Uncontrolled wildfires near Medical Lake and Elk have compelled dozens of Spokane County businesses to come together to provide immediate support of relief and recovery efforts, resulting in about $1 million worth of donated funds and goods received at two relief organizations, company leaders here say.
Since Aug. 18, the Gray and Oregon Road fires have scorched over 21,000 acres of land and damaged or destroyed hundreds of homes and structures, but the destruction also fueled immediate action from the business community.
John Bryant, owner of Spokane-based No-Li Brewhouse, says his experience helping in Malden, Washington, which was devastated by fire three years ago, gave him a sense urgency to take action right away.
Bryant says he began to mobilize support from other businesses the same day news of the fires spread across the county.
“We just knew we had to do something,” he says, adding that his goal was to create a community of businesses that would come together.
He says he first spoke with Laura Papetti, a television news anchor at KREM-TV and board member of the American Red Cross, to determine what the organization needed from the business community.
Bryant says he worked with KREM, Bison Printing, David’s Pizza, and restaurateur Chad White to begin fundraising for donations to the Red Cross.
“We raised like $215,000 in 12 hours,” says Bryant. “But it’s more than just money … it’s about going to the shelter, working the phone bank, meeting the people.”
Rhonda Jack, mass care chief at the Red Cross, says she’s responsible for managing the emergency shelters at Spokane Falls Community College, in northwest Spokane, and Riverside High School, in Chattaroy, Washington.
Jack says helping the Spokane County wildfire victims has been unique compared to 10 other disasters she’s been involved in, because she didn’t have to solicit any of the donations. Twenty-plus companies immediately offered to help feed evacuees and volunteers. She says the support came from a variety of business enterprises ranging from big companies and corporations to mom-and-pop shops.
“The first time we opened the shelter, they were calling us asking, what can we do to help,” she says. “Usually, we have to scout and find a restaurant that we can get meals from and pay for. And they’re just donating it.”
Mark Starr, owner of David’s Pizza, says the restaurant gave over 200 slices of pizza worth about $2,500 to feed attendees of a town hall meeting in Medical Lake days after the fire.
Starr says, “We feel super fortunate to have the ability to do it. We can afford to do it; we have the equipment to do it.”
David’s Pizza will continue collecting financial contributions at its restaurant, located at 803 W. Mallon, for the foreseeable future, says Starr.
“You never know how long this might take,” he says. “We’ll just do whatever we can.”
The disaster also brought competitors together to support relief efforts, says Shelly O’Quinn, CEO of Innovia Foundation.
She says Washington Trust Bank and STCU, in addition to Premera Blue Cross, each donated $50,000 to seed the Wildfire Emergency Response Fund created by Innovia Foundation.
“Our business community is coming together to serve those in need,” O’Quinn says.
In addition to monetary aid, some financial institutions that operate here are offering creative solutions to people affected by the fires.
Banner Bank announced a $75,000 donation to the American Red Cross, and also activated a Natural Disaster Relief personal loan, says Kelly McPhee, senior vice president of communications for Banner Bank.
McPhee says companies tend to lean on what they know best in times of crisis, so it was a natural fit to activate the disaster relief loan in addition to providing a cash gift.
Banner Bank doesn’t earn any revenue from the disaster relief loans, and the bank forgoes application and processing fees and offers no interest for the life of the loans, she says.
“We lose money on these loans,” adds McPhee. “But the important thing to remember is in this moment we’re all neighbors. Everyone’s just doing what they can to be part of the solution.”
GoWest Credit Union Association is working with Spokane-area credit unions to identify cash flow concerns and is supporting credit union employees in need of aid through small grants, says chief impact officer Sharee Adkins.
Lori Biggs, marketing and communications executive at Washington Trust Bank, says that in addition to a cash donation and the launch of its own Disaster Recovery Loan, the bank’s employees staffed a call center at KHQ TV taking donations from community members.
Biggs says, “It was a great thing to watch this community come together in that way.”
Other businesses contributed cash and offered their products and services for free to help wildfire victims, says Bryant.
No-Li worked with Bison Printing LLC to create custom T-shirts to raise money for the Red Cross, says Grayson Ervin, president of the Spokane-based screen-printing company.
Ervin says he and Bryant worked together over the weekend after the Gray and Oregon Road fires started, to figure out how to help.
On Monday, Aug. 21, Bison Printing halted its operating schedule and promptly ordered, designed, and printed about 200 T-shirts with all proceeds from the sale of the garments going to the Red Cross, he says.
“By Tuesday (Aug. 22), they were all done and for sale by Wednesday morning (Aug. 23),” says Ervin.
Most of the T-shirts were sold out a week later, he adds.
Bison’s contributions temporarily impacted business operations, although Ervin says his eight employees rallied to work faster, harder, and longer to deliver the T-shirts to No-Li as quickly as possible.
“Everybody works a little bit harder to get it done because … when you’re doing good, it’s something everybody can get behind and believe in,” Ervin says.
Travis Lewis, president of U-Haul Co. of the Inland Northwest, says his business is offering 30 days of free self-storage and container usage to residents impacted by the fires.
Professional associations are contributing to the cause as well.
Spokane Home Builders Association is organizing equipment drives for items such as generators and propane tanks. SHBA also will arrange cleanup days and building projects as communities begin to rebuild, according to a statement from the organization.
Financial contributions and donated materials and goods at Innovia have grown to nearly $800,000, says O’Quinn.
She says Innovia has already distributed grants to the Salvation Army for back-to-school shopping for children in need. Innovia also has provided gift cards to the Salvation Army to support the basic needs of people staying at emergency shelter facilities here.
Separately, representatives of the Red Cross continue to calculate the value of donations the organization has received for Spokane County wildfire assistance. They estimate the value of donations to the Red Cross has grown to hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Ryan Rodin, regional philanthropy officer for the American Red Cross, says, “Corporations have generously given just a tremendous outpouring of support pretty much since the day the fires hit.”
He says that companies can continue to help with cash donations, which are preferred over donated goods and materials as the Red Cross moves on to focus on long-term assistance in the community.
“We’re moving into a different phase with the disaster recovery,” he says. “Now the needs are going to get a little more specific and acute.”
Bryant, of No-Li, agrees and says, as the shock of the disaster wears off, it’s important for businesses here to focus on healing.
“The pain is going to get worse … but it’s really valuable to get everybody to be a part of something tragic and put a big smile on it.”
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