September 24, 2018, By Tamara Tormohlen
No one really expects disasters to happen — until they do.
It’s been nearly three months since the Lake Christine Fire ignited, opening our eyes to the havoc and devastation a wildfire can inflict on our community. Of course, we know that wildfires are a threat during the summer and many of us recall the fires, large and small, that have burned in our valley over the years. Watching Basalt Mountain go up in flames, however, brought home the magnitude of the danger we face.
We are fortunate that, due to the vigilant and heroic efforts of firefighters and other first responders, the damage was not more extensive and no lives were lost. In addition, the immediate generosity and quick, compassionate response from the community was heartening. So many stepped in with offers of support, a true testament to the “can do” attitude of this region.
But with that immediate response came a bit of chaos. Who needs help? What help do they need? How do we reach them?
It was apparent that the firefighting efforts were well-coordinated but outside of the evacuation center and shelters, the humanitarian response was less so. Aspen Community Foundation (ACF) saw this gap and galvanized its nonprofit partners to step in and step up. We also activated our Community to Community Fund as a way for donors to support the immediate and long-term needs of disaster victims and impacted neighborhoods. More than 300 donors, with gifts ranging from $10 to $25,000, have contributed.
In the days after the return of residents to their homes, ACF provided grocery cards to help replenish food supplies and supported nonprofit partners as they went door-to-door in economically vulnerable neighborhoods to assess how people were doing. We helped ensure that government and other community resources were available for those who needed them. And we continue to monitor the welfare of those impacted because mental-health issues and post-traumatic stress can linger for months and years after the disaster has passed.
As a community foundation, we are not unacquainted with “disaster philanthropy.” In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, ACF channeled local funding to the Baton Rouge Area Foundation and has provided a giving vehicle for local donors to support national and international disasters ever since. We knew what it was like to provide funding for disaster relief and recovery. Lake Christine showed us what it meant to be involved in disaster relief and recovery.
It also showed us that our region needs to be better positioned to mitigate the effects of the next fire or other disaster. We tapped into our network of foundations and philanthropic resources to learn more. We called upon the Napa Valley Community Foundation, which over the past few years has dealt with earthquakes and wildfires. We also connected with the Center for Disaster Philanthropy, a resource to help donors make more thoughtful disaster-related giving decisions. Through these connections we learned best practices and approaches to handling disaster philanthropy when its in your backyard. We gained important insight into the role ACF should play in local disaster efforts, not only for immediate relief and recovery efforts but also for preparedness and prevention.
Some key learnings:
- Assessment of damage and critical needs in the aftermath can inform early response priorities and long-term strategies.
- Recovery is a marathon, not a sprint. It takes time to discern the long-term needs and it is essential that grant-making is patient and flexible.
- Planning and preparedness lay the groundwork for effective response.
It is easy to overlook the preparations that can mitigate loss of life and property and facilitate effective disaster response. As part of our own preparedness planning, ACF is creating a playbook to guide coordinated community and philanthropic responses to local disasters. This preparedness plan will include reinstating a regional Voluntary Organizations Active in Disasters, a network of nonprofit, faith-based and other social services groups that coordinate efforts to ensure more efficient service delivery to people affected by disasters.
Preparedness also means educating ourselves and the community. We need to bring together all layers of a community — individuals, families, schools, nonprofits, businesses, civic groups and government agencies — to plan for and mitigate against a disaster. ACF is hosting three forums (The Changing Face of Wildfire) to provide an opportunity for everyone to come together, hear some of the extraordinary accounts of the Lake Christine Fire and learn what we can do to prepare for the next one.
We’ll hope you’ll join us today in Basalt, Wednesday in Glenwood Springs, or Thursday in Aspen. More information is available at aspencommunityfoundation.org.
Tamara Tormohlen is executive director of Aspen Community Foundation.