuire said. “The worst of times brings out the best in people. We’ve attended everything from penny drives at local elementary schools to Oakmont neighbors doing a collection that raised over $100,000.

“I’d walk down the street and neighbors would hand me checks and cash. I’ve never seen such generosity. We’re so grateful that folks opened up their hearts and checkbooks to help neighbors in need.”

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