3 minute readDisaster, Volunteers

Straight Talk on the California Wildfire Response

There have been several misunderstandings about the Red Cross and our response to the California wildfires, and we believe it is important to state the facts as clearly as possible.

Like you, these are our communities and we care deeply about the people driven from their homes by these terrible fires, especially those who have lost everything. Our mission is simple: to provide shelter, food, and relief to people in need.

A disaster this size takes the involvement of many people from many backgrounds and we’re proud to be one of those “helpers”. We are committed to partnering with others with the same or similar mission so that together we can provide a wide range of opportunities for anyone who wants to help fire survivors.

Fact #1The role of the Red Cross is to provide shelter and to support the immediate needs of those affected by the California wildfires, including a safe place to stay, food, water, and health services, cleaning supplies, emotional support and other support resources. We have supported people with disabilities and we also partnered with several organizations to care for evacuated pets and animals. Residents affected by the fires are welcome to stop by our shelters for services during the day even if they choose to spend the night elsewhere.  Some individuals and families chose to stay outside of the shelters because they wished privacy that a shelter setting could not provide.

Since evacuations were first ordered, more than 600 trained Red Cross workers and community volunteers have:

    • Served more than 76,000 meals and snacks
    • Handed out more than 32,000 relief items
    • Supported more than 10,000 overnight stays in shelters
    • Provided more than 4,800 health and mental health contacts
    • Opened more than 500 cases to provide individualized recovery support

Fact #2: Red Cross normally coordinates the handling of in-kind donations with a partner organization that has the expertise in the logistics of sorting and packing goods. We appreciate the generosity of those who have brought items to help others, but we cannot accept in-kind goods donations as we do not have the infrastructure to support management, sorting, and distribution of such items. In Calistoga, Napa County identified the Center for Volunteer & Nonprofit Leadership (cvnl.org) Emergency Volunteer Center to coordinate such donations.

Fact #3: Financial donations to the Red Cross are being used to provide help to people in need right now and will enable us to continue providing help as communities recover. As of Sept. 24, the Red Cross estimates that we will spend more than $6.6 million helping people affected by wildfires across the western United States – the vast majority of these costs are for California (more than $5 million) and Washington State (more than $1.1 million).

The $6.6 million cost estimate includes wildfire response and recovery efforts in Alaska, Arizona, California, Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington State.

The Red Cross meticulously honors donor intent. Donations made in support of a specific disaster will be used for that disaster only. Any designated funds we raise beyond what is needed for emergency relief will be put to use serving the recovery needs of the affected communities.

Fact #4: An average of 91 cents of every dollar the Red Cross spends goes to our humanitarian services and programs and are used to provide food, shelter, emotional support and other assistance, as well as the staff, goods, vehicles and warehouses that make that relief possible. This means that roughly 9 cents of every dollar donated supports general operations to keep the Red Cross running, such as information technology, fundraising, finance, HR and communications.  The Red Cross has been accredited by the Better Business Bureau (BBB) and has a 3-star rating with Charity Navigator.  One of the BBB’s standards for accountability is that a charity should spend at least 65 percent of total expenses on program activities. The Red Cross vastly outperforms on this measure. We encourage donors to review our rankings with watchdog organizations and view our audited financial reports on redcross.org.

Fact #5: We greatly appreciate the number of individuals who stepped up to volunteer for the California wildfire disaster, but as with any volunteer organization, we must follow certain screening protocols, which take time to implement and are difficult to undertake during the start of a disaster.  CVNL (cvnl.org) coordinated community volunteers provided support at the Napa County Fairgrounds shelter in Calistoga. Any community members interested in spontaneous volunteering help in Lake County may register online with North Coast Opportunities at ncoinc.org.

The Red Cross is a nearly all-volunteer workforce, composed of people who want to help their neighbors. In response to massive wildfires in California this month, local Red Cross volunteers from the affected areas and neighboring counties immediately mobilized to help the relief effort.

The Red Cross is always seeking committed, qualified volunteers to help our local communities before, during and after disasters. Please direct anyone who is looking for an ongoing or longer-term commitment to this application http://tinyurl.com/redcrossNCCRvolunteer, and they can work with their local volunteer manager to complete the steps needed to become a Red Cross volunteer.

By their very nature, disasters are unpredictable and require immediate crisis management and triage to employ the best possible response and outcome. The reality is that disaster response sometimes is not perfectly executed. We regret that anyone whose offer to help, donate and/or otherwise support support were met with anything less than a compassionate and gracious response from the Red Cross, and we appreciate those who sought us out to express their concerns.

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  1. After breaking my back on Red Cross disasters for several years and witnessing what I would classify as mental, and at times close to physical abuse and scorn and impatience by Red Cross Employees, knowing the $650,000 salary plus bennies, etc., of your president, etc., etc., this thing is somewhat misleading. Misunderstandings about what you’re doing? I can’t imagine why, You have good hearted people who go out time and time again only to be put down. You have lost hundreds, if not thousands, of well trained volunteers due to mismanagement, etc. You are now getting what you have been looking for, for a long time. Disdain.

  2. This reads like a CYA press release. Nice info, but it will not stop the negative public perceptions of ARC during major disasters.

    Red Cross should have a policy of striving to use 100% of donor’s dollars earmarked for disaster relief at actual disasters. 91% is great, but until we are as efficient as the Salvation Army with donor dollars we can and must do better.

    Working with other volunteer organizations to deal with in-kind donations at some time 1-3+ days after a disaster hits is nice, but we must be able to move faster with those other organizations. It took us Katrina to deal closer with pet sheltering organizations when we open ARC shelters.

    Requiring major disaster walk-in volunteers to go online, sign up for a class and wait for the class to happen is asking for bad press. After the initial shock wears off all shelter residents should be offered meaningful opportunities to volunteer.

    Why do we always have to improve retroactively instead of proactively?

  3. Ladies and Gents:

    Good stuff! I am an ARC retiree and would appreciate being placed on your blog’s e-mail distribution list, if you have one.

    My thanks,

    Bud Good (retired 1994 from NHQ)
    Gore, VA

  4. While many people have theories and assumptions about how the Red Cross should function, the truth of the matter is that it DOES function, both effectively and efficiently. I have been an active member of the Red Cross for close to 15 years and have witnessed major disasters – and the Red Cross responding to them. Thousands of people are fed, clothed, sheltered, comforted and encouraged at no cost and with no expectation of repayment. In troubled times, confusion and frustration are evident. The Red Cross is acutely aware of this and sensitive to the emotions of those in dire need. The Red Cross is a wonderful organization that fulfills its fundamental goal – to care and comfort those in need.

  5. I was there helping. Everyone worked tirelessly and partnered with Napa County as well as The Coast Guard. The Culinary Institute donated food, animal organizations donated time and things. As for in kind donations, I saw few people take them and much get wasted after the fairgrounds accepted and sorted them.
    Those in tents wanted to stay in the tents. Many because of wanting to have their animals with them. Red Cross turned away no one from the shelter.
    It didn’t help that Napa County officials decided to wear identical vests as the Red Cross. That caused alot of confusion with people and media.

  6. At the moment that a disaster affects a community everyone wants to help which is honorable. How about during times of calm, how many people prepare to help those in need when that moment comes. People follow your hearts, train to be ready in the drop of a hat, to come help out with the thousands of us who have prepared with countless hours of training to handle probably some the most heart renching tenderest moments in our memories. I have been with the Amercan Red Cross since my children were 5 and 3 years old. 25 years of service. Disaster is just that…”Disaster” and the courtless number of paid (yes, paid) and volunteer staff that it takes at the upper level to put a response in motion in a matter of hours is a site to see. It never runs smooth and we will never please everyone affected but those we have served and that one “God bless you Red Cross” makes leaving our jobs and families and living in not the best conditions (sometimes in shelters ourselves) makes volunteering with the National and local ARC with it.
    Sandy Irvine RN Proud member of DSHR