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Philanthropy

Grassroots fundraisers spring up to aid Napa's displaced fire victims

From the Bruce Sackrison's Insurance Matters series

After losing homes, possessions and any remaining semblance of normalcy in the recent wildfires, a number of displaced evacuees and their families in Napa County are turning to grassroots fundraising to help them navigate the weeks ahead.

Perhaps most commonly utilized is the platform GoFundMe, a Redwood City-based crowdfunding site established in 2010. A Google search for “Hennessey Fire GoFundMe” conjured up dozens of active campaigns – some from residents themselves, others from their friends and families, more still from third parties pledging to donate funds raised to local charities in the area.

GoFundMe has seen hundreds of fundraisers launched in response to the fires, according to spokesperson Angelique McNaughton. (The company now has a running list of verified campaigns in the area.)

Among them was the one Amanda Vetter launched for her father, Scott Edson. A decade-long resident of the Spanish Flat area, close calls and evacuations were nothing new for Edson, Vetter said, but this time was different. Edson escaped the flames thanks to a tip-off from a firefighter, bringing with him the clothes on his back and his two dogs. The home he left burned to the ground.

Thankfully, Edson has fire insurance, but the days since have been daunting nonetheless, Vetter said. A friend from California – where Vetter, now a resident of Fargo, North Dakota, spent her teenage years – suggested creating a fundraiser for him.

“She told me, ‘I know people would help your dad; he’s a great person,’” Vetter recounted. “I knew I had to step up and do this for him, because I know my dad, and he would never ask for help.”

Vetter’s campaign has over the last few days raised more than $4,200. When she told her father, who Vetter described as “the most frugal person” she knows – “he just broke down,” she said.

Fire insurance claims are a multi-step process, according to Bruce Sackrison, an insurance property and casualty broker in Napa. Insurance companies will typically prioritize claims after a natural disaster like wildfires, especially if losses are significant, Sackrison said, though the timeline varies depending on the individual claim.

A number of insurers no longer offer fire insurance in high-risk areas in California, Sackrison said. But remaining carriers do typically offer extended fire insurance, which could cover the cost of room and board for displaced evacuees, replace lost possessions and feasibly extend to the cost of rebuilding homes.

Still, policies can be expensive and difficult to procure, according to Gabrielle Lewis, who lost her home in Berryessa Highlands last week. She knows of neighbors who lost their homes and were uninsured or are discovering they were underinsured, she wrote in a text message.

Lewis began her own fundraising campaign after waves of family and friends reached out to ask how they could help.

“It has helped us pay for our immediate needs before our insurance kicks in, and will be used to help with rebuilding as well,” she said of the campaign, which had raised more than $7,000 as of Friday morning. Lewis is keeping a running tally of neighbors’ gofundmes on her Instagram page, she said.

Cassidy and Jillian Nolan took out an extensive fire insurance policy in June, when they purchased their house near Lake Berryessa, according to Jessica Hunter, Jillian’s cousin. But the loss of this home comes after losing another home in 2017 to the Atlas Fires, and the pair are struggling with the idea of rebuilding in this area. The subsequent uncertainty has been challenging and deeply unsettling.

“It’s something they’re grappling with, and it takes time to process,” Hunter said. It was not clear, she added, that their policy would cover the true cost of rebuilding elsewhere in California.

Following the news late last week that the family’s house had succumbed to flames, friends of the Nolans – who have four children under the age of seven – began reaching out in droves, asking how they could help. Hunter watched and wondered how she could organize some kind of relief effort for the family. She thought of setting up a fundraiser.

“They didn’t want to need that help – no one ever does,” Hunter said. Eventually, she said, the couple relented, and after researching options, Hunter set up the fund.

It’s raised $11,376 so far. Word got out largely through social media, Hunter said; most of the donations have come from folks “only one degree of separation away” from the family.

Cassidy told Hunter earlier this week he was taking life day by day.

“What our community wanted to do is to help give them time to figure out what’s next,” Hunter added.

Edson, Vetter’s father, is coming to terms with his loss. He’s looking at renting a home from a friend in the city of Napa. The response to the fundraiser has left the family “in awe,” Vetter said. She’s hopeful the funds will help Edson, who has worked as a diesel mechanic repairing trucks for the last 30 years and is close to retirement age, as he readjusts to his new life.

“He’s going to have to get the things you get when you’re 18 years old, moving into your first apartment, and have nothing,” Vetter said. The money could help with the first month’s rent, too, which Vetter said could feasibly cost more than what Edson had been paying on his mortgage.

Amid the tragedy, their family is touched by the outpouring of support.

“These are people that only know of him – my friends or my sister’s friends,” Vetter said. “He gets super emotional any time we talk about it. We’re very humbled by all of this.”

Watch Now: Smoke and fire under darkness at Lake Berryessa

Video filmed by Jeff Cole's son Brandon, 24, after flames subsided and they had escaped the dock. They were led to safety by a sheriff's deputy an hour later.

You can reach Sarah Klearman at (707) 256-2213 or sklearman@napanews.com.

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Wine Industry Reporter

Wine industry reporter at the Napa Valley Register.

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