When the Valley Fire broke out in Lake County on September 12, 2015, no one could have foreseen that it would quickly grow to become the third most damaging fire ever recorded in California. The fire hit a region already struggling with the aftermath of two major wildfires in the previous two months: the Rocky Fire in July and the Jerusalem Fire in August. The Valley Fire tore a 76,000 acre path through towns and forests alike, with states of emergency declared in Lake, Napa and Sonoma counties. Before it was contained, four people were dead and thousands were left homeless.
It was a natural disaster that hit close to home for the North Bay, as we worried about the well-being of friends and family members. Even watching the news from a safe distance, we didn’t feel that this could happen to us, but that it was happening to us, in real time, and people all across Sonoma, Napa and Marin counties were quick to rally around their neighbors to the north.
[Note: Due to the restrictions of press time, all figures in this article are confirmed as of mid-October 2015.]
While “Lake County Rising” originally started as a way of promoting the county’s wine industry, it’s taken on new meaning as #LakeCountyRising, a social media campaign to raise funds for fire relief efforts within the county. It’s a collaboration between the Lake County Winegrape Commission, the Lake County Winery Association and the Lake County Wine Alliance, which has refocused to work with existing organizations and government agencies on the long-term recovery of the region.
According to Debra Sommerfield, president of the Lake County Winegrape Commission, the idea for the fund-raising effort came from calls the organizations started receiving within days of the fire from people across all aspects of the wine industry, asking how they could best help. The Lake County groups decided to join forces to create one local, trusted fund, with the Wine Alliance collecting and distributing donations.
By mid-October, the campaign had raised more than $400,000, with more money expected to come and additional fund-raisers already planned. This success was thanks to the efforts of many people, including some particularly large donors. Andy Beckstoffer, owner of Beckstoffer Vineyards in Rutherford, kicked things off with a $50,000 donation. The owners of Alpha Omega Winery in Rutherford, Michelle and Robin Baggett, partnered with Darioush Winery of Napa, St. Supéry Estate Vineyards & Winery of Rutherford, and the Napa Valley Film Festival to put on a Valley Fire benefit September 30, raising $100,000 that was divided between #LakeCountyRising and the UpValley Family Centers in Calistoga and St. Helena, which are providing services to Valley Fire victims who work or go to school in Napa County.
The Savings Bank of Mendocino County donated $20,000, and Congressman Mike Thompson donated proceeds from a political fund-raiser in Washington, D.C., to the fund. Chappellet Winery of St. Helena donated 100 percent of October sales of its 2009 and 2010 Napa Valley Petite Sirah directly to #LakeCountyRising.
When the Valley Fire hit, Redwood Credit Union (RCU) had already set up a community fund to help deal with the financial effects of the Rocky and Jerusalem fires. Because of this, the Santa Rosa-based credit union was able to quickly expand the existing fund’s reach to collect donations for those impacted by the latest emergency.
“RCU serves Lake County, and we saw how devastating the fire was to the residents, businesses and the community,” said Robin McKenzie, Senior Vice President at RCU. “We wanted to help our neighbors in need, and that’s what drove us—and I believe our donors--to take action and to contribute in some way.”
The RCU Lake County Fire Victims Relief Fund, created in conjunction with the Press Democrat and State Senator Mike McGuire, was designed to fill in the gaps not met by federal and state emergency funding. It has an advisory committee made up of representatives from Cal Fire, the state Office of Emergency Services, law enforcement, schools and the nonprofit community, which is helping make decisions on how the funds are released into the community.
The committee is currently focused on several areas, key among them housing, education, economic recovery and community rebuilding. It’s assisting first responders, such as firefighters and sheriff’s office personnel, some of whom lost everything themselves but continued to work tirelessly through the crisis. They’re also partnering with the local Farm Bureau to provide emergency fencing and housing for animals, as many residents who depend on livestock for their businesses in this rural community lost the basic equipment and supplies they need to move forward.
“With more than 12,000 people and companies donating, we have allocated the funds–with significant input from our Lake County advisors–to the greatest needs of the victims and community,” said McKenzie
As of mid-October, the fund had raised $1.9 million, with that number expected to grow. Donations are being accepted online and at all 16 Bay Area RCU branches—and you don’t have to be a member to give. RCU also introduced programs to assist fire victims through their financial recovery, its no-interest personal loans of up to $5,000, special auto loan financing through their RCU Auto Services subsidiary, lower interest rates on trailer and RV loans and a variety of payment relief plans.
“This is a community that’s in need and we’re just honored to be a part of helping it recover,” says McKenzie.
As the owner of a new winery, Sam Lando of Lando Wines in Sebastopol knew he wasn’t in the position to cut a huge check himself for fire relief, but in the process of talking with his sister-in-law, Nancy Brandt, and the whole team at Brandt Insurance & Financial in Healdsburg, he realized he didn’t have to go it alone. The two realized that, with their combined connections, they might be able to quickly put together an event to raise significant fire relief funds.
“We were thinking it would be great if we could create an organization that could be behind this,” says Lando. “Not a wine industry organization or a grower organization, but one that wraps everybody in, and we came up with Sonoma Wine Country Cares.”
Sonoma Wine Country Cares partnered with the nonprofit Windsor Rotary Community Foundation to put together the event, dubbed “Raise the Roof,” in just two weeks’ time, calling in favors from some of the best chefs, wineries and beer producers in the North Bay. Lando’s wife, Jen Lando, and friends, Josh and Julia Hochberg, owners of the Sonoma Jet Center at the Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport, donated the hangar space where it was held, and others pitched in to help with event logistics, advertising, silent auction items and more.
“I’m still taken aback by how well everything came together,” says Lando. “We even had to turn people away from participating because we couldn’t process everything in time.”
Nearly 300 people paid $100 or more to attend, with $32,000 raised in one night for RCU’s fire victims fund. Lando says he’s hoping to move forward with Sonoma Wine Country Cares to raise money for more local causes with these types of collaborative events in the future.
Like many of us, Sara and Josh Margulis of Sebastopol followed the news in disbelief as the Valley Fire swept through so many people’s homes with such speed. The couple own two successful crowdfunding sites: Honeyfund, a honeymoon fund gift registry, and Plumfund, which collects cash gifts for other life events, including births, graduations and community fund-raisers.
“We have friends who live in Hidden Valley Lake, and a couple from our church lost their home,” says Sara. “We just decided we had to do something. And since we have this fund-raising platform, we started a
Plumfund campaign benefiting fire victims and committed ourselves to getting it out there.”
By the next day, they’d set up a Plumfund account for those affected by the fire and began working with Sebastopol Community Church to organize a fund-raising event. On October 2, the “Valley Hope” fund-raiser drew 200 guests and featured live music by local swing band Lost Dog Found, barbequed tri-tip, beer form Lagunitas Brewing Company, Balletto Vineyards wines and more, all of which had been donated for the occasion. A $40 or more donation to the fund got you in the door, with fire victims invited to attend for free and sign up to receive funds. Those affected were also invited to come to a rummage sale the church already had planned that weekend and take anything they could use—for free.
“It was just a beautiful expression of community,” says Margulis.
So far the Plumfund campaign has raised over $16,000 and nearly 30 families have registered, been verified and received a check for $550 to help with their short-term expenses.
Within 12 hours of the fire erupting, the team at The Engine Is Red, a creative agency with offices in Santa Rosa and Minneapolis, began creating a website to gather information on ways to help. The site, www.lovelakecounty.org, is a one-stop shop to find or post donation fund links, volunteer opportunities and information on benefit events.
“We were seeing a huge outpouring of locals on social media channels who wanted to help and get involved, but didn’t really know where to go,” says Chris Denny, president of The Engine Is Red. “As a creative agency, we felt like that might be a place where we could help.”
The staff quickly put together the website and spread the word through personal and corporate social media accounts, attracting nearly 20,000 visits in the first hour. Soon a
fter, Santa Rosa public relations consultant Jenny Kaplan pitched in to help publicize it. The site was updated and upgraded as more organizations learned about it and used it to communicate their needs.
“The best thing we learned from this was that it’s important to identify a need before giving,” says Denny, a former resident of Cobb Mountain. “I think the success we found was partnering with actual distribution centers and putting feet on the ground to be sure that what was being donated was meeting a need.”
Denny says the site will remain active for the foreseeable future as relief efforts evolve, focusing more on volunteer and funding opportunities.
Larkmead Vineyards of Calistoga, owned by Cam Baker and Kate Solari Baker, took a bold approach to giving by issuing a challenge. The couple offered to match all funds they could collect for fire relief, up to $10,000. As their friends kept giving, though, the Bakers kept increasing their limit, going to $20,000 next and finally agreeing to match $25,000 in donations. The money raised will go to the UpValley Family Centers and the Rotary Club of Middletown, focusing on helping renters displaced by the fire to secure housing. As of mid-October, Larkmead raised $21,000 and was expected to hit its goal.
In Calistoga, the Bakers had a front row seat to the fire, with several employees living in Lake County. Cam Baker says that Larkmead’s controller, Judy Wink of Hidden Valley, finally found out her own home was spared, but continued to work hard to see that others who weren’t so lucky were taken care of.
“Here we are in the Napa Valley, where it looks like paradise, and these events are happening in our own backyard,” he says. “Seeing firsthand what people were going through really made it hit home.”
Over and over again in this crisis, we’ve seen people and businesses stepping up to offer their own unique skills and resources to the relief efforts. Napa Valley Vintners, a nonprofit trade group representing members of the Napa wine industry, gave a $250,000 grant to UpValley Family Centers to support its work connecting fire victims to the social services and medical care they need.
Oliver’s Markets, with locations in Santa Rosa and Cotati, began collecting donations for the RCU Fire Victims Fund in September, with customers able to add any amount onto their final purchase price at the check stand. More than $5,000 was collected in September alone, with funds still being collected through October.
“We’ve been amazed by our customers’ responses,” says Sara Cummings, Oliver’s director of marketing.
When a relief organization reached out to Petaluma Modern Dentistry for oral care products for those displaced by the fire, the practice immediately put together 100 tooth care kits, including a toothbrush, toothpaste, floss and lip balm. Kollar Chocolates in Yountville created a S’more chocolate bar, with a percentage of each bar sold going to relief efforts.
Benefit concerts were held at places like Zodiac’s in Petaluma, City Winery in Napa and Hopmonk Tavern in Sebastopol. Palooza Gastropub in Kenwood donated 100 percent of it ticket sales for a comedy show on September 18 to the relief efforts.
Dozens of restaurants stepped up to the plate with “dine and donate” evenings, giving a certain percentage of a day’s earnings toward fire relief. On September 20, Woody’s Yogurt Place in Mill Valley gave 100 percent of its day’s receipts to fire relief efforts, raising more than $5,000, according to its social media page. Events at Spoonbar in Healdsburg, Spinster Sisters in Santa Rosa and all Mary’s Pizza Shack locations also helped bring thousands of dollars to rebuilding efforts.
Many local chefs brought food to the shelters that housed evacuated residents for weeks, trying to make a bad situation just a little better. The chefs from V. Sattui Winery in St. Helena provided spaghetti and meatballs for 1,000 people at the Calistoga Fairgrounds shelter one night. Local chef Guy Fieri provided dinner for a Kelseyville shelter another night.
Local schoolchildren were eager to help, holding bake sales and donating their allowances to the many relief funds. A walk-a-thon at Maria Carrillo High School in Santa Rosa, which included students from nearby Rincon Valley Middle School and the Santa Rosa Accelerated Charter School, raised more than $22,000 for Red Cross relief efforts.
It’s a long road ahead for the people of Lake County. Even those whose homes and businesses survived the fire are still struggling to deal with its environmental, economic and emotional aftermath. According to Robert Boccabella, a certified interior designer and owner of Business Design Services in Lakeport, many businesses in Lake County, whether directly or indirectly, have been impacted financially by the fires of 2015. Boccabella, who was previously in business in Petaluma for 30 years, is also a director of Lake County’s Chamber of Commerce, which, he says, is hard at work connecting businesses with the services they need to get on their feet again. He has some simple advice to add on how those outside the area can help.
“I can tell you exactly how to help Lake County,” says Boccabella. “Just show up. You can also request that stores stock Lake County wines and buy them.”
In other words, keep giving generously to the rebuilding efforts and volunteering your time and skills to those affected, but don’t forget that another thing this region needs right now is customers. Take a drive to Lake County to visit a tasting room, enjoy a romantic weekend away or buy from a local store, especially in the long winter months ahead. It’s a big county, and plenty of it is still open for business.
• Date started: September 12, 2015
• State of Emergency declared by Governor Brown: September 13, 2015
• Residents given mandatory evacuation orders: 19,300
• Meals provided by Red Cross, Salvation Army and other groups: 120,000+
• Firefighters deployed: 4,500+, including California National Guard members
• Outside law enforcement agencies assisting: 35
• Total acres burned: 76,067
• Structures destroyed: 1,280 homes, 27 multi-family structures, 66 commercial properties and 585 other structures
• Injuries: 4 firefighters injured, 4 civilian fatalities
Data Courtesy of Cal Fire, American Red Cross and Office of the Governor
Lake County residents continue to need our help, as a predicted wet winter threatens to wreak havoc on the burned landscape and the rebuilding process begins in earnest in the spring. Here are some of the places you can find information on lending a hand.
• #LakeCountyRising: www.lakecountywinegrape.org/news-events/valley-fire-relief-fund
• RCU Lake County Fire Victims Relief Fund: www.redwoodcu.org/lakecountyfirevictims
• Plumfund Valley Fire Relief Emergency Fund: www.plumfund.com/community-crowdfunding/valley-fire-relief-fund
• Love Lake County: www.lovelakecounty.org
• Team Lake County: www.teamlakecounty.org
• Lake County Recovers: www.lakecountyrecovers.com
• Lake County Fire Relief Fund with North Coast Opportunities: www.ncoinc.org/about-us/news/donate-to-the-lake-county-fire-relief-fund/
• Lakeport Rotary Valley Fire Relief Fund: www.larca5130.org/donate
• American Red Cross: https://www.redcross.org/donate/donation
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