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Want to help fire victims? Don’t send any more stuff

Watch this little girl hand deliver food to firefighters after finishing their shifts at the Carr Fire

Gracie brought breakfast burritos and spaghetti to firefighters finishing their shifts at fire camp at the Carr Fire.
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Gracie brought breakfast burritos and spaghetti to firefighters finishing their shifts at fire camp at the Carr Fire.

It happens every time there’s a major disaster like the Carr Fire.

Kind people desperately want to help victims whose homes were destroyed, so they organize donation drives and ship truckloads of used clothing, furniture, canned goods, bottled water and other household items to the disaster area.

And, like clockwork, after the smoke has cleared or the floodwaters have receded, relief organizations and government agencies are stuck with huge piles of stuff that no one really wants or needs. Much of it, disaster aid organizations say, ends up getting hauled away to the local landfill.

To prevent this scenario from playing out in Shasta County, where nearly 900 homes have been destroyed by a fast-moving wildfire, most of the relief organizations and volunteers currently providing aid are urging well-wishers to donate money or gift cards instead of physical items.

“People have to feel like they’re doing something ... which is fantastic and wonderful, but we don’t even know what the needs are right now,” said Kerry Caranci, the chief executive officer of the Shasta Regional Community Foundation, which has a cash donation drive to help Carr Fire victims.

“People are still trying to figure out if their homes are still standing or not,” she said. “So until we can really assess what people need in terms of the physical items, it’s really requested people not send them, because we don’t have anywhere to store this stuff right now.”

Caranci said she hopes to avoid a repeat of what happened after the 2014 Boles Fire ripped through the Siskiyou County city of Weed, burning more than 150 buildings, most of them homes. After the disaster, semitrailer trucks hauled at least two trailers full of unwanted donated items to the local dump, Caranci said.

“They literally couldn’t give it away, which is sad,” Caranci said.

A similar scenario played out on a larger scale after the Valley Fire burned huge swaths of Lake County in 2015.

At one local evacuation center, it took 18 semitrailer trucks to haul away all of the donated items that no one wanted or needed, said Terence Mulligan, president of the Napa Valley Community Foundation, which helped provide disaster relief.

“They used a certain amount of stuff, and then they had all this extra stuff that couldn’t be used,” Mulligan said.

Rose Geck, a retired teacher who managed a donation center in the tiny Lake County town of Cobb, remembers being overwhelmed by the sheer amount of stuff.

At first it was fabulous “because there was such a great immediate need,” Geck said. “Then we noticed that the quality of the donations started to go down. As good-hearted as people were, we were getting bags of soiled and damaged clothing and other things that should have been just thrown away or taken to the dump.”

Donated goods have burdened relief workers after almost every major disaster in recent memory, said Juanita Rilling, former director of the federal USAID Center for International Disaster Information.

The agency notes on its website that some of the more useless donated items sent to disaster zones over the years have included chandeliers, prom gowns, fertility drugs, weight loss drinks and pork sent to a predominantly Muslim country whose populace won’t eat the meat for religious reasons.

“This desire to help coupled with the lack of understanding of how relief operations are organized ... results in huge piles of household goods that cannot be used,” Rilling said. “It’s heartbreaking, but it’s avoidable.”

Rilling said the piles of donated items cause problems for several reasons. For one, it makes it harder for relief workers to do their jobs in the immediate aftermath of a crisis because they have to figure out where to store all the stuff coming in. Later, workers are forced to spend valuable funds hauling the stuff away, often to landfills. Those funds would otherwise be used to help disaster victims.

Cash is best, disaster aid groups say, because it can be spent on what disaster victims need at the moment they need it.

Following the Carr Fire, for instance, a mother of three young children needed a car seat and gas, so volunteers used donated funds to buy her a new one and fill up her tank, said Dusty Steele, a Shasta County volunteer who’s helping distribute donations to victims.

Steele and her fellow volunteers had been collecting material goods, but they’re not doing it anymore. “We have an abundance of stuff,” Steele said. “We have literally piles and piles of everything you could possibly imagine.”

She said the Red Cross shelters aren’t accepting any of the items, so she and her fellow volunteers are taking them to churches for distribution. None of the donated items will go to waste, she said, but her group no longer is accepting such goods at the temporary collection center in the town of Cottonwood.

“It’s just not the best use of donations,” said Caranci of the Shasta Regional Community Foundation. “I know their hearts are in the right place ... but the money is truly is where the need is right now.”

Looking to help fire victims? Here are some of the charities accepting donations.

  • The Red Cross is accepting cash donations online at www.redcross.org/donate/donation or by calling 800-RED-CROSS. You also can text REDCROSS to 90999 to make a $10 donation, billed to your wireless carrier fund.
  • United Way of Northern California is accepting donations for its Shasta County Fire Relief Fund. Donate online at app.mobilecause.com/f/1xpb/n or by texting CARRFIRE to 91999, which will text you back options for giving. Checks can be mailed to the United Way of Northern California, 2280 Benton Drive, Building B, Redding, CA 96003.
  • GoFundMe has consolidated all verified fundraising campaigns related to the Carr Fire in one place. Find more information on who is raising money on the platform and where the funds are going by visiting www.gofundme.com/cause/carr-fire.
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