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Into the Breach

North Bay nonprofits rose to challenge during Valley Fire

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When the first flames of Lake County's disastrous Valley Fire broke out on the afternoon of Sept. 12, firefighters and law enforcement were naturally the first to respond.

As the fire grew and more homes were lost, the Red Cross and good samaritans stepped in to provide shelter and aid those left homeless. As the damage mounted and the fire raged, Gov. Brown declared a state of emergency, and Napa County activated its emergency volunteer center Sept. 16 to help manage the growing flood of displaced residents and donations.

Coordinated by San Rafael's Center for Volunteer and Nonprofit Leadership (CVNL), the group played a critical, if unheralded, role during the fire and its aftermath. While employees of the nonprofit and its volunteer network weren't in harm's way, they provided critical services to those who were.

"They were great," said Carlene Moore, executive director of the nonprofit Napa County Fair. Calistoga's Napa Valley Fairgrounds was the site of disaster relief and shelter for fire victims. "They were a tremendous help."

Within hours of the outbreak of the fire, local volunteers stepped up to help. When CVNL arrived on the scene a few days later, Moore was impressed by the way the organization supported and worked with volunteers already onsite, rather than"taking over" and pushing them aside.

"I can't say enough about what saviors they were."

The organization has been around for 50 years serves as a nonprofit service provider for other nonprofits in the form of consulting work, training seminars and executive search assistance to the many organization that do not have in-house expertise. But when a disaster like the Valley Fire or Napa earthquake strikes, they play a more urgent role as emergency volunteer coordinator for Marin and Napa counties. Sonoma and Lake counties do not outsource their emergency-volunteer coordination.

"It comes into action the moment the state declares an emergency," says Peter Rodgers, marketing and communications director at CVNL.

Napa County has its own office of emergency services, but given the scale of the Valley Fire, the county needed to activate CVNL's disaster-relief-coordination role in order to meet the crisis.

"That when things really became urgent," Rodgers says.

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The group's first order of business was to manage the truckloads of donations that were piling up at the fairgrounds. It turns out there were too many clothes donations and not enough items that were in greater need: batteries, flashlights, coats, coolers, sunhats and beanies. They got the word out via radio, TV and print media about what donations were needed, sorted them and then with the assistance of the national nonprofit Points of Light (remember President George H. W. Bush's "thousand points of light"?) and their partner UPS, they delivered the goods to fire victims once they were allowed back into the fire area.

Rodgers, who started with CVNL as a volunteer more than 10 years ago, says his group also helped deploy the scores of volunteers who were lining up to help. The emergency volunteer center is where people who want to help are directed. The Red Cross was at capacity and had been turning away volunteers, something that was upsetting to some of those who wanted to help.

"They could see the need was still there," he says.

Because of the North Bay's vast network of nonprofits and volunteers, help was in large supply. Some of the many nonprofits that rose to the occasion include the Boys & Girls Club, Napa Valley Community Foundation, Wine Country Animal Lovers, Calistoga Wildcat Athletic Boosters, Sunrise Horse Rescue, OLE Health, Community Action of Napa Valley, and the Upvalley Family Center. Given Napa Valley's many restaurants, food was not in short supply. Rodgers says that by Sept. 22, local restaurants had served more than 20,000 meals. While they're not exactly a nonprofit organization, even the local chapter of the Hell's Angels turned out to help and prepared a barbecue lunch for firefighters.

"When you see humanity stepping up to help and you get to be part of it, it's a really beautiful thing," says Rodgers.

Meanwhile, if El Niño storms this winter live up to the hype, expect CVNL to spring into action again once the rivers rise and the mud starts sliding.

"The risks this fall and winter are quite significant," says Rodgers. "This may be the next episode we have to deal with."—Stett Holbrook

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