How to Donate During a COVID-19 Fire Season

When disaster strikes, the beauty of small towns like Corvallis is seen in the community’s desire to help, which is exactly what has happened in the wake of Oregon’s historic wildfires this past week.   

Though compassion brings morale, there are ways to contribute that can be better than some others. While people can find updated lists of donation needs through local government and charity websites, donators should be aware of unneeded and even inconvenient donations.  

“Due to COVID-19 precautions, we can only accept donations that are new, unused, and in the original unopened packaging. We cannot accept homemade food. All food should be store-bought, unopened, and individually packaged,” Benton County Public Information Officer Alyssa Rash said. 

 The Advocate reached out to victims and communities affected by the 2018 Camp Fire through a Facebook group to ask what donations were most helpful to them. The fire, which is still the deadliest in California history, demolished the towns of Paradise and Concow in Nov. 2018.  

While those who responded emphasized their gratitude for any type of support, the number one recommended donation was money, either in the form of Visa gift cards, gas, food or grocery gift cards, or plain cash.  

“Please do not give people stuff unless it is specifically requested. They have nowhere to put it, but will take it because they don’t want to seem ungrateful. Do not gather donations. Instead, do a gift card drive,” one commenter, Thea Baker, wrote.  

Many made the distinction to donate cash directly to victims or local organizations that could distribute it, but not to large disaster relief organizations, such as the Red Cross. They found that funds often took longer to reach victims if donated through large charities.  

“Really it is cash. Donate to the Rotary Club, or a local church. The Red Cross and United Way and such are not efficient at getting help to these fire victims specifically,” evacuee Brian Gray said.  

One of the things evacuees found least helpful was bags of clothing, specifically used clothing. They have nowhere to wash the clothing and nowhere to store it.   

“New things, people who are displaced and may have lost everything do not want your used clothing or shoes. They have nothing and need some sense of dignity and comfort,” another Facebook user named Kayla Lui wrote.  

Heaps of used and non-requested donations are what disaster relief groups call the “second disaster,” accord to the Oroville Hope Center, a charity organization located near the Camp Fire. Instead of helping, these donations can overwhelm volunteers and evacuees who have to sort through the piles. Those donations can contribute to large amounts of waste since extra or unwanted items get thrown in the trash. 

 Instead, victims have much more use for specific items such as toothbrushes and food. Updated needed item lists can be found online at local organizations’ websites, such as the Benton County Wildfire Response. People can also donate directly to the Vina Moses Center and multiple GoFundMe campaigns.  

“We have been overwhelmed with the generosity shown by the Benton County community,” Rash said. “We’d like to extend special recognition and thanks to Benton County 4-H. They have tirelessly assisted the Fairgrounds and evacuees with livestock, even camping out the Fairgrounds to provide round-the-clock assistance.”  

Additionally, offering a spare room to rent, a so-called grandmother unit above a garage or even space to park an RV, can be extremely helpful. Evacuation sites have limited space, especially during COVID-19 with social distancing restrictions. Hotels and apartment rentals fill quickly during these disasters.  

Finally, the effects of fires on people’s livelihood linger long after the inferno scenes fade from the news cycle. Those who have the means can consider monthly donations to local fire relief organizations, and everyone can stay updated on the latest needs for fire victims, recognizing the long road to rebuilding.  

As Melissa Schuster wrote on Facebook, “There is a lot of support right after a disaster, but the needs of the Community continue. We are nearly two years past the Camp Fire and there is still great need.”  

By Jessica Goddard