Colorado Springs News, Sports & Business

Gazette Premium Content Donations slower after Black Forest fire, but help for victims quicker

By Jakob Rodgers Published: July 1, 2013

The checks went out quickly - even as the Black Forest fire smoldered, El Paso County officials handed thousands of dollars into the hands of evacuees and those who lost homes to the blaze.

The Pikes Peak region's biggest philanthropic organizations, though, say the flow into their own coffers has been slower than last year.

Subtle differences have begun to emerge in the community's response to the Black Forest fire - which killed two people and leveled 511 homes - compared with the Waldo Canyon fire, the previous record-holder for wildfire destruction in Colorado.

Leaders of the Pikes Peak region's biggest philanthropic organizations say they focused on a quicker, more streamlined response to the Black Forest fire.

Meanwhile, a groundswell of grassroots efforts have been launched to help with the massive recovery process in northern El Paso County - often revealing itself in small volunteer groups organized by churches or tight-knit neighborhoods.

Smaller nonprofit organizations, such as Tri-Lakes Cares, that weren't as directly involved in last year's fire have been busy.

"We're going to be here for quite some time helping these people as they continue their journey," said Haley Chapin, the organization's executive director.

Fast response

Unlike last year, the largest pot of relief funding to date has been used for immediate help, rather than longer-term assistance.

The El Pomar Foundation donated $250,000 to El Paso County to help people visiting the county's Disaster Assistance Center - where many were given checks from $200 to $3,000. That pot swelled to $450,000 with a donation by the Pikes Peak Regional Building Department two weeks after the fire ignited.

More than one-third of that money has been distributed.

For last year's Waldo Canyon fire, a $125,000 grant by El Pomar was used to seed a different kind of recovery fund administered by the Pikes Peak United Way. It was created to fund relief organizations, and it began doling out grants two months after the Waldo Canyon fire started.

United Way ultimately gave out $940,000 to about 20 organizations, including the Salvation Army and the Coalition for the Upper South Platte.

In a change, the lead fundraising agency this year, the Pikes Peak Community Foundation, gave out money in the fire's first couple weeks - such as a $10,000 check to Tri-Lakes Cares.

But it has a long way to go to catch last year's total.

The foundation had about $81,000 available in its disaster relief fund on Friday morning, said Eric Cefus, the foundation's director of philanthropic services.

That doesn't include an additional $75,000 raised in the sale of shirts commemorating the fire, nor many checks that have yet to be counted or processed, he added.

Care and Share

The difference between fires has been most vivid at the Care and Share Food Bank for Southern Colorado, which has received fewer donations in the wake of this year's wildfires than it did for the Waldo Canyon fire.

The organization tallied 1.7 million pounds of food and $745,000 in monetary donations after the Waldo Canyon fire. To house all of it, they borrowed six warehouses.

This year, the organization borrowed one warehouse.

As of Friday, its fire stock totaled 802,000 pounds of food and monetary donations hovered around $300,000, said Lori Kapu, the organization's chief operating officer.

The reasons for the reductions, officials say, are myriad.

The Waldo Canyon fire played out on a greater national stage, one punctuated by an election-year visit from President Barack Obama. That kind of attention didn't arrive this year. As a result, fewer donations came in from national organizations and corporations - 750,000 pounds last year compared to 110,000 pounds this year, said Shannon Coker, a spokeswoman.

Several previous natural disasters, including Superstorm Sandy and the tornadoes in Moore, Okla., also consumed the attention of donors. And last year's blaze - the first megablaze to hit Colorado Springs - played out front and center to the city's residents.

"Last year, there was a degree of 'This has never happened before,'" Coker said. "... all you could do is look west."

The swell of donations last year, though, left the organization in a pinch.

In 2012, Care and Share could use the food and funding donated in lieu of the Waldo Canyon fire only for recovery efforts addressing that blaze. When the time came to tend to the organization's normal slate of programs, donations lagged.

Despite such a huge outpouring of support, the organization laid off staff in the spring.

"Donor intent is really important to us," said Lynne Telford, the organization's president and chief executive. "We're really about facilitating the donor, making things happen."

Care and Share officials say they aren't alarmed by this year's donation totals, and they've kicked off a new campaign - one to raise food over the summer for children in danger of going hungry.

Still, the end result of the lagging fire donations could be felt in the food bank's long-term response, Kapu said.

For example, the food bank continues to dole out $30,000 a month in food gift cards for people affected by the Waldo Canyon fire - all from funds left from last year.

"It's probably going to look a little bit different than the Waldo Canyon fire," she said.

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Contact Jakob Rodgers: 476-1654

Twitter @jakobrodgers

Facebook Jakob Rodgers

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