The community mobilized to help
Even while first responders fought the blaze, residents from town and the surrounding areas swung into action
Jennifer Rubio left her hometown of Weed last August to start her third year at Chico State. Twenty-two days after her departure, Rubio learned that she would never again open the front door to her home, cuddle her dog, Milo, or flip through her baby album. Like more than half the town’s residents, her family had lost their home and everything in it to the Boles Fire.
collaboration proved critical
“It’s a surreal feeling that makes me cry every time I think back on this day,” says Rubio, a Ford Sons and Daughters scholarship recipient. “Just knowing that you lost memories that you won’t ever get to see again is the most difficult thing to overlook.”
Life changed on Sept. 15, 2014, for virtually every one of the 3,000 residents of Weed. Those fortunate enough to keep their homes inevitably knew someone who didn’t, and the devastation affected every facet of life in Weed — shopping, business, church, school. And even today, for those who try to forget, a look out the window will bring it all home.
“The biggest reminder of the event is the visual effect it had on our town, which is forever changed,” says Ford Opportunity Scholar Tina Stewart. “It used to be so beautiful, surrounded by lush green pine trees. Now, blocks of homes and businesses that used to be there are vacant, covered with stumps or burnt rounds from cut-down trees.”
While Weed did not have a specific plan to deal with disasters like an arson-caused fire racing through town, it does have a community that is used to working together. A long-term fund-raising campaign had successfully ended with the opening of a new community center in March 2014. Town leaders are longtime participants in all of the Ford Institute Leadership Program initiatives.
Reacting to disaster
In the hours immediately following the fire, that practice of collaboration proved critical. Even as the fire swept through town and the new community center burned, the northern California community quickly swung into action.
While more than 60 first responders battled the blaze, folks in the area immediately began looking for ways to help. Staff at Shasta Regional Community Foundation volunteered their organization as the central collection point for financial donations, opting to waive the standard administrative fees.
“After we decided that was what we were going to do, we got our board’s support, and we called Napa Valley Community Foundation for advice; they had just responded to the earthquake there,” says Jill Harris, the foundation’s development and communications officer.
A web page for online transactions was established by 8 a.m. the day after the fire; it took in $22,000 in the first eight hours. The fund, which totals $530,000 so far, continues to receive donations today. “We are a small enough organization that we can be that flexible,” Harris says.
The community’s immediate response to the crisis wasn’t without issues. “It took a while to jell,” Ochs says. “There is so much immediate giving of clothes and things — you just accept it because you don’t know what else to do. We didn’t have systems in place until a month and a half later.”At the Family and Community Resource Center of Weed, which was not damaged, staff members quickly found themselves learning a new job — case management for people affected by the fire. The center’s three employees normally provide family-oriented events and education, but in the first few days after the fire, they found themselves interviewing about 150 people with immediate needs for food and shelter, while dealing with their losses as well. Kelsea Ochs, Resource Center program officer, lost her own home, but not before her husband grabbed the family dog.
Many people received what they needed, but the sheer volume of donations created logistical challenges.
Many agencies gave unselfishly of time and money, and only counted the cost when the adrenaline wore off. Although Ochs’s agency was able to eventually add a grant-funded position, the bulk of the extra work fell on staff and several volunteers. “It was a steep learning curve. Right now we’re trying to learn a process for prioritizing. What does that system look like? No one knows.”
Harris says the Community Foundation recently did an impact study on the time it put into the response. A conservative estimate of expense, she says, is $43,000. “We wouldn’t do anything different, but it’s something to know,” she points out. “We may be looked at to do this again.”
In the immediate aftermath of the fire, the community came together in some amazing ways:
Employees at Roseburg Forest Products, one of the town’s largest employers, helped fight flames that significantly damaged the veneer facility. “We had such an incredible response from our people at the plant,” Weed Plant Manager Jeff Scholberg said at an employee meeting shortly after the fire. “They voluntarily chose to fight the fire at the mill, some knowing that their own homes were going up in flames.”
A week after the fire, company CEO Allyn Ford put 60 Weed employees to work at RFP mills in Douglas County, providing them with housing and meals assistance. They returned to work in Weed in early October, about six weeks ahead of schedule.
Technically a casualty of the fire, Weed nonprofit Great Northern Services didn’t act much like a victim. When its building burned down, the organization, which provides assistance to low-income families, quickly found a temporary location. Within three days, it was operating an emergency food warehouse.
The ultra-fast arrival of first responders has also drawn praise. “We will be forever grateful to the tremendous efforts of all firefighters and others who saved our home and so many others,” says Stewart, the Ford Opportunity Scholar. Her home is on Main Street, an area of focus for firefighters. Her mother’s house in Angel Valley, saved by a timely fire retardant drop, was one house away from a blocks-long area of devastation. “My youngest son, Malachi, now aspires to fly one of the planes that drops the retardant,” Stewart says.
Coping with recovery
Six months after the fire, the Weed community is well into the recovery phase. The Weed Long Term Recovery Group helps community members affected by the fire connect with local resources, including insurance education, rental assistance, tax reporting information, and help with necessities such as heat.
The Resource Center staff is busy with new challenges, as they complete construction assessments and help guide people to the correct resources. “A lot of people are trying to navigate insurance policies.” Ochs says. “Some people don’t want to see a contractor yet. Even now, we just referred someone to a therapist.”
It’s a long time until recovery is complete, and no one knows when that will be, or how successful it will end up. When Ochs looks out the window of the Resource Center, though, she doesn’t see the blackened fire debris, or the vacant lot where her house once stood. She sees the town as it will be in a few months. “Weed is going to be extremely active,” she says. “We have 37 groups coming in to help with the rebuilding efforts — lots of worker bees, lots of people helping rebuild some of those houses where people were underinsured.
“A ton of little ants swarming all over town,” she says with satisfaction.