Survivors Helping Survivors

While the Scripps Ranch Civic Association (SRCA) works for Scripps Ranch, we also believe in paying it forward. That’s what we did for the fire survivors in Northern California.

It was a Monday night back in October, and it started innocently with a phone call from a 2003 Cedar Fire survivor. Would I like to attend a meeting with other fire survivors—we use the word “survivor” not “victim”—the following evening? Of course I went. I walked into the meeting and there were seven homeowners who in 2007 created the Out of the Ashes filing boxes. A sense of urgency and passion enveloped the room.

In 2007 the group assembled 1,000 filing tote boxes for Witch Creek Fire survivors in Rancho Bernardo. Taking lessons learned in 2003 the group knew fire survivors—any disaster survivors—are in a state of shock. Many had nothing but the clothes they wore to evacuate.

To get survivors through the rebuilding ordeal—rebuilding homes and lives—survivors need a filing system that helps provide order, something they also lost in the fire. Cedar Fire survivors believe that “getting organized helps you feel in control of your life again.” These survivors were “paying it forward,” like Laguna Hills and Oakland Hills survivors did for us.

The Out of the Ashes filing system is actually several hanging files and manila folders labelled with the various stages of the recovery process put into a special box or crate. There are many documents fire survivors need: insurance policies, taxes, passports, birth certificates, social security cards, bank records, temporary living and out-of-pocket expenses, store discounts, construction contracts, personal property inventories, and demolition and construction permits—and those are just some of the needed documents. Also in the boxes were handouts on relevant topics.

So on a Sunday in late October, 185 volunteers assembled the contents for 1,000 Out of the Ashes organizational boxes. Intuit generously donated space, personnel, and services to aid in the effort. One thousand filing boxes means that volunteers handled 8,000 hanging folders, 24,000 manila folders, 40,000 printed labels, and 1,000 rubber bands in six hours! It was quite an accomplishment to get all the materials delivered in three days from around the country, then organize volunteers in a production line. It was also a group effort to find 185 volunteers on short notice, which the SRCA was more than happy to use its resources to do.

I need to continue the story about innocence. At the meeting the idea was to hire a truck company to pick up the contents for the 1,000 boxes and deliver them to Northern California. Wes Danskin, former SRCA president and 2003 fire survivor, sat next to me. Suddenly, we looked at each other and both said we were going to rent a truck and deliver the boxes ourselves. So there went my innocence—from merely a small pawn to a major cog.

Due to a change in the type of filing boxes, the crates were shipped directly to Santa Rosa, which meant that we needed to deliver the contents to Santa Rosa and assemble the 1,000 filing boxes there. Wes and I left on a Monday at 4 in the morning with the largest rental truck we could find. The drive took almost 10 hours. I have known Wes for nearly 27 years, but we haven’t spent that much time together in years! The conversation was cerebral and we discussed community leadership issues, among many other things.

Once we arrived in Santa Rosa, job one was to find 25 volunteers to help take 8,000 hanging folders out of the truck, unload 1,000 filing crates, place one set of hanging folders in every crate, and reload the truck. Needless to say, Wes and I have never done this before and were doing it on the fly with volunteers we had never met. The volunteers were wonderful and worked diligently to get the job done. It took nearly four hours, then we were off to find homes for what Wes and I called the “blue boxes,” a catchy name for what is a central filing system crate.

Making a thousand filing boxes and leaving them at a location for fire survivors to pick up is not as easy as it sounds. One of the last things on people’s minds is probably that they need a filing box. Fire survivors are concerned about finding an immediate place to live, demolition, insurance, keeping their job, and many other things. As I said in 2003 after the Cedar Fire, survivors are juggling a chain saw, bowling ball, and tiki torch while balancing on one foot. Making a poorly informed decision or not attending to every aspect of rebuilding your life can set a survivor back in time and expense.

Our first stop was one of two FEMA Local Assistance Centers in Santa Rosa. While the Out of the Ashes boxes were under the umbrella of United Policyholders, an insurance education nonprofit, the issues Wes and I faced were how and where to distribute 1,000 blue boxes in two days. As homeowners were walking around the assistance center, California Operations of Emergency Services (CalOES) personnel took note. We gave our 30-second elevator speech, which we had to continuously change to get what we needed. Our truck conversations paid off.

CalOES appreciated the value of the boxes and gave us storage space. They had FEMA staff hand them out as people left. It helped to explain that the assistance center concept was created by former City Councilmember, now State Assemblymember, Brian Maienschein in Scripps Ranch and is now a national model.

Wes and I headed out the door to the other Santa Rosa assistance center. This time the FEMA director was not so understanding. They wouldn’t help us despite the fact that the people working there appreciated the value of the filing system. We struck out but it was the fire survivors who lost. While driving through the burn areas, the smell of smoke took me back to 2003 and it felt like it was yesterday. It was different for Wes, who lost a home, than for me who took four months from work to organize the Project Phoenix fire recovery and later Rancho Bernardo fire recovery. The total loss then: 312 homes in 2003, 364 homes in 2007.

We stopped at a burned out home and saw an older couple sifting through the remains (at right). Approaching gingerly, we gave our condolences. We offered them water and a blue box filing crate. The wife was quick to say that they had discussed the night before how they were going to stay organized. The husband said the blue box was exactly what they needed and asked for one for a neighbor.

On Wednesday after loading more blue boxes into the truck, we set out to Napa County for the day. The local assistance center was run by the county and CalOES. Our persuasive skills were put to the test once again. The county folks loved the boxes but didn’t want to take responsibility for them. We beseeched CalOES to help, as their counterpart did in Santa Rosa, but to no avail. The county director finally allowed us to leave the boxes at the entrance for his staff to distribute. Also, he made phone calls and found us two locations to deliver the boxes!

Wednesday night we returned to Santa Rosa for the United Policyholders community meeting where we distributed 400 blue boxes. One of the motivated community volunteers we met was Jim Phelps from Redwood Covenant and Bayside Church. Jim was there day in and day out. He brought volunteers, offered us beds in his home, called us to check in, placed 50 boxes in the church to store for free and personally delivered 70 boxes to fire survivors. We would not have been successful without Jim.

We want to thank the Out of the Ashes members: Barbara Nelson, Charlie Nelson, Jamie Salter, Wes Danskin, Patty Noel, Connie Unger, Marsha Linehan, Linda Goldman, Linda Currie, Sarah Sanger, and Pam Reed.

To learn more about this project, visit the Out of the Ashes Facebook page. Please consider a donation to help fund the more than $16,000 cost. The GoFundMe page is at

Bob Ilko, SRCA President