In the wake of last month’s deadly North Bay wildfires, the region’s largest food bank is relying on volunteers and donations to help sustain its communities through the holiday season — and beyond.
Kevin West, who handles communications for the Redwood Empire Food Bank in Santa Rosa, said that the Bay Area has been instrumental in these efforts.
“The Bay Area just absolutely rallied behind the North Bay,” he said. “We had kids that had a lemonade stand that were donating money to us, all the way on up to support from Google and Facebook, and everything in between.”
Fueled by dry conditions and strong winds, the fires began the night of Oct. 8 and spread through the end of the month, eventually engulfing at least 245,000 acres of land in Sonoma, Napa and Mendocino counties.
By the time the blazes were contained, 43 people had been killed, nearly 5,000 homes had been destroyed and, as businesses burned, many lost their jobs.
Now, said West, “people are looking to get back to some sense of normalcy, to have some holiday cheer. We’re just trying to make sure they don’t have to worry about where they’re going to get their next meal.”
The food bank typically serves around 82,000 people in five counties each year, a number that has steeply increased as a result of the devastation and loss caused by the fires. West said that it’s still too soon to say exactly how much that number has gone up. However, as a point of reference, he said the food bank usually distributes 15.5 million pounds of food annually, but gave out 1 million pounds in just the first two weeks after the start of the fires.
In response to this increase in need, Redwood Empire Food Bank has recently established eight new “Station 3990” distribution centers. People can drive up to the centers, strategically placed throughout wine country in areas of high need, and volunteers will load up their cars with food and water.
These efforts have been aided by what West called “a tremendous outpouring of support” from the surrounding community.
West said that the food bank received donations of money from all 50 states and several foreign countries. Across the Bay Area, individuals and businesses began collecting food and supplies and driving them up to the fire zones.
“It got to the point where we graciously accepted a donated warehouse” to store all of the donations, West said.
He added that Bay Area residents were equally as generous with their time. “We had people that drove up on their own to volunteer and stayed for four days,” he said.
Often, people came to offer assistance in the face of their own loss. West said that at times there were volunteers handing out food who had lost their homes just days before, and it was later discovered that one volunteer had been working “with a bullet in her back.” After being wounded in the mass shooting in Las Vegas, she’d been recovering at her parents’ Sonoma home when the fires broke out.
As the holidays approach, West has seen a doubling-down on donations and volunteering from community members and corporations. Earlier this week, Foster Farms announced that it will donate 1,000 Thanksgiving turkeys as well as $100,000 in relief funds.
While the food bank is grateful for the renewed attention and help during the holiday season, it wants people to know that the need for both is “year-round.”
Redwood Empire is still assisting Lake County residents who lost their homes in a 2015 fire started by an arsonist and, said West, “we’ll still be handing out food two years from now to people who were affected by [the North Bay] fires.”
He added, “We’re only as strong as those who support us.”
To learn more about the locations of the Station 3990 distribution centers, or to make a donation to support Redwood Empire Food Bank’s ongoing efforts to assist North Bay fire victims, visit http://refb.org/fire-updates. A food drive for the bank is being held at the Lawrence Hall of Science in Berkeley through Dec. 1.