Rebuilding Sonoma County: Where did the millions of dollars raised for North Bay fire relief go?
As flames were still raging in Sonoma County last October, community leaders were launching fundraising efforts that would within weeks amass tens of millions of dollars from thousands of donors around the globe.
Some focused on immediate needs: getting fire survivors and nonprofits the money necessary to push through another grueling day. Other campaigns were meant to address the yearslong recovery effort following the most destructive siege of wildfire in California history.
In the year after the unprecedented disaster, much of the money has been invested back into Wine Country communities still struggling to recover from the 23-day onslaught of flames. Across Sonoma, Napa, Mendocino and Lake counties, more than 6,200 homes were lost and 40 lives taken. In Sonoma County alone, more than 150 commercial properties were destroyed.
The fires stretched resources for groups tasked with aiding regular clients and thousands of fire survivors who found themselves needing help for the first time.
The fundraising made possible thousands of checks that went directly to those who lost homes or wages. Other funds have been allocated to nonprofits working with fire victims or to businesses or schools.
San Francisco-based nonprofit Tipping Point Community was behind the single largest fundraising effort, collecting almost ?$33.9 million through individual donations and two concerts with headliners Metallica, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Dave Matthews.
“The outpouring was immediate and amazing,” said Karina Moreno, Tipping Point Community’s chief of staff.
The organization raised $21 million through its two concerts, with the remaining $12 million coming from 3,310 donors, Moreno said. The money was granted to 48 organizations working with fire victims, she said.
The 61 grants ranged from the $2.5 million to Santa Rosa Community Health to help replace its Vista Clinic that was destroyed in the fires to a $9,000 allocation to Santa Rosa’s Gateway to College program. The funding came with reporting requirements and agreements to ensure funds were used for programs for fire victims, Moreno said.
A consultant was brought on board as Tipping Point worked with local contacts to identify and vet recipients, selecting organizations that work with low-income residents with fire-related programs focused on housing, social services economic recovery and health, Moreno said.
The North Bay Fire Relief Fund, a partnership of Redwood Credit Union, The Press Democrat and state Sen. Mike McGuire, emerged as another fundraising force, generating and distributing more than $32 million.
The fund provided $20.5 million directly to fire victims, reaching 6,593 people who lost homes or experienced economic hardship from the fires, 102 first responders and 2,253 students who lost homes. The average check size was $1,125, said Redwood Credit Union spokeswoman Tracy Weitzenberg.
“I honestly have hundreds of letters and cards,” Cynthia Negri, Redwood Credit Union’s chief operating officer, said of the outpouring of gratitude from recipients. “Every day we are hearing stories of survival and thanks for getting me on my feet.”
Additionally, the fund supported more than 60 nonprofits with $9.5 million in grants, Negri said. Organizations were vetted by officials from impacted counties, and grants came with reporting requirements to ensure they were used to aid fire victims.
The disbursements included $1 million for 237 fire-impacted businesses in Sonoma, Napa, Lake and Mendocino counties, Weitzenberg said. More than $940,000 was distributed for fire victims’ health and dental care or replacing lost sporting equipment.
UndocuFund focused on supporting undocumented immigrants, some of whom slept on beaches to avoid government-run shelters or who didn’t apply for FEMA aid because of their citizenship status. It has raised about $6.5 million from 8,162 individual donors, organizers said.
It’s provided more than $5.9 million in checks to 1,824 households, UndocuFund Coordinator Omar Medina said. Those seeking aid applied to trained, bilingual volunteers at clinics across the county, said Susan Shaw, co-director of the North Bay Organizing Project, one of the entities that created the fund. The average check size is $3,157, and the remaining money will be given to families who have lost homes by year’s end, Medina said.
“It hasn’t been enough - the need is so huge … It’s such a small help for people who give so much,” Shaw said. “People are so incredibly grateful.”
While some efforts focused on the short-term recovery, United Way of the Wine Country attempted to blend the $8 million it raised through its disaster relief fund to fill immediate needs and meet the lasting challenge of recovery. The funding came largely from grants, with about $1.6 million from more than 2,200 individual donors and 112 organizations, said Vice President of Community Benefit Jennifer O’Donnell.