The Slatest

How to Help the Victims of the California Wildfires

A couple embrace in the middle of the rubble of their home.
A couple face the remains of their burned home in Paradise, California, on Nov. 12.
Josh Edelson/Getty Images

Thousands of people have been driven from their homes by the devastating pair of wildfires in Northern and Southern California. If you want to help right now, there are many ways to do so.

To start with, though: You should not donate food or clothing. Donations of physical goods bog down volunteers who have to sort through them if they’re going to use them. Volunteering is more useful, but Caring Choices in Chico, which is coordinating volunteer efforts in response to the Northern California fires, currently has a backlog of applications. As the organization points out on its website, volunteers will continue to be needed in the months ahead. Right now, at the height of the tragedy, enthusiasm for volunteering is high, but if you wait and volunteer later, you might be more useful.

The most helpful thing to do is to give money. The most urgently useful place is, unsurprisingly, emergency aid.

Some organizations are statewide, but others are regional, and that matters because the two main fires are raging far apart from one another. The Woolsey and Hill Fires in Southern California have burned through more than 100,000 acres in Ventura and Los Angeles counties and destroyed hundreds of homes and other structures. Hill Fire is mostly contained, but the larger Woolsey Fire is still raging, and with dangerous Santa Ana winds whipping the blaze, it has the potential to do more damage. If you’d like to donate to charities focused on Southern California fires, the United Way of Greater Los Angeles has partnered with the United Way of Ventura County and is raising money to help low-income residents.

In Butte County in Northern California, the much larger Camp Fire has become both the most destructive and most deadly fire in the state’s history, having been blamed for at least 44 deaths. Paradise, a town not far from Chico, has been largely destroyed, and most of the deaths occurred in or around the town. Those fleeing are thought to be particularly vulnerable, as many of the town’s residents are retirees.

If you’d like to specifically help victims of the Camp Fire, the North Valley Community Foundation in Chico is raising money for shelters. The Enloe Medical Center in Chico is raising money for caregivers and patients who have lost their homes. And like in Southern California, the United Way of Northern California is asking for donations, but its relief fund will provide emergency cash grants and other help to victims more broadly.

If you’d like to donate to a general relief organization for the California fires, the American Red Cross is seeking donations for its evacuation centers. But be aware that the Red Cross has a history of bungled responses to major disasters in the past decade. The Red Cross is focused on urgent emergency aid: Almost 90 percent of your money will go toward its programs and services, according to data gathered by Charity Navigator, and much of that will take the form of emergency assistance such as blankets and hygiene kits. But as journalist Jonathan M. Katz wrote in Slate, the Red Cross has in the past handed off donations it couldn’t handle to other aid groups after taking a cut, and there is no regular independent evaluation to hold the humanitarian organization to account after natural disasters. So if you’re worried about mismanagement, there are other options.

Instead of handing out supplies, the California Fire Foundation is providing short-term financial assistance for those who suffered “catastrophic losses” to be able to buy basic necessities. For more long-term aid, the California Community Foundation, which is ranked higher than the Red Cross on its management of finances and donations, has a wildfire relief fund. Grants from the fund will be offered to help rebuild homes and provide financial and mental health assistance.

If you are worried about pets at a time when many families are unable to care for them, both the Humane Society of Ventura County and the Los Angeles County Animal Care Foundation in Southern California are accepting donations.

If you’d like to donate to help firefighters and emergency responders, the Los Angeles Fire Department Foundation is accepting donations. If you’re interested more specifically in helping with medical aid, the humanitarian organization Direct Relief, which is very highly rated by Charity Navigator, is providing masks, medicine, and other resources to health care agencies and first responders.

As crowdfunding has changed the landscape of charitable giving in the United States, it’s no surprise that GoFundMe has a landing page for fire relief efforts. Specific campaigns, including those for individuals who have lost their homes, can be found there.

And if you live in an area near one of the affected areas, Airbnb is operating a program encouraging people to mark their homes as places for evacuees and aid workers to stay for free.

Those are the ways to help with a crisis that has already unfolded. But if, on top of sadness, you are experiencing fear at the prospect of a frightening “new abnormal,” as Gov. Jerry Brown put it, or anger over political complacency in the face of worsening fire seasons, you can channel your efforts into the long-term fight against climate change and for better disaster preparedness. Call your legislators, talk to your climate change skeptic friends and family, run for office—do what you need to do to ensure the government takes the threat seriously.