Agencies Lend a Hand During California Wildfires

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Sonoma Rising
Sonoma Rising Credit: Sonoma Rising

The wildfires that ravaged Northern California in recent weeks have led local agencies to find ways to help.

The deadly fires, which began blazing through Sonoma and Napa counties and other areas a week and a half ago, have forced thousands of evacuations and destroyed thousands of homes and businesses. Dozens of people are still reported missing in Sonoma County alone.

San Francisco agencies have stepped in to help their Bay Area neighbors -- Muhtayzik Hoffer, for instance, says it donated non-perishables, toiletries and other goods to an evacuation site in Santa Rosa. Others are offering assistance in different ways.

The Engine is Red, a Santa Rosa-based agency, opened its doors to partners, competitors, clients and anyone else who needed to work or reach people when many homes had lost power and WiFi, says lead account director Windy Swindt. "For the last week, it's kind of been a creative camp in here of different people just working together," says founder and president Chris Denny.

The agency has also been focused on fundraising. This week, it's launching an e-commerce site called Sonoma Rising that will let local producers — starting with Napa and Sonoma-produced wines with the potential for apparel and other products to follow — offer their products for purchase, with 100 percent of the sales revenue going to local relief efforts. Visitors to the site will also be able to donate to the North Bay Fire Relief, run by the Redwood Credit Union.

Denny said he hopes the wine shop will be live this week, but until then, visitors can still donate via the site. "One of the greatest things that folks from across the country can be doing is not just donating but also supporting our economy," Denny says. "We would love for people to donate, but we're also asking people to invest in the North Bay — so hire local companies, choose local products."

The agency has enlisted other companies on the project to pitch in on creative and strategy (including local shop Vertical), along with fulfillment, compliance, legal services and accounting guidance.

The Engine is Red devised the effort not just for fundraising but to remind consumers that Sonoma is still open for business. If tourism and purchase of local goods sputters out, "We'll have a second disaster on our hands," Denny says.

Andrew Healy, president of boutique social media agency 3 Rock Marketing, agrees that keeping the local economy going is the best way of helping the area and its people recover. He works with local companies including wine tour and hospitality businesses.

Though many news photos depict severe devastation in the area, Healy says many areas in the North Bay have been untouched and will be safe to visit soon. He said some clients have already lost six-figure amounts of money on reservations.

"It is incredibly important for all of us to now look to the future and start to put out positive images, positive messaging, because our visitors have stopped coming," he says. "Our visitors are our lifeblood here — we don't need this to turn into an economic disaster as well as a humanitarian disaster."

"The effects on the local economy will be staggering, but right now we are focused on helping those in need," says Tom Boylan, founder of Santa Rosa-based Boylan Point Agency. "So many have lost everything, loved ones, homes, livelihoods."

Although Boylan's offices were unscathed, he said more than half of the agency's employees were evacuated from their homes.

Circa, another agency headquartered in Santa Rosa, had to evacuated for most of last week. Its team is safe, says founder and creative strategist Dave Devencenzi, and clients were understanding about deadlines. "The pride and unity of this community is truly awe-inspiring," he says.

Abra Marketing, a digital marketing and advertising agency based in Santa Rosa, already had a mostly remote staff. Founder and creative director Kurt Hoffmann did choose to bring his family up to Redding to work out of a client's office and wait out the fires since the air quality was so poor in his neighborhood. They returned home on Sunday.

"I'm finally back in my office and a lot of our clients (and) staff are talking about how it feels good to be getting back to a work for at least the illusion of normal," he says.

But living through a lot of misinformation on the fires got him thinking about how his agency might help people understand what's really going on during catastrophes when it comes to evacuations and other potentially life-saving information.

"The communications have been really rough — it's been hard to get accurate information," says Hoffmann. "As we go through this, as the dust settles, (we will be) brainstorming as a communications company how could we help improve things like that in the future, in a situation like this? Because that has been a big shortcoming."

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