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Read all of the PD's fire coverage here

The North Bay Fire Relief Fund, a community effort to bring immediate help to those harmed by October’s wildfires, is wrapping up its work after distributing $32 million and directly assisting more than 6,500 fire survivors.

The fund, a partnership of Redwood Credit Union, The Press Democrat and state Sen. Mike McGuire, stopped accepting donations Thursday and has distributed the funds it received, leaders said Friday. Longer-term relief efforts for recovery and rebuilding now will continue with other organizations, including Community Foundation Sonoma County and San Francisco’s anti-poverty nonprofit Tipping Point Community.

Together, the $75 million raised by the three groups represents a significant boost for the region’s recovery.

“This would not have been what it is without everyone coming together,” said Brett Martinez, CEO of Redwood Credit Union.

Seventy percent of the $32 million contributed to the North Bay Fire Relief Fund came from donors outside the four affected counties, organizers said. More than 41,000 people from 23 countries made donations.

“The success of the relief fund speaks to the severity of the firestorm and the generous spirit of our neighbors,” said McGuire, D-Healdsburg. “We cannot say thank you enough because those dollars came at such a critical time and have helped thousands across a fire-ravaged, four-county region.”

The October fires, the most destructive in state history, claimed 40 lives and destroyed more than 6,000 homes and 150 businesses. Insured losses top $9 billion.

The $32 million fund is one of the largest disaster relief efforts in Northern California history, McGuire and Martinez said. That characterization could be accurate, said Robert Ottenhoff, president/CEO of the Center for Disaster Philanthropy in Washington, D.C.

Together, the three different groups raised more money than typically follows a wildfire disaster, Ottenhoff said. The devastation of the North Bay wildfires more resembled that caused by hurricanes or tornadoes, which he said typically draw bigger donations.

Also, the Northern California fires garnered considerable media coverage around the nation and world.

“This was so dramatic,” Ottenhoff said. “And there were a higher number of deaths, along with all the destruction.”

Steve Falk, CEO of Sonoma Media Investments, which owns The Press Democrat, said the wildfires drew nearly 5 million readers to the newspaper’s print and digital stories in October and November.

“Obviously tens of thousands of those readers responded to our coverage of the fires and the fire relief fund,” he said.

In 2015, Redwood Credit Union, The Press Democrat and McGuire came together to raise money for disaster relief after the first of two massive fires struck Lake County. They raised a total of nearly $3 million in those efforts, Martinez said.

The aim of the latest fund was to provide immediate relief for people affected in Sonoma, Napa, Mendocino and Lake counties. The goal was to complete the work within 120 days, or four months after the fire.

What made the effort unusual was that every dollar donated was distributed to individuals or nonprofits, officials said. Redwood paid the administrative expenses to take applications and hand out the money.

The fund reported raising $32,028,981. Expenses broke down as follows:

— $20,498,854 given in direct assistance. This included payments to 6,593 fire survivors, as well as 102 first responders who lost homes. The fund also provided gift cards to 2,253 K-12 and college students so they could replace school clothes and supplies.

Read all of the PD's fire coverage here

— $9,587,586 provided to 56 nonprofits serving fire survivors with food, shelter and other services.

— $1,000,000 given to small businesses affected by the fires.

— $942,541 given to support health and well-being. The funds covered medical, dental and mental health services for fire survivors, but also money for an agency that provided free child care during and after the fires. The fund also replaced musical instruments and sports equipment lost by both school and community youth programs.

To accomplish the work, Redwood hired United Way of the Wine Country and three other groups to take applications, review requests and provide checks to fire survivors.

Many of the involved nonprofits are still providing services, Martinez said. Those needing help can find the groups’ contact information by going to the fire relief fund website through redwoodcu.org.

Last month, Community Foundation and Tipping Point reported they still had roughly $30 million in funds to distribute for longer-term recovery efforts. Such resources are unusual, Ottenhoff said, because the vast majority of such funds typically are spent immediately after the disaster and then little remains for recovery and rebuilding — typically the longest and most expensive periods.

The community should be proud of the donations raised, he said, “but the hard work still lies in front of you.”

Elizabeth Brown, president/CEO of the Community Foundation, said the three large relief funds are among dozens of community efforts to help fire survivors. All those efforts should be celebrated, she said.

Community leaders, she said, should prepare to spend years sharing how others can help the fire survivors.

“The need is great,” Brown said.

You can reach Staff Writer Robert Digitale at 707-521-5285 or robert.digitale@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @rdigit.

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