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Financial strain from Kincade fire evacuations, PG&E blackouts have families turning to charities

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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.

The evacuation cost Mirtha Nunez, a single mother of three in Santa Rosa, about $650. She took her children to a Sunnyvale hotel because she was concerned about her 17-year-old daughter’s asthma.

Nunez earns $13 an hour as a Head Start teacher in Roseland. Also, Nunez lost power at home and so all the food in her refrigerator spoiled, forcing her to spend $175 on groceries.

“Making rent was definitely a lot harder. I did have to go into savings to help me out,” she said.

As the holiday season nears, Nunez is monitoring her spending and cutting back where she can.

“I think the older (children) know we are going through a tough situation,” Nunez said. “The youngest one (11 years old) is having a harder time to understand.”

The gift cards the winegrowers’ group gave to families were a valuable lifeline because they helped make up for a portion of the lost wages for the days when there no grapes to pick because of the evacuation, said Bret Munselle, an Alexander Valley grape grower and vineyard manager who employs about 80 full-time workers. Munselle lost his remaining grape crop because of concerns of smoke taint from the Kincade fire and a Halloween frost that followed. He decided to start pruning grapevines right away instead of waiting for another month or two. That decision allowed his employees to start working again after the fire evacuations were lifted.

Other post-fire charitable efforts have focused particularly on helping the most vulnerable county residents. For example, UndocuFund has given financial assistance to undocumented families affected by the fire, especially because those residents aren’t eligible for unemployment benefits, said Omar Medina, coordinator for the Graton-based nonprofit group.

“The biggest immediate impact has been on lost wages,” Medina said. “A lot of people we are working with are having to borrow money to make their rent payment. … I can hear the desperation.”

The fire evacuation and subsequent PG&E intentional blackouts even placed a financial strain on people beyond low-income families, local charity officials said.

For example, the Redwood Empire Food Bank saw a big jump in clients in the aftermath of the fire. In a typical year, the food bank has about 82,000  customers, but in the eight days after the fire it helped 25,506 in 10 different towns in the area, said Sara Olsher, spokeswoman for the group.

“It was a big stretch for a lot of people,” Olsher said of replacing a refrigerator full of food. “A lot of people were visiting for the first time.”

That also was the case at Corazon Healdsburg, which had 1,100 requests for financial help from families, said Ariel Kelley, chief executive officer of the group serving the needy population in northern Sonoma County.

Since the Kincade fire, Corazon has made direct payments to landlords and power companies for rents and utilities to ensure that vulnerable families do not lose shelter, Kelley said.

“Hundreds of new clients are reaching out to us,” she said. “They were like, ‘I have never been in position to ask for assistance before.’ ”

La Prensa Sonoma Editor Ricardo Ibarra contributed to this report.

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