Rebuilding Sonoma County: Where did the millions of dollars raised for North Bay fire relief go?

Special Coverage

This story is part of a monthly series in 2018 chronicling the rebuilding efforts in Sonoma County's four fire zones: Coffey Park, Fountaingrove, the greater Mark West area and Sonoma Valley. Read all of the Rebuild North Bay coverage



Read all of the PD's fire anniversary coverage


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.

Special Coverage

This story is part of a monthly series in 2018 chronicling the rebuilding efforts in Sonoma County's four fire zones: Coffey Park, Fountaingrove, the greater Mark West area and Sonoma Valley. Read all of the Rebuild North Bay coverage



Read all of the PD's fire anniversary coverage


So far, United Way has distributed more than $5.1 million to 6,024 fire-affected households, with checks ranging from $250 to $750, and $1,000 to those who lost homes. The fund has also provided $750,000 to 11 businesses at the request of the donor; and to two childcare centers and Sonoma County Children’s Charities, O’Donnell said.

It has also allocated $600,000 to long-term relief groups in Sonoma and Mendocino counties, where case managers work with fire victims to determine their unmet needs and how agencies can work together to fill them. Another $100,000 will be given in grants to neighborhood groups seeking to rebuild or to bolster future preparedness.

The organization aims to allocate the remaining $1.9 million to sustain longer-term needs by June, O’Donnell said.

“In the first few weeks I was just overwhelmed by how much concern and support we were getting and fire survivors and the community were getting. ... It was so amazing. I’ve never been through anything like that before,” she said. “But as time goes on, people’s attention is turned to other things. ... There are so many hurricanes and fires that people may feel like they can’t give to everyone.”

Other efforts include the Community Foundation Sonoma County’s Resilience Fund, which has so far raised $14 million from more than 7,000 donations. It and similar efforts are focused solely on mending the community in years to come, seeking to address long-term trauma, fund housing solutions and help individuals.

“Our role is take the long view around the recovery. It can feel painful for me to say it and to hear it, but we have funds that we’re not expending today because we know the recovery is going to take at least five years,” said Elizabeth Brown, CEO of Community Foundation Sonoma County. “We feel it’s the most effective way for us to make an impact.”

It has allocated another $1.5 million to be spent by the end of the year on housing solutions and helping a coalition of entities meet fire victims’ needs.

From its funds, so far $1.8 million has been spent, including $300,000 in emergency grants to 11 local nonprofits and $470,000 to Legal Aid of Sonoma County and United Policyholders to help fire victims navigate insurance and legal processes, Brown said.

The most recent round of grants, totaling $1 million, went to mental health efforts, including a $750,000 grant to Santa Rosa Community Health to fund the Sonoma Community Resilience Collaborative, which has also received grants from Tipping Point and the North Bay Fire Relief Fund.

The collaborative of more than 12 local entities will host three trainings over 24 months to equip fire victims to deal with trauma. About 300 residents will receive training and will in turn teach resilience skills to an estimated 8,000 people in their own communities, said Santa Rosa Community Health’s Director of Communication and Grant Development Annemarie Brown.

“These grants are helping us support and implement a model that’s looking at the longer-term aspect of recovery and the personal aspect of recovery. It’s not just about having your house or your job, it’s about how are you feeling? Are you feeling strong and stable and connected to the community?” she said.

The Rebuild Northbay Foundation, a nonprofit that aims to unite public and private sectors in the region’s recovery, has raised $3.7 million, about half of which came from about 115 donors. It was founded by Darius Anderson, a Sonoma developer and lobbyist who is managing member of Sonoma Media Investments, which owns The Press Democrat.

Of the total raised, $1.4 million has been pegged to invest in community projects over the course of at least five years, with the remainder reserved for long-term organizational costs and other needs, according to Jennifer Gray Thompson, the group’s executive director.

So far, $275,000 has been donated to Lake County during the Pawnee fire, to create an online portal of resources and provide ?5,000 emergency bags stocked with goods like universal chargers and flashlights that will be disseminated this month, Thompson said.

The group also allocated $950,000 to rebuilding walls in Coffey Park and fences in Larkfield Estates and Mark West Estates.

“The recovery and rebuild will take every single one of us. Whether we’ve lost homes, we all have a role in rebuilding,” Thompson said.

You can reach Staff Writer Hannah Beausang at 707-521-5214 or On Twitter @hannahbeausang.

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