After the Fires: A Long-Term Strategy for Disaster Relief in Sonoma County

photo: Avleen Vig/shutterstock

photo: Avleen Vig/shutterstock

Following the devastating wildfires of Northern California last October, lots of funders and advocacy groups in the region chipped in to fund disaster relief efforts. For example, the California Wellness Foundation kicked in $50,000 to launch the UndocuFund for Fire Relief in Sonoma County with support from Grantmakers Concerned with Immigrants and Refugees, Grayton Day Labor Center, North Bay Organizing Project, and North Bay Jobs with Justice.

Meanwhile, the Latino Community Foundation stepped in to address the needs of immigrant populations who were finding themselves vulnerable to homelessness and unable to qualify for needed assistance.

But the thing with disaster recovery grants is that they are often short-lived and only provide one-time support for issues that persist long after devastating events—a problem that's been spotlighted by the Center for Disaster Philanthropy, as we've reported. 

RelatedA Smarter Response: The Center for Disaster Philanthropy Looks to Leverage Donor Dollars

With the one-year anniversary of those fires just around the corner, many local grantmakers have moved on to other pressing issues. However, other funders are still paying attention and prioritizing long-term disaster recovery needs. 

The Community Foundation Sonoma County (CFSC) is a key leader in this regard. This local funder has over 450 charitable funds under management and more than $150 million in assets. Back in October, CFSC launched a resilience fund with the understanding that wildfire-related support would be needed for many years into the future. Rather than focusing on the short-term needs, which were largely addressed by other donors, CFSC’s approach created the largest long-term recovery fund in the county. It should be noted, though, that the community foundation awarded over $300,000 in early emergency relief grants, too.

To develop this work, the funder surveyed more than 450 nonprofits in the region and interviewed foundations in other cities that have been affected by disasters, including New Orleans and Houston. Fast-forward nine months and CFSC is still making grants to help the victims of last October’s wildfires, including two new grants this summer totaling nearly $500,000.

One $220,000 grant was awarded to United Policyholders to aid people with insurance claims and legal issues after the fires. Also, a $250,000 grant went to Legal Aid of Sonoma County for the organization’s disaster law program that provides legal information to people affected by the fires related to housing, mental health, consumer fraud, and other legal issues.

“With thousands of survivors still grappling with FEMA, trying to get the insurance proceeds they deserve or dealing with legal issues surrounding their fire-affected housing, Legal Aid needs to be here for the long haul to help survivors recover,” said Ronit Rubinoff, the executive director of Legal Aid of Sonoma County.

CFSC plans to continue making wildfire-related grants for at least three more years, through 2022. Future grants will be awarded in three focus areas: helping individuals impacted by the fires, healing the long-term impacts of trauma, and housing solutions for the community. The CFSC fund is still accepting donations and receiving them too, including high-profile donation from famous faces like basketball star Stephen Curry and his wife who recently donated $25,000 to the fund.

Meanwhile, the California city of Redding has recently been devastated by a major new fire. And with experts predicting more fires overall in the state thanks to climate change, recovery efforts are likely to attract continuing attention from regional grantmakers.