An Emergency in Our Backyard

Community foundations are uniquely equipped to respond to disasters. Here’s how we supported relief efforts during the devastating North Bay Fires.

October 20, 2017

By Priscilla Enriquez, Chief Giving Officer

“Hi Kimberly and Gary: I was out of town for the weekend and am not up to speed on the Napa fires. When returned and flew into SMF, I only knew the winds were strong because our landing was uncharacteristically bumpy. How severe is it? Are there evacuations? What is the damage thus far and current prognosis? If you can offer me a high-level view, that would be most appreciated. Thank you.”

Email to the Red Cross, Monday, October 9 at 4:08 p.m.

Our office was closed on Monday, October 9, and I had been looking forward to a day of respite after spending a busy weekend with family (and traffic!) in Southern California, where we had deliberately disconnected ourselves from the din of television and social media. Upon our return to Sacramento late Sunday, our plane’s descent into the airport was unusually clunky and bumpy, but my family and I found the winds a nice relief from the hot weather of Anaheim Hills. At the time, we had no idea about the devastation those winds were creating for communities in the North Bay.

When Monday morning came, I checked Twitter for the latest political kerfuffle or the newest trending meme. But what caught my eye instead was news about the fires in the Napa Valley. I began to realize—as we all would—just how forceful and destructive this fire was becoming, and knew I had to communicate with our colleagues at the American Red Cross.

"Hi Priscilla, thank you for reaching out. Thousands of residents in Sonoma, Napa, Lake, Mendocino, Butte, Yuba, Nevada and Calaveras counties were forced to evacuate their homes in the middle of the night as an estimated 10 fires burned uncontrolled across the North Coast.”

Email from Kimberly Diaz, American Red Cross, Gold Country Region, October 9 at 4:17 p.m.

As a community foundation, we are well-equipped to respond to emergencies that occur locally because, by definition, we know the community, the breadth of organizations that serve it, and the people to call on when we need answers—especially when we need those answers quickly, as was the case on Monday. In less than 10 minutes, the team from the major disaster response organization in our region had replied.

Instinctively, I knew this was going to be bad, based on Kimberly’s next sentence: “This was driven by strong winds that for hours fueled the fires and forced entire communities to flee.” Because I lived in Oakland during the 1991 Oakland Hills Firestorm—which were made worse by strong winds—I knew these fires were going to be relentless and cruel. And I knew that, as a community foundation, we had to respond.

I had copied our chief executive, Linda Beech Cutler, on my initial message. She was in Italy to celebrate her daughter’s wedding, but I knew she would likely peruse email. Despite the nine-hour time difference, she too had heard about the fires’ destruction. “Just waking up to the continuing devastation,” she wrote. “We need to do something.”

We both reached out to our colleagues at the Napa and Sonoma community foundations. The team at the Napa Valley Community Foundation had immediately reactivated a disaster fund they had established when that area was struck by an earthquake in 2014.

When I spoke with J. Mullineaux at the Community Foundation Sonoma County, he reported that he and two other colleagues, including his CEO, were “packed and ready to go” because they were on an evacuation advisory list. He said he could hear propane tanks exploding near his neighborhood, and that they already had board members and donors lose homes, including Jean Schultz of Charlie Brown fame. I was stunned and near tears because of J’s resiliency and resolve, but I understood exactly why he was at the office working that day. Community foundation staff are always there for their communities.

Linda Beech Cutler, our chief executive, delivering a grant check during an American Red Cross telethon at KCRA.

In some ways, community foundations are the first responders of philanthropy during emergencies. They direct donors’ gifts in the fastest and most impactful ways during and after disasters, so it is no surprise that, during the fires, declared that “community foundations are a best-bet for disaster giving.”

By 5:15 p.m. on Tuesday, the Foundation team was ready to facilitate grants for fire relief efforts. Our Grants & Scholarship Manager, Tina; our Controller, Winston; and our Senior Accountant, Shelley, were ready to make emergency grants in response to the fires (even though two of them were working remotely from conferences across the country!). Our Community Impact Officers, Jeannie and Niva, had researched the most impactful organizations to receive the grants and what internal funds we could use, and our Marketing Associate, Vasey, was ready to communicate needs and resources to the community. These are some of the most reliable, resourceful, and caring colleagues anyone can work with as part of a team—because that’s what we do. We knew we had to respond nimbly to another community in great need, and we jumped to it.

Learn about more about the Foundation's recent crisis grantmaking

The Community Foundation Sonoma County was going to launch a Resilience Fund that evening, which we knew was something we wanted to support. And as the Cascade Fire was roaring closer to our region, we knew we also had to grant to the American Red Cross. In the last seven weeks, they had been responding to four historic back to-back-hurricanes, and ten fires at the same time in Northern California (not to mention fires also erupting in Southern California!).

“For people forced from their homes, the American Red Cross has been supporting evacuation centers and providing safe shelters while they wait until the danger has passed. Red Cross volunteers are on hand to provide lodging, meals, health services, comfort, and more for affected residents.”

Email from Kimberly Diaz

By noon on Wednesday, we had made two emergency grants to help provide relief for those affected by the awful fires.

"Hello Priscilla, I’m going back through emails from the past two days – there have been so many. I don’t know if I said THANK YOU for this encouraging email. Coming from a similar size community foundation, I know what a BIG deal it is for you to identify any discretionary funds at all. This means a lot to us and I’ve forwarded it to my colleagues.  In the last two days we have raised $750,000. We hope to hit $1 million tomorrow. Thank you for fortifying our work.

Email from J. Mullineaux, Sonoma Community Foundation, October 12 at 5:58 p.m.

There are many lessons we have learned from this experience, and among them is this: we at the Foundation soberly recognize that weather-related disasters are now likely part of the norm. That is why we are working proactively, learning from our stellar colleagues at other community foundations and from brave first responders to refine and strengthen our disaster response—so the capital area can be confident that the Sacramento Region Community Foundation stands ready with our community.


Community foundation funds established to support the fire response

Wisdom from the Front Lines: Lessons for Disaster Planning (webinar)