Jewish Groups Scramble to Aid Camp Fire Evacuees

November 20, 2018
Photo by Stephen Lam/Reuters

As the death toll and damage estimates continue to rise from the Camp Fire in Northern California, Jewish organizations are scrambling to respond to the needs of surviving Jews and non-Jews reeling from devastating losses of their homes and possessions, and the deaths of family and friends.

At this point, the damage and loss of life from the deadliest wildfire in California history has been so extensive that the organizations haven’t been able to estimate the level of need they are facing.

For the town of Paradise, which was almost totally destroyed by the fire on Nov. 8-9, for example, assessments are still being collected on how best to assist its residents who lost homes, possessions, family and friends as the fire ripped through the Butte County community and others in the Sierra Nevada.

“We don’t have any accurate information,” said Willie Recht, executive director of the Jewish Federation of the Sacramento Region. “I don’t know how many Jewish families were in Paradise.”

However, Recht added, the lack of intformation won’t deter the federation’s emergency charitable response — for Jews and non-Jews. “The larger community is always there for the Jewish community, so we want to be there for them the best we can,” he said.

The federation has launched a collection, detailed on its website at JewishSac.org, of “practical goods such as new towels, new or gently used clothing in all sizes (including shoes, undergarments, sweatshirts and bras), paper cups, paper plates, paper towels, animal food, new jackets, new coats and bottled water.” It’s also accepting grocery-store and other retail gift cards, and monetary donations can be made through a link on the website.

The array of items being sought was based on requests by evacuees, Recht said.

“These folks lost everything,” he said. “We’re just one part of the effort. The whole community is trying to do what they can to assist the victims.”

Indeed, Jews in Butte County have been extending themselves to their less fortunate neighbors in a variety of ways. Residents outside the fire zone have opened their homes to those in need, some who are away for Thanksgiving have lent their apartments to evacuees.

Members of Congregation Beth Israel, a Reform synagogue in Chico, have been volunteering to assist evacuees at a “pop-up” shelter set up at the nearby Bidwell Presbyterian Church. They also have opened their homes, taking in refugees regardless of religious affiliations, said the congregation’s Rabbi Sara Abrams.

“There is no centralized organization of the shelters,” said Rabbi Sara Abrams of Beth Israel, which has about 100 member families. “We are hoping now that [the Federal Emergency Management Agency] is here, there will be.”

The estimate of Butte County evacuees has ranged from 1,600 to 1,800, Abrams said. Those numbers include several families in Abrams’ congregation, whose residences in Paradise, Butte Canyon and possibly Butte Valley were reduced to ash.

“There is a great outpouring of goodwill here,” Abrams said. “But this is the just the beginning. We’re in it for the long haul.”

Many of the Beth Israel members were limited in their volunteer efforts because of the poor air quality, which became increasingly toxic due to an inversion layer. Some of them had to temporarily relocate to avoid health problems.

“If you have respiratory problems, they will be exacerbated in Chico on a good day,” said Abrams, who has developed a lung condition because of allergens from local crops. “Then you add the fires, and your respiratory problems are off the charts. One of our chief volunteers said she can’t volunteer anymore because of her asthma. She is leaving town for the north coast.”

Although many individual GoFundMe campaigns have been launched, Abrams urged donors to contribute to the North Valley Community Foundation Camp Fire Relief (nvcf.org) and the Tri Counties Bank 2018 Camp Fire Fund (tcbk.com/fire-update). “We are emphasizing giving to organizations that are equitably distributing funds to shelters and evacuees so we can best help those who have the highest need,” she said.

“You’ve got lots of organizations down here helping: Red Cross, medical personnel, and you-and-me folk, like myself and others,” Abrams said. “There are people with extreme needs. There are elderly with very few resources. They were probably living in poverty before this and now have everything taken from them. We are dealing with a very large crisis here.”

Tri Counties Bank, which began its campaign by contributing $25,000, plans to distribute funds through local nonprofit emergency relief agencies directly serving fire victims “with immediate needs.” Those nonprofit organizations include United Way of Northern California, The Salvation Army and Northern Valley Catholic Social Services. At the Journal’s press time, the fund was close to reaching its goal of $350,000. (gofundme.com/tcb-2018-camp-fire-fund).

Meanwhile, Cal State Chico Hillel’s Executive Director Kristy Collins was doing her part by delivering matzo ball soup to displaced friends. Although the university was closed during the fires, the Hillel office remained open to provide a respite for non-Jewish residents hosting evacuees in their homes who needed a quiet place to regroup from care fatigue, Collins said.

In her office, Collins had a box of “N95” respiratory masks for anyone needing one to protect against breathing in dangerous airborne particulates — including Jewish families scheduled to visit campus on college tours. In fact, Collins had just encouraged a father and daughter to visit the university during Thanksgiving week.

“Chico is so special, I didn’t want to say, ‘Don’t come,’” Collins said. “I really want to walk around campus with them. It’s important people still consider Chico for their Jewish families.”

Lisa Klug is a freelance journalist.

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