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How to help victims of the California wildfires

Many people affected by the California wildfires are stranded and in a state of limbo. Here's how you can help.
Jhonathan Clark near his house that was destroyed by the Camp Fire in Paradise, California, on Nov. 15, 2018
Jhonathan Clark near his house that was destroyed by the Camp Fire in Paradise, California, on Nov. 15, 2018.Javier Tovar / AFP - Getty Images file

Monica H. Evans, 44, lived in her home in Paradise, California for 19 years. She and her husband, a veteran who relies on his pension as income, were happy there with their three children and nine pets, and they had a great deal on rent — just $412 a month.

“I never wanted to leave Paradise,” Evans tells NBC News BETTER through tears. “I didn’t think I’d ever have to. But now everything is gone.”

Evans and her family (pets included) were able to escape the deadly fires, but lost their home. Right now, they’re staying with a friend in Orland — in a single room — and have until the end of the week before they have to find other lodgings — a transition that Evans breaks into sobs at the mere mention of, because they have nowhere to go.

With shelters filling up and no insurance payout coming, some residents face long-term displacement

“There are thousands of us with nowhere to go,” she says. “The shelters are all full, and the nearest hotels are hours away, and we can’t afford them anyway,” says Evans. “They’re gouging the prices, and we have so many pets. Rentals are going for $2k a month for two-bedroom apartments.”

All those who have lost their homes in the fires have been dealt a terrible blow, but lower income renters such as Evans, who did not have renter’s insurance (as of 2016 research by the Insurance Information Institute, only 41 percent of renters did), are faced with a particularly difficult recovery ahead. With no payout from insurance and no land they can rebuild on, many have turned to parking lots for shelter, waiting for help.

“The [Chico] Walmart is filled with tents. Everyone is just struggling to get through the day. We keep hearing on the news that we have to wait — wait on FEMA, wait for guidance — and we keep hearing from people who aren’t [affected] that ‘it’ll all be okay.’ But they just don’t get it. Our whole town is gone. Our lives have been destroyed and nobody has any answers for us.”

The housing crisis is severe, with Larry Olmstead, president and CEO of United Way of Northern California highlighting that the homelessness in Butte County and Shasta County was a challenging problem to solve even even before the fires.

“Homelessness is a hot button issue in both communities,” Olmstead says. “So you start with a fairly slim housing stock, particularly in Chico to begin with, and now [tens of thousands more] people are homeless on top of that. There is no easy way to absorb these people in this housing structure. We're at roughly 80k homes destroyed.”

Homes are lost and jobs may be, too

Some people who lived and worked in Paradise, didn’t just lose their homes — they may have also lost their jobs.

Heather Milstred, 29, also a former resident of Paradise is staying with a family friend in Shasta Lake who has generously opened her home to her, her boyfriend, their two young daughters, along with other displaced family members and their pets.

“I’m a job coach for mentally disabled adults with California Vocations, and my boss has been amazing,” Milstred says. “But our location was leveled. They’re renting out a temporary space, but the [future] is unclear. My [uncle] Jason works at a Save Mart and the building is standing but the town is gone. My [aunt] Robin works at Curves, and the building is there, too, but how do you work in a town where everything else is gone and everyone has left?”

If you're displaced, register with FEMA and look for these evacuation centers

Michael R. Hart, a spokesperson for FEMA says that the organization is urging people who are trying to get back on their feet to take one of two steps: If they have insurance, file a claim. If they are uninsured or under-insured, set up a case.

If you're a victim and can make it to a FEMA recovery center, go there, but know that you can also set up a case by calling 800-621-3362 of visiting online

Hart says that there are still evacuation centers accepting people, while others are at capacity. Note that some welcome pets (including large animals as well). See the Butte County, Los Angeles County and Ventura County web sites for up-to-date information on evacuation centers.

What we can do now: Cash donations and gift cards

Milstred and Evans emphasize their gratitude for donations of clothing, but right now they have nowhere to store anything non-essential. Getting stuff without a home to put it in, is only adding to the anxiousness of being homeless. Hart adds that clothing donations also create a logistics/manpower issue on the ground.

“Money is really what would help. We need to put down a deposit on a new place once we find one” says Milstred. “Gift cards we can hold on to and use to buy things like towels and blankets when we [get settled] are also helpful.”

Donate to these organizations who are offering immediate assistance

FEMA, a government entity, does not accept donations, but they are working closely with non-profits that are relying on donations. Hart urges people who want to donate to make sure that whichever charity you choose has been approved by National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (VOAD).

Here’s a list of some organizations working closely with survivors:

Other ways to help: Volunteer and donate blood

Volunteering in the affected areas is another great way to help.

Anthony C. Tornetta, spokesperson for the Red Cross, reminds us that the Red Cross is 90-percent volunteer based.

“Right now best thing is to go on the Red Cross site and sign up to volunteer,” says Tornetta. “Whatever time you can commit, whether it’s a week or eight hours — we will welcome your support. Please sign up and call first, as we can’t necessarily stop in the middle of an operation if you just show up.”

Tornetta also encourages those wanting to give assistance to donate blood, if able.

“We have had to cancel blood drives because of wildfires so we can use help there,” he says. “Blood is always needed, no matter what is going on.”