Survivors of Cedar Fire reach out to help Sonoma, Napa fire victims

Survivors of Cedar Fire reach out to help Sonoma, Napa fire victims
A grateful couple were among hundreds of Sonoma and Napa County fire victims who received file boxes from a group of San Diego County volunteers. Courtesy photo

REGION — Local residents are paying it forward by helping out victims of the recent Sonoma County  and Napa County fires. What is unique about the group’s efforts is that most of the volunteers are survivors of the 2003 Cedar Fire.

The fire survivors have a unique understanding and empathy for what current fire victims are going through.

They also have a strong sense of gratitude for the kindness and support that was shown to them as they went through recovery and rebuilding.

Charlie and Barbara Nelson spearheaded the local assistance efforts that began in 2007 to help those who lost homes in the Witch Creek Fire. They repeated assistance efforts with a core group of volunteers following the recent Sonoma County and Napa County fires.

When the fires struck the Nelsons’ first thoughts were of how could they help other fire victims.

What came to mind was how overwhelming paperwork was for insurance, city zoning, building permits and health risks. To deal with the challenge, Barbara Nelson organized a file system to give stacks of required forms, receipts and documents a home. The Nelsons thought the file system could help other fire victims.

“It was helpful information we gained over our experience,” Charlie Nelson said.

Their goal was to make and distribute 1,000 file boxes, dubbed the Out of the Ashes Fire Recovery Organization System. To get the idea off the ground the couple reached out to an email support group of Cedar Fire survivors, named Fire Folks.

Initial efforts in 2007 were described by Charlie Nelson as a spontaneous, hands-on, grassroots operation. An assembly party was organized to put together labeled file folders and boxes at a central Scripps Ranch elementary school. Charlie Nelson said a real joy was shared among volunteers putting the boxes together.

“Everybody showed up. Cub Scouts, Girl Scouts, Fire Folks,” Charlie Nelson said.

Once boxes were completed they were trucked to the Rancho Bernardo local assistance center and set up next to Red Cross, FEMA and city permit help tables. In a short time the 1,000 boxes were in the welcome hands of Witch Creek Fire victims.

Charlie Nelson said fire victims were thrilled to have the file organization systems, and were touched that the boxes came from fire survivors.

“The same thing happened in Santa Rosa, the 1,000 boxes were very welcome,” Nelson said.

Recent efforts to help Santa Rosa, Sonoma County and Napa County fire victims included transporting materials across the state.

First file folder information and labels were assembled by hand by close to 200 local volunteers. Then a couple of volunteers drove the file folders to a Santa Rosa business that was lent out as a packing site.

Sturdier, larger file boxes were ordered and sent to the packing location. Once file folders and boxes arrived, Santa Rosa volunteers put the file boxes together.

Half of the boxes were distributed at a workshop for fire victims in Santa Rosa, where Barbra Nelson and other Fire Folks share their survival experiences. The remaining boxes were distributed at Sonoma County and Napa County assistance centers.

“It was truly an amazing community effort,” Barbara Nelson said.

Charlie Nelson added all of this was all done in a week’s time.

The result in both 2007 and recent efforts was smiles and gratitude from fire victims who received the blue file boxes.

“We’re bringing back hope,” Charlie Nelson said. “We’re letting people know they’re not alone.”

The local volunteer group has been approached by other volunteers who have asked permission to mimic the file boxes, and by companies interested in developing a similar file system for businesses. Charlie Nelson said the group would like to keep efforts philanthropic.

The group is asking for community support. A GoFundMe page has been set up at www.gofundme.com/ys8x6a-fire-relief. As of Oct. 31, more than $14,500 of the group’s $16,000 goal has been raised.

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