California Fires Activate Response

November 15, 2007       Mark Hrywna      

Volunteers serve meals in a Red Cross shelter at Mira Mesa High School in San Diego.

Around this time every year, the warm, dry winds known as the Santa Anas sweep down wide across the deserts of Southern California and across the Los Angeles Basin, bringing with them the constant threat of wildfires. But even longtime residents hadn’t seen anything like the wildfires that began burning across Southern California on Oct. 20.

Seven people died as a direct result of the fires, which reached as far north as Santa Barbara County down to the U.S.-Mexico border. At least 1,500 homes were destroyed and more than 500,000 acres of land burned. California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency. President George W. Bush sent federal aid, and nearly one million people were forced to evacuate their homes — the largest evacuation in the state’s history.

Some of the nation’s largest nonprofits descended on Southern California to aid those in peril, bringing volunteers from around the nation. While the City of San Diego provided for thousands of people at QualComm Stadium, the American Red Cross (ARC) served thousands more at its 26 shelters. Local chapters trained more than 1,500 local volunteers to help with the relief effort and national moved nearly 2,000 additional workers to the area to help with feeding and sheltering efforts. The agency provided more than 24,000 overnight stays in its 26 shelters and served more than 190,000 meals. More than 8,000 clean-up kits were distributed.

“We applied many of the lessons learned from Hurricane Katrina to our response to the Southern California wildfires and believe that it made our response much better,” said Sarah Marchetti, ARC spokeswoman. “We learned that we needed more pre-positioned supplies…(which) enabled us to get shelters opened faster and supplies like comfort kits and clean-up kits to victims of the wildfires quicker.”

ARC also partnered with local community organizations “to make sure that we serve as many people as possible,” she said.  At Red Cross shelters, Save the Children offered Safe Space kits, which included things like books, toys and arts supplies for children. The Business Roundtable and its member companies donated office and warehouse space, which Marchetti described as “crucial to our response in California.”

Another key lesson from the Katrina response was the need for more trained volunteers and staff available locally and nationally, Marchetti said. “Because we had enough volunteers on this relief effort — 6,000 from more than 50 states — we were able to open shelters faster and get our mobile feeding units out into the community faster.”

The Salvation Army’s Sierra del Mar Division in San Diego began serving meals and beverages, offering emotional and spiritual support, as well as dispensing hygiene items to first responders and evacuees within the first few hours of the wildfires.

Once the fires were under control, the army’s transitioned to recovery, providing survivors with grocery or department store gift cards to replace belongings lost in the fire. Roving canteens — mobile “general stores” — traveled through burned-out neighborhoods to offer comfort, snacks, drinks and tools to help survivors.

By the end of the day on Oct. 29, a week after the wildfires started, The Salvation Army’s 950 volunteers had served almost 140,000 hot meals in San Diego and San Bernardino counties, in addition to assisting nearly 600 families with store vouchers.

“For us, this was a pretty different kind of disaster,” said Simran Noon, director of public relations and marketing at the San Diego Humane Society and SPCA. “San Diego was surrounded by fire on three sides. We really had to look at our resources and figure out how we were going to allocate them, because we had fires burning and people who needed help in the north, and then in the south, and then in the east. So it was a very challenging situation.”

The two largest fires in terms of area burned were in San Diego County. The Witch Creek fire alone burned nearly 200,000 acres.

 “We actually started on Sunday, when the fires started burning,” said Noon.  The Humane Society immediately fleshed out a donation page, as well as an information page, and placed links to both on the organization’s Web site home page, said Noon. As the fires worsened, the organization posted hourly updates.

Web activity during the week of the fires spiked. The group’s average 1,000 unique daily visits inflated to more than 6,000. An e-blast fundraising appeal sent to 10,000 supporters resulted in 3,000 opens, and more than 10,000 forward opens as of Oct. 30. More than $250,000 was raised (as of Oct. 31), with about $180,000 of that online.

Shelly Stuart, vice president of development, attributed much of the success to the daily updates the group posted on its site. “It’s really critical if we are using the Web site for fundraising purposes,” she said, “that the information is current and of interest and attractive to people.”

As donations continued to flood in, Stuart said it was important to let the public know that the need went beyond the fires. “On Thursday (Oct. 25) we actually changed the copy on our gift page to one of thanking people for being so generous, and asking people if they wish to make a contribution toward the ongoing efforts of the Humane Society, they could do so here,” said Stuart. “But we still included a box at the bottom where people could restrict their contribution to the fire. That’s something that’s really, really critical, and we paid a lot of attention to it.”

The Web site also included information about the area’s pet-friendly evacuation centers, an effort Noon said came as a direct result of Hurricane Katrina.

In conjunction with the San Diego/Imperial Counties American Red Cross (SDARC), the Humane Society set up pet shelters beside the Red Cross shelters. “So people can go inside and get food, water and cots, and then right outside…we had crates set up for animals…so people weren’t separated from their animals,” she added. Along with medical doctors, veterinarians were also on site.

The group also hit the phones. “We didn’t really put out a blanket call,” said Stuart. “We went to specific large partners.”  The constant media coverage provided a vehicle to reach the public for smaller items, donations, and volunteer help.

The Humane Society wasn’t forced to evacuate its building, nestled in the Mission Valley area of San Diego. However, with San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders’ call for residents to stay off the roads the group made the decision that only essential staff would go to the office. “We were closed for adoptions, and our kind of standard operational things and programs we provide were put to the side,” said Noon.   “There was a loss of revenue.”  The group has yet to figure the expenses and loss in revenue related to the shutdown.

“It’s sort of a sea change,” said Noon. “It used to be that you’d wait for the mail to come in or for people to drop off checks. Now, our Web site is really a key fundraising tool for us when things like this happen. And the Convio folks were great. We had some issues and questions and help that we needed…and they basically dropped everything they were doing to help us.”

Some 1,300 miles to the east, nonprofit software company Convio was a safe distance away from the wildfires. Fellow nonprofit software provider Kintera wasn’t so lucky, although it remained in full operation.

“In many ways I’m speechless,” Darryl Gordon, vice president of marketing, said in a telephone interview from Kintera’s San Diego headquarters. Gordon said the office was covered in soot from the fire that burned just over Interstate Highway 805, and the smoky smell, he added, “is everywhere, in everything.”

Kintera was not forced to evacuate, however 90 percent of the company’s staff were unable to get to work the day after the fires erupted. “I’ve been in San Diego now for 21 years, and every company that I’ve worked at, we’ve always had a (fire) contingency plan. But to be honest, I’ve never ever got to actually implement them,” said Gordon.

“We have clients out there that immediately started mobilizing their operations that absolutely were relying on us to come through with flying colors for them,” he said. “And so our back-up plan immediately took into effect.” Kintera relied heavily on its IT staff and resources to ensure the system had zero hiccups. The company employed additional IT resources outside the area, in case its main offices in Sorento Valley had to be evacuated.

“Our IT staff who were some in the building and some of them literally across San Diego, all had access to all of the mission-critical systems from remote locations,” added Gordon. “So even though they couldn’t be in here, everyone was in complete contact with each other.” According to Gordon, none of Kintera’s clients experienced any system degradation, despite huge increases in Web activity as a result of the public’s increased interest and awareness of their efforts during the fires.

Donors also came through for local organizations.  “We definitely saw spikes through our Web site and also through toll-free numbers,” said Mary Havell, a spokeswoman for the national office of the American Red Cross. The SDARC did not have to evacuate its facility but many of its volunteers and staff had to evacuate their homes, said Peyton Roberts, marketing and communications coordinator. The chapter normally has a staff of about 90 employees along with 300 disaster volunteers, who returned sporadically after taking care of their own situations.

“We never felt that our facility was threatened by the fires,” said Roberts, despite being less than 15 miles from some areas that were evacuated. The chapter maintained operations.

The Red Cross estimated the cost of responding to the wildfires to be between $12 million and $15 million, which was met within a week. Some was offset by the more than $1.2 million in donations raised through a telethon on the local ABC network television affiliate. Hewlett-Packard donated $2 million to the ARC’s disaster relief fund and its company foundation will match employee contributions dollar for dollar up to $1.5 million for wildfire relief efforts. The wildfire relief fund also received contributions of $2 million from Toyota and $1 million from Wal-Mart, said Havell.

Many donations remain in “pledge” form and, while not yet received, have been incorporated into the estimate of funds raised for the wildfire response. The ARC used a text-message-to-donate program created to aid Hurricane Katrina relief, and now initiated whenever a natural disaster occurs for which the ARC determines its relief effort will require substantial support. Text messaging is “definitely a more innovative way of fundraising,” Havell said, “getting picked up in the blogosphere” and “creating a lot of buzz.”

Prior to the fires, SDARC had already designated 600 different sites around San Diego and Imperial counties as emergency shelters, Roberts said.

“Part of the preparation is training volunteers and having experienced volunteers,” Roberts said. “Just knowing the plan, so it’s not complete chaos. It was fairly orderly on our end.”

Under state mandate, the Helen Woodward Animal Center (HWAC) was forced to shut its doors and evacuate the nearly 400 animals residing on its 12-acre property, also home to the Rancho Santa Fe Veterinary Hospital and the group’s equine hospital, according to spokesman John Van Zante.

“We didn’t wait for them to tell us to get out…we took a more proactive stance,” said Van Zante. “To be able to move almost 400 animals off our property safely in basically three and a half hours: pretty amazing.” Mostly staff did the moving, and animals were taken to various facilities throughout Southern California.

The group dodged a potentially disastrous fate: no animals were harmed and the building was left untouched by the flames. However, according to Van Zante, the costs of the fires continue to add up.  “We weren’t open to the public for four days,” said Van Zante. “That means that…we’re not generating revenue that is used to help pay for the care of the animals. We didn’t complete any adoptions. The Club Pet boarding facility wasn’t generating fees. The maintenance department is working around here, and almost every hour they’re finding something new (to fix).” The group didn’t expect to be fully operational for another week.

The group was also forced to postpone its annual “Spooktacular People Pet Walk,” one of the group’s three fundraisers. Originally set for Oct. 27, the event was moved to the following weekend.

“We expect the short-term loss will come close to $70,000,” said Van Zante. HWAC President Mike Arms said he’s confident the group will still be able to raise the usual $80,000 from its walk. However, said Van Zante, “It’s important to note, there’s no way to determine the long-term loss. The need is great, and it’s now.”  NPT