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Our view: Arising better and stronger after fires

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Atlas Fire

One of the many destroyed homes damaged by the Atlas Fire is seen at Silverado Country Club on Monday. The fire, which began on Sunday night, is one of a number of fires that have The fire area covered more than 100 square miles over eight counties.

This weekend marks six months since the outbreak of the deadly wildfires that swept over Napa County and other parts of the North Bay, killing 44 and destroying nearly 9,000 structures.

Many of the areas burned by the fire have begun to heal, with new growth and green grass, and in many places new homes are rising where there had been nothing but wreckage.

But we are still counting the costs and dealing with the physical and economic damage done to the whole region. Napa County government alone reports that the disaster cost it at least $6.2 million, both in direct expenses and lost tax revenue, with the bill still mounting. The full cost to government, businesses, and residents may never be known with certainty.

The Napa Valley Community Foundation, which has been the leading conduit of relief funds locally, said it has offered assistance of some kind to at least 485 Napa County households, many of which didn’t suffer direct damage from the fire but faced severe economic hardship because of lost work during the extended disaster. The funding has enabled 15,000 residents to receive services, such as temporary shelter, meals, medical care, and nearly 2,000 to get direct cash aid.

Overall, the foundation’s disaster fund has doled out almost $5 million, with another $2 million in approved grants ready to go to area non-profits.

The foundation recently made a grant to boost mental health services at the Napa Fire Recovery Center, an important development since the psychological effect of disasters is often delayed weeks or months, so people in the fire zone may only now be realizing they need help.

Later this year, the foundation plans to offer grants for homeowners who find their insurance coverage was inadequate and for small business suffering long-term damage from the loss of income last fall. It will also be offering a series of workforce development grants, hoping to address the shortage of contractors and workers needed for the rebuilding.

In the state Legislature, our representatives are working to strengthen state law to meet future disasters. Assemblymember Cecilia Aguiar-Curry, for example, has been working on bills to smooth problems with insurance coverage for fire victims and to beef up medical clinics to assist in future disasters. Sen. Bill Dodd, meanwhile, has been pushing for tougher regulation of the electric grid to prevent power lines from starting or exacerbating fires. He is also pushing bill to require garage doors to have battery backups; several of those killed in the wildfires apparently were unable to open their doors manually after the power failed, and they perished in their garages.

As traumatic as this disaster was for the region, it is clear that Napa County is coming out of it stronger than before. The Community Foundation has cemented its role, which began after the 2014 earthquake, as the leading private relief agency, funding and coordinating efforts of a cloud of non-profits to get immediate and long-term assistance to those affected by disasters.

The non-profit community, meanwhile, has established a joint committee, known as Community Organizations Active in Disaster, meeting quarterly to coordinate and plan for future emergencies.

State and local governments are assessing their own responses and strengthening organizations and regulations to be better prepared.

Napa County rose to the occasion with strength and resilience six months ago. In the aftermath, we are making ourselves better and stronger to meet inevitable challenge of the next major disaster.

Editor's Note: This editorial has been modified to add detail on how many people the Community Foundation's disaster fund has assisted.

The Napa Valley Register Editorial Board consists of Publisher Brenda Speth, Editor Sean Scully, and public members Cindy Webber, Ed Shenk, Mary Jean Mclaughlin and Chris Hammaker.

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