Fight Fire With Funds

How Redwood Credit Union pushed more than $30 million to communities impacted by the most destructive wildfire in California state history.

 
 

Top-Level Takeaways

  • In October 2017, the Tubbs Fire became the most destructive wildfire in California history, burning nearly 37,000 acres and incinerating more than 5,700 structures, including nearly 3,000 homes.
  • Quickly, Redwood Credit Union reopened its North Bay Fire Relief Fund, collecting more than $32 million to support its communities in their time of need.

October 8, 2017, was like any other Sunday for Redwood Credit Union ($4.4B, Santa Rosa, CA). But business as usual was about to change.

CU QUICK FACTS

Redwood Credit Union
Data as of 06.30.18

HQ: Santa Rosa, CA
ASSETS: $4.4B
MEMBERS: 243,387
BRANCHES: 20
12-MO SHARE GROWTH: 25.2%
12-MO LOAN GROWTH: 19.2%
ROA: 2.06%

At close to 10 p.m. a fire started in the town of Calistoga. Boosted by 40 miles per hour wind gusts, the fire moved more than 12 miles in its first three hours and reached the city limits of Santa Rosa by 1 a.m. The credit union’s fire notification system kicked on that night, alerting Cynthia Negri, Redwood’s chief operating officer, to the fact the location of the next day’s all-staff meeting was on fire and the credit union’s corporate office was in the fire impact zone.

Known now as the Tubbs Fire, this was one of at least 14 fires that raged in Northern California that night. By the time it was fully contained on Oct. 31, the Tubbs Fire burned nearly 37,000 acres and incinerated more than 5,700 structures, including nearly 3,000 homes. According to an estimate from Santa Rosa’s mayor, the fire caused $1.2 billion in damage and destroyed 5% of the city’s housing stock. It’s the most destructive wildfire in California history.

In this Q&A, Negri talks about Redwood’s response to the Tubbs Fire, the credit union’s North Bay Fire Relief Fund, and how to ensure communities get the continued aid they need.

 

 

 

How are communities in your area now faring? How are people feeling?

Cynthia Negri: The communities are starting to rebuild, and I think people are hopeful. People are excited to move forward.

How much notice did you have when the fires started?

CN: The fires broke out in the middle of the night, so there was no advance notice. When our fire notification system started going off, we didn’t realize how devastating the fire would be. The executive team was calling one another. We were calling our senior staff. We had to contact our entire staff phone tree to tell them not to go to the event the following day.

The executive team was able to put into place our disaster recovery plan. And the next day we enacted our fire relief fund. You could see and smell the fire from almost everywhere in Santa Rosa. It jumped a freeway. It was a huge disaster.

What did your disaster recovery effort entail?

CN: The first thing we did was make sure our systems were secure because those needed to be functional for our members. Then we put together a disaster response team and housed them at one of our branches approximately 10 miles away.

How were you able to establish a fire fund the day after the fires started?

CN: We had some experience from the community fund we set up after the Valley Fire in 2015 in Lake County. It was a partnership of Senator Mark McGuire, The Press Democrat, and Redwood Credit Union. We reopened the North Bay Fire Relief Fund, which enabled us to take donations for the community. The fund took in $32 million, all of which we distributed into the community and to local non-profits in four months.

Redwood Relief By The Numbers

 

Redwood Credit Union collected more than $32 million when it reopened its North Bay Fire Relief Fund. All of that money supported a community in need.

  • 70% of donations to the fund came from outside the four affected counties of Sonoma, Napa, Mendocino, and Lake.
  • 6,593 residents who lost homes or experienced economic hardship due to the fires received financial support from the fund.
  • 102 first responders who lost homes while fighting the fires or protecting the community received funds to support their immediate needs
  • 2,253 K-12 and college students throughout the North Bay who lost their homes received gift cards from the fund to replace school clothes and supplies.
  • $1,000,000 was donated to small businesses impacted by the fires.
  • $942,541 was donated to support fire survivor health and well-being, including health and dental care, lost sporting equipment, and holiday programs.

How did the credit union collect funds?

CN: Senator Mark McGuire and The Press Democrat helped get the word out. We did something similar in 2015, and members called to ask if we would reopen the fund so they could donate. Then, because the size and scope of the fire was so big, we had media attention and the fund itself was on the news.

How many people from Redwood were involved in the fund’s operation?

CN: It took a village. We had about 41,000 donors from the United States and 23 other countries. We dedicated quite a few people from Redwood — from IT to operations — to distribute the money as quickly as we could. These funds weren’t limited to our members. Anyone in the community who was impacted, whether through a loss of home or other economic hardship, was eligible to receive funds.

Did you have special programs just for members?

CN: We did. We discounted loan rates for folks impacted by the fires. We offered a 0% loan for people who needed to get back on their feet or who just needed to buy day-to-day essentials. Many people had to run from their homes and didn’t have time to take anything with them. No credit cards, no debit cards, nothing. Just the clothes they had on. There was so much immediate need.

Did you do anything specifically for Redwood employees?

CN: Twenty-three employees and two volunteers lost their homes. The credit union directly assisted them. We also helped approximately 150 of our employees who were evacuated find immediate housing and hotels. Even if they didn’t lose their home, many were displaced for two or three weeks.

We created temporary child care for employees because so many schools were shut down, and we offered free on-site counselling. We gave staff the ability to pool PTO hours to give to friends or partners at the credit union, and we offered lunch, snacks, and any other necessities folks could need.

How have your efforts to aid survivors changed over the year?

CN: We gave approximately $19 million to fire survivors. The rest of the $32 million we gave to local non-profits that operate ongoing support programs.

We’ve never set out to do construction loans, but in the aftermath we created a construction loan program for members who had a first mortgage with us. We are working one-on-one with each of those members to help them rebuild. We’re also working with members to resolve their insurance claims.

What has Redwood learned from the Tubbs Fire?

CN: The generosity we’ve seen from people is incredible. Communities, neighborhoods, and people have come together to help one another in this time of need. No one can know what it’s like unless you actually lose your house in a fire, but fire survivors say they were able to survive thanks to their friends, family, and community all coming together.

It’s people who make this happen. We had employees who lost homes come into work the next day; people who were evacuated came to work to help keep our systems up, knowing we had to be available to members. The resiliency of people is amazing.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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Oct. 29, 2018


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