Nearly four months after the October fires burned through Sonoma County, the North Bay Fire Relief Fund — the region’s largest charitable relief fund with $30 million — is still receiving donations. It’s also determining how to spend nearly $10 million of the money donated by people throughout the state and around the world.
The first $20 million raised went to solve immediate needs. Fund administrators said the remainder will be distributed to local nonprofits that are directly supporting the needs of fire survivors. A committee is reviewing grant applications, and plans to distribute funds to qualifying nonprofits by the end of this month.
The Redwood Credit Union Community Fund, in partnership with Redwood Credit Union, The Press Democrat and state Sen. Mike McGuire, created the fund within hours of the fires’ outbreak. How it came together so quickly and successfully is a story of selfless determination on the part of many.
For Cynthia Negri, board president of the credit union’s Community Fund, Oct. 8 was the usual pleasant Sunday spent with family at her Santa Rosa home. But things were far from ordinary after midnight, when she and thousands of residents awoke to the smell of smoke.
“My husband said it was coming from a fire in Kenwood,” she recalled. When the smoke grew more intense, Negri walked to the front of her house and discovered that a nearby ridge was completely on fire. “We started calling family and preparing to leave the house,” she said. “We evacuated shortly after.”
Over in Hidden Valley, Matt Martin –– Redwood Credit Union’s VP of community and government relations –– had noticed an uptick in wind conditions around 10 p.m., when a strong gust toppled a backyard umbrella.
The family went to bed as usual, but around 1:50 a.m. Martin was awakened by a reverse 911 call about the fire and “went into reactive mode.” He dressed, began waking up neighbors and returned home.
By that time, “about 2:10 a.m., Fountaingrove was clearly ablaze, and we’re just south of there.” Martin began watering down his property, even climbing onto the roof with a hose.
In between wielding the hose and packing for a possible evacuation, Martin was communicating with “the leadership at RCU and RCU Community Fund about what we needed to be doing. Many of us were texting in the early morning hours, discussing the work ahead.”
On Monday morning, despite her temporary displacement, Negri began talking with her board and others about establishing a relief fund.
“We immediately began getting phone calls from the community,” she said. “People asked if we had a relief fund. We’d created a fund for flooding in West County last winter, and we’d had funds for other fires in the past, so there was a precedent. But did we have the resources?
“After all, members of our own staff had been evacuated, someone on our board had lost a home, and the credit union needed to be running and viable to members.”
In Hidden Valley, fire conditions around Martin’s home stabilized by late morning, so he left home around 11:30 a.m. to meet with key staff members at the credit union’s Novato branch to discuss the feasibility of starting a fire relief fund.
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