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How to help California wildfire victims

Updated Tuesday, Nov. 13, 2018

California fall 2018 wildfire smoke as seen by NASA
Smoke from the Camp, Hill and Woolsey fires now burning in California as seen via NASA satellite images.

Earthquakes have been displaced as the most feared nature disaster in California. Wildfires, which once again are ravaging the Golden State, now are the biggest perennial natural threat, as evidenced by the latest rash of devastating and deadly flame outbreaks.

Firefighters are battling three wildfires across the state.

The Camp Fire, named after Camp Creek Road, is now the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California history. As of Monday, Nov. 12, morning, the fire was responsible for the loss of 42 civilian lives and three injured firefighters. It had scorched more than 117,000 acres and destroyed 6,713 buildings in and around the Northern California city of Paradise.

It gets worse. Law enforcement is still searching for hundreds who are missing.

The Woolsey Fire burning in Ventura County has killed two people, according to CAL Fire. It's already burned 83,275 acres of land and has destroyed 177 structure with another 15,000 structures threatened. The Hill Fire, which is also burning parts of Ventura County, is at 65 percent containment and has scorched 4,531 acres.

Those of us with family and friends in the Golden State are anxiously watching the amazingly horrific reports on television and online and keeping our phones and social media apps at the ready in case there's a call, hopefully to let assure us that things are OK or that we need to get the guest room ready for a while.

But there's also something we do as we watch and wait. We can donate to organizations that are on the ground and helping folks displaced by the fires.

Show them the money: Sending money generally is the best way to help in a disaster.

Financial contributions give the on-site professional relief organizations the ability to buy the precise supplies that are most urgently needed by disaster survivors, avoiding delays and the often steep transportation and logistical costs that accompany donations of goods.

It also makes things easier for the volunteers on the ground. If they're faced with loads of donated goods, they have to spend time sorting them rather than buying exactly what’s needed. Such extraneous tasks also cut into their valuable time that's better spent on things such as directly getting help to those in need.

Plus, some commodities, particularly food, can almost always be purchased locally, even after devastating emergencies, according to the Center for International Disaster Information, part of the United States Agency for International Development.

From the donors' standpoint, when you give a financial gift, you know your help is more immediately put to work.

And if you plan to take a deduction for a gift in a disaster situation, cash is the easiest to document for Internal Revenue Service record keeping requirements.

How to give: Once you've decided to donate, the next big question is which group(s) get your money.

The typical disaster standbys, the American Red Cross and Salvation Army, are ready, willing and eagerly awaiting your California wildfire relief contributions. Their websites, linked via the groups' names in the previous sentence, have details on making online, text and mail donations.

Direct Relief, which helps provide resources to healthcare agencies and first responders in disaster situations, is providing N-95 masks, medicine and other resources to support medical attention needed in the wildfire-affected California communities. Your cash donations to Direct Relief are being matched, up to $15,000, by Tito’s Handmade Vodka.

But some more local California organizations accepting relief donations. Check out the links below.

LINKS NOTE: Some of these groups' websites are not classified as secure; that is, the don't have https in their URL. In those cases, the links might give you an error message or not work. I've marked them with an asterisk. (C'mon, folks, I know you're nonprofits, but get your online presence up to snuff!) If you're still interested in the organizations, you can find them via an internet search or by replacing the https with the less-secure https.

California Community Foundation’s Wildfire Relief Fund provides aid, as it has done for 15 years, to those affected by wildfires. Grants are used to help victims rebuild homes, provide financial and mental health assistance and assist in getting medical treatment to those affected by the fires.

California Fire Foundation* is a statewide nonprofit that is distributing emergency funds to fire victims via its SAVE (Supplying Aid to Victims of Emergency) program. Fire victims who didn't have time to pack everything they needed before they were forced to evacuate are given prepaid credit cards with which they can buy food, clothing and pay for a place to stay.

Caring Choices*, a Chico, California-based nonprofit, organizes volunteers who want to help those affected by the Camp Fire. Volunteers duties include caring for displaced animals and, for those who are certified doctors or nurses, offering medical care. While it's still seeking volunteers, Caring Choices also needs monetary donations to keep its work going.

Enloe Medical Center is a 298-bed hospital is in Chico, which is the site of multiple evacuation centers for the Camp Fire. Donations go to help patients and families who have been displaced.

Entertainment Industry Foundation is a nonprofit, started by Hollywood stars, has a fund that helps firefighters and other emergency workers battling California wildfires. One of its beneficiaries is the Los Angeles Fire Department Foundation, which provides hydration backpacks and night vision goggles for helicopter pilots. Another beneficiary provides meals for emergency workers and evacuees staying in shelters.

Firefighters Charitable Foundation accepts donations to support volunteer fire stations and help wildfire victims.

Northern_California_fire_crew_works_into_the_night_in_California_FEMA_33384_Wikimedia-Commons
California firefighters work into the night. (Photo via Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)/Wikimedia Commons)

Humane Society of Ventura County is accepting donations to help animals displaced by the Woolsey and Hill Fires. It is taking in domestic pets as well as livestock.

Los Angeles County Animal Care Foundation supports various other animal shelters' relief efforts in areas affected by the fires.

Los Angeles Fire Department* supports the first responders fighting on the front lines of the wildfires. They are seeking donations to buy hydration backpacks for the firefighters.

North Valley Community Foundation is another Chico nonprofit that is raising money to support organizations that are sheltering evacuees of the Camp Fire. It supports churches, fairgrounds and community centers that house the displaced.

United Way of Greater Los Angeles, the Southern California local branch of the national organization, is raising money for those affected by the Woolsey and Hill Fires, specifically low-income residents.

United Way of Northern California, as its name indicates, is that area's local United Way chapter and it has created a disaster relief fund to provide emergency cash and assistance to people who have lost their homes.

Ventura County Community Foundation has established a special needs fund to assist those affected by the Hill and Woolsey fires.

If you're in California and want to literally do more, check out California Volunteers. This state office manages volunteer programs across California and has a list of services and donation options to help the victims of all three fires.

Check out charities: Finally, remember to double check any group to which you give in any disaster situation.

This isn't just for tax reasons, although guaranteeing that a nonprofit is qualified either by using the IRS' online Tax Exempt Organization Search tool or Charity Navigator means your gift, if you itemize, is tax deductible

Sadly, unscrupulous folks use disasters as a way to scam generous people who only want to help. When that happens, you and the victims you wanted to get your assistance are both robbed.

And even if a charity is on the up-and-up, you want to make sure it is one that operates properly and efficiently. You want your money going to the work necessary to help folks who've lost everything, not into administrators' pockets.

By double checking a nonprofit's status and reports on its operations, you'll be able to ensure that you give to a reputable, well-run group that will provide the help that folks in California right now so desperately need.

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