In the hours before dawn last November 8th, Ventura County firefighters were dispatched in force to a popular local night spot in Thousand Oaks, the Borderline Bar and Grill. Twelve people, including Ventura County Sheriff Sgt. Ron Helus, had been gunned down in a chaotic mass shooting.
The scene was hellish, but for many of those firefighters, the hell was just beginning.
Within hours of the shooting, the explosive Woolsey Fire swept across the hills above Malibu, in some cases leaving survivors of the shooting unable to return to their homes. A few hundred miles north, an even greater human disaster was unfolding, as the Camp Fire raged through Butte County. The entire town of Paradise was leveled … seemingly in a matter of minutes.
“A whole town burned down, a town of 28,000 people. That’s never happened before,” explained Brian Rice, president of California Professional Firefighters. “The fire was so fierce and moved so fast, firefighters were saving lives before they could even begin to fight the fire.”
With the fires raging and firefighters responding in both the southern and northern parts of the state, the California Fire Foundation stepped into action. The Foundation, California Professional Firefighters’ 501(c)(3) charitable organization, provides emotional and financial assistance to families of fallen firefighters, firefighters and the communities they protect.
As the picture of the devastation became clearer with thousands of people, including 47 firefighters, losing their homes, the Foundation mobilized to distribute aid through the Supplying Aid to Victims of Emergency (SAVE) program.
SAVE provides emergency short-term financial assistance to those who have lost homes in catastrophic fire and natural disasters. SAVE gift cards are offered to these victims to purchase basic necessities in the face of devastating loss – assistance that comes from firefighters themselves. What started primarily as a hand up for victims of structure fires, has quickly become an important immediate lifeline for those touched by major disasters. In 2014, hundreds of SAVE cards were made available to victims of the Napa Earthquake. In 2017, more than 2,000 cards were distributed to those touched by the North Bay Fires.
The unprecedented destruction of the Camp and Woolsey Fire spurred an increase in donations to the California Fire Foundation. As the stories of the devastation spread, people from around the world contributed to help in any way they could. As a result of the generosity, the Foundation was able to increase the value of the SAVE cards from $100 to $250 per card.
To help the firefighters that lost everything, CPF President and Foundation Chair Brian Rice and IAFF 10th District Vice President Frank Lima, mobilized the disaster relief plan immediately after the fires broke out. Together with the IAFF Disaster Relief Fund, the SAVE program and CDF Firefighters Benevolent Foundation, resources were provided to help the affected firefighters and their families. From assistance with relocation to insurance claims, all three organizations helped members in their time of need.
FIRE FAMILY STEPS UP TO THE PLATE
The Foundation’s mission to assist the communities that firefighters protect was never more important. With so many people losing their homes, especially in Paradise, it was imperative to help as many people as possible. Local firefighters and their families mobilized a network of volunteers to help distribute SAVE cards to the community at-large. The scope and scale of the Camp Fire destruction and the victims left in its wake was unlike other wildfires the state had experienced. To successfully reach the thousands of displaced people, volunteers coordinated with FEMA to set up a California Fire Foundation table at the FEMA disaster center in Chico, where most displaced people would check in to access resources.
The volunteer operation was a true fire family effort. Simone Baker, the wife of CAL FIRE captain and CAL FIRE Local 2881 Chapter Director Josh Baker, stepped up to the plate and helped organize the SAVE card distribution. “This is my community and watching my neighbors and friends lose their homes, I had to do something to help,” Simone explained. “When Josh and Mike Lopez told me about the California Fire Foundation’s SAVE program, I knew that this was a way that I could help my community.”
Together with other fire spouses, Simone began to organize volunteers to help staff the Foundation table at the FEMA center and create a system to track the SAVE card distribution. She started the Butte County Fire Wives facebook page to organize the spouses of firefighters who lost homes, but it quickly grew into a volunteer hub. Simone posted a volunteer sign-up schedule to the page and to her surprise, people signed up for every single shift. “It was inspiring to see so many people in our fire family come out to volunteer, some came from around the state to help,” she said. “People brought their children to volunteer with them and our own children were part of the effort as well.”
HOPE IN THE FACE OF TRAGEDY
CPF Secretary-Treasurer and Foundation Secretary Mike Lopez was assisting the table at the FEMA center nearly every day. “The community of Paradise was devastated by the Camp Fire, and it was astounding to see the amount of people that came through in need of help,” said Lopez. “On our busiest day, we handed out 1,100 cards and it made a substantial impact on people’s lives. The $250 meant they were able to fill up on fuel to get to family, buy food or have a couple night’s stay at a hotel. These people lost everything and what they needed most was money because they no longer had homes to return to and, in many cases, they didn’t have jobs to return to either.”
As the cards were distributed many people were very moved by the generosity of California firefighters and the many donors to the Foundation. “There was a couple whose windshield was badly damaged when escaping the fire,” described Baker. “They escaped with no possessions, the husband was a disabled gentleman and they had no place to stay. When they received the SAVE card there were ‘water works.’ They explained the card would allow them to repair their windshield and drive to their family for shelter. There were countless stories like that.”
As the fires were contained, the overall numbers of acres burned and lives lost were shocking. The Camp Fire went on to become the most destructive and deadliest fire in state history. It burned 153,336 acres, destroyed nearly 14,000 homes and caused 86 fatalities. The Woolsey Fire burned 96,949 acres, destroyed 1,500 structures and caused 3 fatalities.
Nearly 10,000 SAVE cards were distributed at the Camp Fire site – nearly $2.5 million in direct assistance for those who lost so much. In Southern California, CPF District Vice Presidents Dave Gillotte and Chris Mahon took charge of SAVE card distribution and handed out another 800+ cards to Woolsey Fire victims -- nearly $200,000 in aid.
Thanks to the efforts of firefighters, their families and the many donors, the victims of the Camp and Woolsey Fire got a helping hand in their time of need. “It was firefighters helping people on the worst day of their lives,” said Lopez. “The experience of helping distribute nearly 10,000 SAVE cards was like a full fire career wrapped up in one month.”