Wildfires: ‘Extraordinary Situation,’ Grant Relief, & CU Lessons

Wildfires

As local credit unions and their members pivot to the whims of wildfires raging across Northern California, an “extraordinary situation” proclamation was made by the California Department of Financial Protection and Innovation (DFPI) on Wednesday for the counties of El Dorado, Shasta, Siskiyou, Tehama and Trinity.

CUAid grants — administered by the National Credit Union Foundation (NCUF) — are available for credit union employees and board members to assist with immediate disaster relief needs, such as out-of-pocket costs that may result from being evacuated.

Click here for CUAid grant guidelines, the application process, disbursement details, and more information. You can also find the grant application here. (You can also view the California and Nevada Credit Union Leagues’ disaster relief and preparedness webpage.)

Additionally, credit unions and staff interested in DONATING to the CUAid cause to help fellow employees rebuild their lives after natural disasters strike can click here to do so.

Lessons in Helping Members, Being Prepared
(published Aug. 26 by CU Today
— and re-published with permission)
As wildfires once again rage across California and much of the West, two credit unions in the path of the recurring flames say they have, unfortunately, become accomplished at dealing with these natural disasters.

“More of our offices are being threatened as the fires are getting bigger and bigger,” said John Cassidy, CEO of $1.4-billion Sierra Central Credit Union. “The fires are not only bigger, they last longer. But when they strike, we are prepared now. The first thing we do is focus on the safety of our staff and our members. We make sure our employees have hotel rooms if they need them. We’re just getting too used to this, which in many ways is not good.”

Cassidy said things have to change in California, and that better forestry management must take place. He also believes many people have simply reached their limits with the massive fires that have become annual events.

“I think people are going to be calling more loudly for change,” said Cassidy.

There are 20 fires currently burning across the Golden State. The most recent fire is the Rock Fire in Riverside County, which started on Aug. 24. The largest active fire is the Dixie Fire between Redding and Susanville, which has burned 733,475 acres so far. It started on July 14 and is 43% contained.

And the fires are no longer just a California and Western U.S. phenomenon: Minnesota is currently fighting the Greenwood Fire. 

Years of Preparation
Ideally, Minnesota’s credit unions will not ever need to develop the kinds of expertise leaders many of California’s credit unions have. Cassidy looked back on what has become years of training in coping with wildfires that threaten offices, staff and the communities his CU serves.

“This is the fifth year on record we have dealt with fires in the northeastern quadrant of California,” said Cassidy. “I don't want to overstate things, but I won’t understate things either—these fires have become apocalyptic. The Dixie fire is twice the size of LA County and it's probably not going to stop burning until it gets halfway through the Nevada desert. It’s unstoppable.” 

Sierra Central has 20 branches in the northeast corner of California. 

“We have had five branches that have been affected during these recent fires,” he said. “Our Susanville office, which is right in their path, we’ve had to close and reopen that several times because of evacuations. It’s become kind of a whack-a-mole situation—we close, staff go home or relocate, then we open and do it all over again.”

The Bennett, Caldor and Dixie Fires currently threaten Sierra Central locations. Cassidy reported the CU's Grass Valley branch had to evacuated Wednesday night due to the advancing Bennett Fire.

Cassidy said the credit union’s employees have become accustomed during “fire season” to being prepared to move to help branches that are short-staffed or need extra assistance. 

“And you combine those efforts with coping with COVID-19, and that makes matters even more difficult,” Cassidy said. 

No More Fire ‘Season’
Cassidy emphasized what has become more unnerving about the fires is they are now blazing outside of the typical fire season. 

“Ten years ago we knew when the fires would begin and when they would eventually become less of a threat,” he said. “Not anymore. And it’s really hard to say when these current fires are going to stop.”

The pandemic certainly helped the credit union get better at digital communication and digital service, which is a benefit when the wildfires burn. 

Nevertheless, Sierra Central’s staff and members have become accustomed to living through “summers of smoke.” 

“I had a friend just call me who was driving down I-80 and he said he could hardly see the road,” said Cassidy. “For the last five summers, Northern California has been covered in smoke. This is just getting to be a way of life for us.”

Equipment in Place
The credit union now has air scrubbers in place in all of its locations. Backup generators are ready to be moved quickly into place and permanent generators are installed at offices where the fires tend to be most likely. 

Sierra Central also has developed a set of products, including customized and 0% loans, that can be pulled off the shelf to help members. 

“Bottom line,” Cassidy said, “we do whatever we can to help our members through these disasters. We sit down with each of them who are in need and find the best way to help them.”

Soon, the credit union will have a mobile branch that will allow it to reach more members during natural disasters, added Cassidy. 

In the meantime, the CEO, who has lived in Northern California since 1977, says he has watched as forestry management declined in this state.

“Trees die, they fall over, brush is not cleared, and it’s like stacking wood for a big fire. When the majority of your days during the summer you can’t see the sky, and for a period of 40 days straight you can’t see the sky…at some point this has to stop,” said Cassidy. 

Members of Members 1st Affected
In Redding, Calif., the $300-million Members 1st Credit Union has been fortunate through the latest round of fires that branches have not been significantly impacted. The CU’s six offices are located near where the Dixie Fire is burning.

“But we have members who live in the communities that have been affected the Dixie Fire,” said CEO Teri Davis. “We received requests for assistance from members who live in that area and we are helping them.” 

Similar to Sierra Central, Members 1st has products on the shelf to help members make it through the fires. 

“A member we just helped only needed a skip-a-pay, so certainly we accommodated the request,” Davis said.

An Unfortunate Expertise
Davis told CUToday.info his credit union, too, has built an unfortunate expertise in dealing with wildfires. 

“The fires have had us put our disaster recovery programs to the test,” Davis said. “As a result, we have made some changes to them. A lot of what we often have to deal with are power outages related to the fires. But we have become resilient, and that seems to be the word around here. These fires are relentless, and that is how we have had to become in dealing with them.”

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