Financial strain from Kincade fire evacuations, PG&E blackouts have families turning to charities
Sonoma County charities have seen a surge in demand for food and financial assistance in the aftermath of the Kincade fire, as the combination of missed workdays and evacuation costs have many families desperately seeking help to make ends meet — and in some cases to avoid being evicted from rental homes.
The quandary has been especially tough on the Latino community in which many people live paycheck to paycheck. Latinos make up 27% of the county’s labor force, primarily working in agriculture, construction and the broad service sector.
An estimated 5,000 farmworkers were displaced countywide by the Kincade blaze, according to the state Employment Development Department. Because of the raging inferno that sparked late in October, they couldn’t work the final week of the region’s annual winegrape harvest. That means they missed earning at least $30 per hour during that period.
Through its foundation, the Sonoma County Winegrowers gave $500 gift cards to about 450 families who have a member who works in the local ag industry and lives in the Geyserville area where the fire started. Another 430 families received $250 gift cards, while applications from another 150 families seeking assistance are being evaluated, said Karissa Kruse, president of the trade group, which has so far provided $400,000 in emergency financial aid.
While the Kincade fire was not nearly as destructive as the 2017 North Bay fires, it affected more families because the widespread county evacuations forced many businesses to close for up to a week, representatives of local charities said.
Martina Álvarez, 48, of Windsor is a vineyard worker in west county. She and her husband, who also works in the vineyards, each lost a week of earnings. Their son who lives at home and goes to Sonoma State University also works as a janitor.
“During the fires, we lost about $3,000 of income in my household because we all couldn’t work — me, my husband and my older son. Then we had to throw away about $300 in food we had stored in the fridge,” she said, speaking in Spanish.
On top of that, the family was recently forced out of their apartment. The property manager claimed when they returned home from the fire evacuation with their dog that having the animal violated their rent agreement.
The family has come up with $4,400 for a new apartment in Santa Rosa, but that means it will be a frugal holiday season.
“Christmas will be sad without money to spend on gifts,” Álvarez said.
The Community Foundation Sonoma County has received $1.5 million in donations pledged in the aftermath of the Kincade fire, but the needs are much greater, foundation spokeswoman Caitlin Childs said. The group allocates money to local charities.
“It’s not the same pace of donations as two years ago,” she said.
To be sure, many Americans live with financial insecurity. About 40% of U.S. residents would struggle to cover a $400 unexpected expense, being forced to borrow from family or friends, carry a credit card balance or get a payday loan, according to a Federal Reserve report.
That scenario was put to the test by the Kincade fire, as many families fled in early morning hours with little preparation to pack belongings beyond an overnight stay. They returned home with hotel, food and clothing tabs — and a November rent payment expected by their landlord.