A Model for Wildfire Disaster Relief | npENGAGE

A Model for Wildfire Disaster Relief

By on Aug 14, 2018


wildfire disaster relief

Nearly 20,000 residents have been asked to evacuate their homes in Northern California as a result of the multiple wildfires that have been burning for weeks, and CNBC has reported that more than 16,000 homes have been threatened by potential damage from the wildfire at this point, leading to evacuation orders for nearly 25,000 residents. As of August 13, there are more than 17 large fires currently burning across California, including the largest wildfire on record in the state of California.

Like other areas of disaster relief, wildfires, particularly in California, have becomes an increasingly common occurrence. According to a recent piece in The Atlantic (“Has Climate Change Intensified 2017’s Western Wildfires?”), the total area burned in the western United States over the last 33 years was double the size it would have been without any human-caused warming. Increased temperatures = increased likelihood of fire.

But, when you examine disaster-related funding in the last five years, funding directed at wildfires is $13.1 million, while hurricane-related funding totals $480.6 million (this includes grants and in-kind donations). So how can we explain the different levels of support for varying types of natural disasters? Perhaps length of time. Consider the volcano situation that has been occurring for many months in Hawaii. Have you seen companies donating to organizations helping in this area of relief, or, even better, has your company offered a matching program towards this effort? Perhaps not. Some disasters, like wildfires and an active volcano, have a long time frame. It can be longer until you can go into recovery mode, since it isn’t over quickly (and its end can’t be predicted). Whether it is a hurricane or an earthquake, some disasters can happen quickly, and thus be easier to recruit support for immediate recovery and long-term rebuilding.

What can we do to better address wildfires? The first step is understanding the impact on these communities: cities and counties will end up paying for at least half of the hundreds of billions of dollars that can go into wildfire recovery in a single year. As the LA Times observes, putting out the fires represents only 9% of the total cost of the wildfire. One group that has witnessed this large burden, and has taken steps to help in the rebuilding efforts, is the legal community. By working with local government bodies and community foundations, legal aid can help to ensure insurance claims are filed correctly, protect local residents from fraud, and more.

Claire Solot from the Bigglesworth Foundation in Northern California spoke with me several weeks ago about ongoing recovery efforts from past fires, and with current events I think the information she shared with me could be very beneficial for those asking themselves what they can do.

California legal aid organizations have already established exemplary collaborative initiatives based on past fires, which ensures coordinated efforts that are needed in the immediate aftermath of the wildfire are possible. Following the large earthquake in Napa several years ago, five key legal organizations formed the Bay Area Resilience Collaborative, the only organization of its kind in the U.S.. The collaborative works to bring in subject matter experts and provide extensive training for legal aid organizations, among other things. An excellent example of their collaborative efforts is the development of disaster-specific training for lawyers wishing to volunteer, but do not have knowledge of this area. The Legal Aid Association of California (LAAC) developed recordings of trainings so that volunteers were qualified to help. The collaborative then set up hotlines for wildfire victims, coordinating volunteers to staff those phone calls, then connect them to qualified volunteer lawyers. Finally, regional associations like Legal Aid Sonoma County have a physical presence in local assistance centers where they can also disseminate guidebooks and other materials that were developed for victims to educate them on legal vulnerabilities after disaster.

The legal aid committee also started a collaborative fund housed at the California Bar Foundation, now California ChangeLawyers, knowing that just because the fire goes out, doesn’t mean the funds should dry up. There is still a long road to recovery. Lawyers can serve as key players in the rebuilding after a wildfire, protecting those that could be victimized. A prime example is housing – as those that need new housing begin to explore options, policies, legislation and ordinances need to be in place to avoid scenarios where rent is increased, or unscrupulous contractors try to take advantage of the desperate. Looking forward, LAAC recently developed a document that details other exposed areas that legal aid can support, including identity theft, wage theft, price-gouging, and domestic violence which can increase after a disaster. The next step in this area is securing funding to support these areas after disaster, and training lawyers so that they are prepared to address these specific kinds of cases.

The biggest takeaway from my conversation with Claire is similar to those had around hurricane relief: there is a tremendous need for long term funding for rebuilding, and there needs to be a coordinated approach from local communities when it comes to relief and recovery. However, with some of these disasters that span numerous days, weeks, months, and with hundreds of billions needed to rebuild, other funding sources need to be considered. If we aren’t able to supplement city and county recovery spending, other crucial initiatives could fall behind. For a geographic area to rebuild, they need to physically rebuild homes, reignite the economy with infrastructure reparations, and rehab ecosystems.

As fires continue to rage throughout California, I’d encourage you to consider ways you or your employer may be able to help. With sometimes no end in sight, it is imperative for local government, community foundations, and legal aid organizations to feel supported to continue to aid their community and protect them from threats that will still exist when the wildfires end.

Lessons can be learned from all different types of disasters. The level of collaboration amongst the legal community in Northern California can serve as an excellent model for other areas of the country. The same legal risks exist after other types of disasters, and, as seen in the above example, there are many moving parts for relief that combine discussions with FEMA, volunteer training, and on-the-ground relief and resources. One thing remains the same, and that is the significant cost to rebuild. Without support, it is possible these affected regions could never recover. You can learn more about what you can do to help these efforts from the Center for Disaster Philanthropy.


Thank you to Lorin Kline and Salena Copeland from LAAC for information used in this blog.


Kim Lynes was formerly the Sr. Content Marketing Manager for Blackbaud Corporate and Foundation Solutions, and is based in New York City. Prior to joining Blackbaud, she was a Marketing Manager at Foundation Center. Her first role in the social sector, Kim became hooked on building content and developing resources that can help all members of the philanthropic community achieve their individual missions, and continues to work towards that goal in her role at Blackbaud.

Comments (42)

  • Carlene Johnson says:

    This is an interesting area of fundraising which I hadn’t considered before. Thanks for the insights!

  • Ann Nischke says:

    Talk about a compelling need for action! Thanks for sharing the information.

  • Gillian Armstrong says:

    I had no idea about the varying levels of funding, and how not all natural disasters can be treated equally in this respect- it’s difficult for someone not in that area to keep track of where all those fires are occurring, especially while we here in Colorado deal with some of our own. Thank you for this!

  • Claudia says:

    Interesting points. I think it has a lot to do with the length of the disaster. There is more publicity during the initial impact and public interest during this time, however like the article mentions the clean up for these disasters can occur weeks after its started where the full effect may not yet have been known. Engaging media partners to highlight the devastating and ongoing effects seems like the key.

  • Stephanie Boyce says:

    Wow this is a great article!

  • Jo says:

    I think part of difference in funding is perceptions as a result of media coverage. Fire video does not have the same differences from fire to fire and viewers often do not see the wide spread damage like when there is footage of hurricane/floods or the rescues. Homes are destroyed (which is worse) vs. showing damage from water which most of us can relate to. Think there is also a difference from what is an act of God to an act of man or able to be stopped by man. Help is needed by all. Both cases are devestating. Just some thoughts.

  • Tracey Sirles says:

    Interesting viewpoints on the challenges. Thank you for sharing.

  • Lisa says:

    The fire season in California is now 12 months. We used to be anxious 4 -5 months a year and now it’s all the time. Fundraising in this area is desperately needed. It would also be great to see fire insurance become affordable. And perhaps insurance companies might consider grants to hire people to help with the aftermath.

  • LaDonna says:

    I hadn’t realized the differences that exist in supporting recovery from different types of disasters. Thanks for the information!

  • Susan says:

    Kudos to the Legal Aid Association of California (LAAC) for their foresight and assistance to so many families. Hoping they get the support needed to continue.

  • Heather says:

    Being right in the middle of these fires recently (I have stood where that couple is standing in the photo – I live in that same town) my employer has already built multiple specific fire relief funds for our own employees and employee family. As we see it happen again and again, we are already considering building a non-specific longer term fire relief fund.

  • Cathy Spencer says:

    I didn’t realize “putting out the fires represents only 9% of the total cost of the wildfire.” Thanks for sharing this information. Certainly food for thought.

  • Julie Ann says:

    Thanks for sharing! Where I live in New Jersey wildfires are thankfully not a major concern. This article definitely opened my eyes a bit!

  • Angie Stumpo says:

    Interesting article!

  • Amy says:

    Thanks for this! I’ve been fortunate to not be impacted by wildfires or hurricanes so I never really thought about different fundraising needs for different disasters.

  • Brinkley Cox says:

    Fantastic call to need!

  • Jenny Stephens says:

    Great article….my friend is a firefighter fighting the fire up in Northern California.

  • Alicia Barevich says:

    Great article! The smoke is covering the whole country now!

  • MK says:

    Very interesting.

  • Linda Mikelson says:

    Thank you for sharing! Something to think about.

  • Debbie says:

    Thanks for this eye-opening article.

  • Mary Sommer says:

    Interesting, that the most visible activity is a very small percentage of total costs. One challenge, how best to advertise this?

  • Barb says:

    Thanks for the insight!

  • Lawrence Rush says:

    It’s an interesting area of fundraising to consider. So many fundraising initiatives are often focused on fulfilling immediate needs such as keeping the lights on or repairing a broken exhibit. It really takes planning to sustain an effort that could takes years to realize.

  • Jose says:

    Southern California resident here. I’ve been there when Cali had a massive wildfire. Even though we were really far, the smoke and ash traveled all the way down to the border. The air was toxic and the sky was blood red. My area was covered in ash. The fact that we even had warnings that we may have to evacuate was a horrifying experience.

  • APS says:

    Wonderful message and many thanks for sharing!

  • Veronica says:

    Very interesting article. Thank you for sharing!

  • Sunshine Watson says:


  • rachel says:

    This type of planning is the way of our future. Thanks for sharing.

  • Crystal says:

    The social service nonprofit that I worked at previously responded to the victims of the 2003 and 2007 fires in San Diego. This can be such a long process, it was a few years after the fires that they program was able to end. There are so many things that these families have to deal with it. Thank you for sharing.

  • Jessica says:

    What a different way to think about disaster relief.

  • Shirley Brown says:

    We have a disaster fund where I work and we are encouraged to donate whenever a natural disaster occurs, fire, flood, hurricane, tornado, whatever it is. It’s sad that it is so difficult to get relief for the terrible fires in California. I never gave it a thought before that they wouldn’t get the same relief as all other disasters. Something to think about…

  • Karen Stuhlfeier says:

    I meant – Important work and a good article.

  • Kristy Soular says:

    I hope this article helps achieve more fundraising. I will definitely pass this info along.

  • Courtney says:

    Very interesting read! Something I never even thought about.

  • Karen says:

    Great article. Unfortunately some of the areas that are to receive FEMA monies may have to wait a while. This calls for an even stronger need for fundraising.

  • B.R. says:

    An interesting read. I’d be curious to see the difference in funding for other countries (Canada, in particular) currently affected by wildfires.

  • Alysia Carter says:

    Shame on me for not realizing how much long-term private fundraising is needed, that is not covered by government for disaster relief. Thank you for sharing!!

  • Mary Zieten says:

    I hadn’t really noticed the lack of fundraising drives like you see with hurricanes or even flooding. Thanks for making me think!

  • Andy Schroeder says:

    I did not realize the huge disparity in funding levels between hurricane and wildfire relief. Thanks for challenging our organization to find a way to pitch in.

  • Lori says:

    Great information! It certainly sheds new light on the devastation that is happening around the world.

  • Melissa says:

    Great article! This information is extremely helpful.

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