Jewish Community Relations Councilof San Francisco, the Peninsula, Marin, Sonoma, Alameda and Contra Costa Counties


First-Hand Accounts of Fire Response

October 25, 2017
Posted by: Carole-Anne Elliott, Executive Assistant

With such devastation so close to home, many of us on the JCRC staff have reached out to help those affected by the North Bay wildfires in numerous ways – monetarily, housing friends and loved ones, donating goods, offering support. We wanted to share two first-hand accounts of JCRC staff members – one with deep ties to the Jewish community and another with a strong Christian faith – who donated their time and abilities to helping the victims directly.

Ilana Kaufman, Public Affairs and Civic Engagement Director, East Bay

Thursday, October 12, was Shemini Atzeret and a holiday for JCRC, but it was also day five of the destructive North Bay wildfires and Ilana woke up feeling “super agitated” and out of sorts. The North Bay had been her territory when she worked for the San Francisco-based Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund and by that point the fires had already killed 23 people, burned 3,500 structures and raged across 170,000 acres. She thought, “My friends’ houses are burning. I need to figure out what I can do to be value-added.”

She saw a Facebook post from JCRC Board Member Lisa Rosenberg saying that MarinCares needed volunteers to sort donations and drive them north, and was on her way.

Upon arriving at the Sausalito staging site, she was asked to help set up a landing space for firefighters at the now-unused former Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary in Mill Valley. She took part in a small caravan transporting donated clothing and toiletries to the seminary, then set about finding and setting up 61 beds for firefighters expected to arrive between 1:00pm and 3:00pm. The firefighters would rest in order to redeploy at 4:30am the next day.

A small group of very committed volunteers kicked into gear. “While I was making calls for cots, someone else was successful [in getting] cots,” Ilana said, “so it became [that] we needed the mattresses.” She thought, “Who do I know that has small people that sleep on small mattresses?”

She called CEO Judy Wolff-Bolton at the Marin JCC. “It was a crazy call.” She told Judy, “‘I’m at this facility in Mill Valley; here’s what I’m doing.’ As soon as she metabolized what I was saying [Judy] was like, ‘Let me see what I can do.’ When I called back she had 20” mattresses, and soon had a lead on 20 more.

Ilana drove to the JCC, picked up half the mattresses and was joined at the seminary with the rest by JCC COO Jim Offel. Pillows and blankets were added, towels and nonperishable food were brought in and in time the first wave of five fire trucks – about 30 firefighters – arrived.

“I will tell you this,” Ilana said. “These firefighters came in, they were carrying all this stuff … the first thing they did was ask if they could help. And we were like, ‘No. Go rest. Eat.’ And in the sweetest way they were a little bit insulted we wouldn’t let them help. That just kind of says everything. And they were just super, super, super appreciative.”

It had been challenging to procure what was actually needed – there were very specific things that were acceptable for the firefighters to use, Ilana said – amid all the things that people thought were needed and were so generous to donate.

But “people were amazing,” she said. “That’s my takeaway. None of us knew each other, but people were super helpful and super cooperative."

Even Ilana’s own Facebook post after the fact became an inspiration for others. She received a text from a friend who told her that, based on her post, she and her daughter had also volunteered.

Serena Zhen, Administrative Assistant

Serena was also called into action by a Facebook post, this one from her church the second week of the fires. The Sunset Church in San Francisco, where she is an active congregant, was looking for volunteers to sort and box donations for wildfire victims. She was free on the afternoon of October 19 and, although she had originally planned to do something else, took the opportunity to volunteer.

“I wanted to help in some way,” she said, “not just financially, which I feel like I could do, but something I’ve been trying to work on is to not be distant from what’s going on [just] because it’s not in front of my face and happening directly to me.”

By the time she arrived, though, other volunteers had nearly finished the work, so she helped box and label smaller items – food, cell phones, first-aid items – and clean up.

“I don’t know how He’s going to use me; I just know I want to serve,” she said. On this day she enjoyed getting to know new people and being part of a community helping others. “It’s such a joyful thing to see and to witness, but an even more joyful thing to take part in.”


Photo by Bjorgialt (2017)