Santa Rosa Fire Damage

Santa Rosa Fire Damage (Photo credit: Jay Calderon/Richard Lui/USA Today)

What Is There To Show For $100 Million Raised After North Bay Fires?

KCBS Radio Reporter Jenna Lane Chronicles How Goodwill Generated Good Work

Jenna Lane
October 12, 2018 - 8:59 am

The North Bay wildfires of October 2017 inspired tens of thousands of donations, large and small, to various emergency relief funds. In all, close to $100 million was raised. But where did all of that money go and how did it get used? 

The donations went into projects big and small. In one case, a relatively modest disbursement freed Santa Rosa from paying for a 3,000-foot-long wall that few knew was their responsibility. At the other end of the spectrum, the donations funded a successful lobbying effort in Washington that possibly saved Sonoma county and Santa Rose from financial ruin. 

The relief effort was jumpstarted by two benefit concerts called Band Together Bay Area. The shows, featuring artists including Metallica and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, raised $21 million. 

Between those concerts and other donations, Tipping Point Community collected almost $34 million from more than 3,300 donors. Karina Moreno, chief of staff, told KCBS, 

"People really were motivated to give and we just provided a vehicle," Karina Moreno, chief of staff, told KCBS.

Another fund administered by Redwood Credit Union raised $32 million, from 41,000 donors. Two-thirds of that went to individuals who'd lost homes or jobs. 

Tipping Point selected close to 50 different nonprofit organizations. Its largest allocation went to Catholic Charities for an affordable housing project in Santa Rosa. Almost as much went toward replacing a burned health clinic. 

"In the employment arena, we funded an organization called La Luz in Sonoma which works with the immigrant community," Moreno said. "The employment training in particular is to access the construction jobs on the horizon."

The community foundations of Sonoma County and Napa Valley together also reached the $30 million mark, but have distributed much less, as their missions are more long-term. 

And then there's Rebuild Northbay Foundation. 

"We are designed to be a third responder. One year post-fire is when we become most active, so that's right now," said Executive Director Jennifer Gray Thompson. 

She is looking for gaps to fill, for example in a Santa Rosa neighborhood where residents were surprised to learn they were financially responsible for replacing a 3,000-foot-long wall. 

"An extra $25,000 can make the difference between them coming back to rebuild or leaving forever," Gray Thompson worried. 

The foundation facilitated a solution. 

"A private company, AshBritt, called us and said, 'If we gave you half a million dollars, what would you do with it?' We said, 'The Coffey Park walls need to be rebuilt.' It's not sexy, I know that, but it's what they really need."

Rebuild Northbay is also lobbying in Washington, D.C. 

"We probably spend maybe 20 percent of our time on it," Gray Thompson said, "but it is the biggest impact we have and nobody else is doing it." 

Volunteer board members, paying their own way, joined local government leaders in asking FEMA to pay 90 percent of the fire debris removal costs. It worked.

"If we had had the typical FEMA reimbursement rate of 75 percent and the local entities take on 25 percent of the cost, it would have very likely bankrupted the county of Sonoma and the city of Santa Rosa," according to Gray Thompson.

She would like to see the Rebuild Northbay Foundation put itself out of business in less than 10 years. She says her greatest hope is that the spirit of pitching in for each other lasts much longer. 

"I have never been more proud to be part of this community than I was  during the fires. I needed it, in a way, and my optimism for who we are as human beings grew exponentially. I hope to hold on to that."