California’s Dual Challenge – Fire Season and COVID-19 Pandemic

August 26, 2020
By Jarrett Tomás Barrios, SVP of Strategic Community & Programmatic Initiatives

As most Californians know well, wildfire season usually heats up in the fall. This year, it’s only August and California is already on fire.

Since August 15, 650 new wildfires have been sparked across Northern Californa with a big assist from an unusual series of help from lightning strikes. Today, Cal Fire reports that there are two dozen major fires currently burning with over 1.25 million acres burned and more than 1,400 structures destroyed so far. In short order, two of these fast-moving fires – the SCU Lightning Complex Fire burning in Contra Costa, Alameda and Santa Clara Counties, and the LNU Lighting Complex Fire in Napa and Solano Counties – have already become the second and third largest wildfires in California history. Over 14,000 firefighters are deployed but nature, as of today, still has the upper hand.

One inevitable outcome of these fires will be fatalities, particularly among vulnerable, elderly residents who won’t or can’t evacuate. Tens of thousands have already been forced to flee their communities with many destined to never see their homes standing again. Thousands more will miss time at work or maybe even lose their jobs due to the economic impacts of these fires. These Californians need help now.

Adding greater stress to an already overstressed California is COVID-19. Wildfire smoke contains air pollutants that are harmful . Prolonged exposure to these pollutants will irritate lungs, and can cause inflammation that some research has shown increases susceptibility to respiratory infections like COVID-19. These studies also suggest that exposure to wildfire pollutants can worsen COVID-19 symptoms and outcomes.

As if this weren’t complicated enough, COVID health and safety protocols are requiring that disaster responders and relief operations take new precautions in addition to standard protocols. Red Cross, for example, is having to educate the public about the new precautions to be taken for wildfires. Because they are the “shelter of last resort” for many, they are standing up shelters for thousands—but shelters look different. Cots are spread much further apart. People in high risk groups are being housed in hotel rooms where available.

Yes, the fires will eventually get put out. And the smoke will clear. But even then, the work to recover will only just have begun. These communities will be forced to engage in recovery efforts for years. Surviving a wildfire, piecing together what’s left of one’s life, then rebuilding: these are the reasons Californians need support from government, philanthropies, and everyday people who are moved to support those impacted. With the average FEMA grant for disaster victims somewhere between $5,000 and $8,000, there are many, many unmet needs experienced by eligible families who seek to rebuild. (For those ineligible for FEMA assistance or those who simply won’t seek such assistance out of fear, the situation is even more dire.)

Most vulnerable to the economic impacts of wildfires are lower-income residents, renters (who typically don’t carry insurance), immigrants ineligible for federal assistance and residents with less formal educations. There are many ways an individual wishing to help those most vulnerable in the Northern California Wildfires. The list below contains links to relief funds dedicated to supporting local response and recovery efforts, as well as local resources and organizations providing immediate and long-term relief.

Wildfire Relief Funds

Direct Relief and Assistance

  • The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) provides emergency medical, housing and other types of assistance for those affected by disasters.
  • The Small Business Administration provides low-interest disaster loans to businesses, non-profit organizations, homeowners, and renters to repair or replace damaged or destroyed real estate, personal property, equipment, and other business assets.
  • The California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services connects residents with a wide range of services and programs targeted specifically at those who have been affected by wildfires.
  • The State of California’s Guide to Disaster Assistance Services for Immigrant Californians provides information on health, housing, emergency supplies, employment and other services available to all Californians, regardless of their immigration status.
  • The American Red Cross provides access to shelter to evacuees across California, as well as providing financial assistance to victims of disaster, evacuation updates and safety information.
  • Northern California Salvation Army supports relief efforts. Funds may be used to provide food and drinks to survivors, cleaning supplies and other essential commodities, direct financial aid to those effected or to support disaster relief workers serving in the area.
  • The California Association of Food Banks represents more than 40 food banks in the state that provide food to millions of residents, including victims of wildfires.
  • Foodbank of Contra Costa and Solano distributes food directly to low-income people at community sites and makes food available for other nonprofit organizations serving the ill, needy and children.

When supporting relief organizations, consider marking your gift as general operating support. By doing so, you enable the organization to both respond to current disasters and be prepared for those that may arise in the future. Visit CCF’s disaster giving page for more tips on how to maximize your impact when giving to disaster relief.

Para leer esta historia en español, haga clic aquí.

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