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SF mobilizes to help North Bay fire victims

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Justin Dermody loads up his Honda Civic with donations for North Bay fire victims on Thursday outside the Love on Haight shop in San Francisco. (Mira Laing/Special to S.F. Examiner)
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Sunny Powers was already clutching the store phone of her Haight Street business in one hand as it rang for the third time in 10 minutes Thursday morning.

“Thanks for calling Love on Haight, we are accepting donations for the fire victims in Santa Rosa — does that answer your question?” Powers asked, spouting a greeting she had recited all morning.

With devastating wildfires sweeping Sonoma, Napa and Yuba counties since Sunday, Powers has closed her artisan clothing store Love on Haight at Haight and Masonic streets, although its doors remained open Thursday to community members wishing to help.

The flames have engulfed over 191,000 acres of land and killed at least 31 people since Sunday night. More than 20,000 people have been evacuated from their homes.

Powers is one of many San Franciscans stepping in to help. At Love on Haight, she has accepted donations from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. every day this week, transforming the retail store into somewhat of a distribution center.
On Thursday, Powers was busy fielding volunteer inquiries and directing the love and generosity of volunteers to the North Bay.

“I was given money for the shop because I was helping the homeless here. I was told to do good things with it,” the San Francisco native said. “This is part of my commitment to doing good things.”

Amid racks of tie-dye leggings and T-shirts imprinted with psychedelic designs, boxes filled with granola bars, children’s toys, bedding and bags of clothing littered the floor. Young men and women with handkerchiefs pulled over their mouths could be seen sorting through the piles of supplies before lugging them to trucks and vans
parked outside.

“We are loading up the cars. This is our first break. There are people pulling up over there and working on the other side too,” 21-year-old Kate “Ishy” Walco said. “I haven’t had a break to think but it’s really nice to see the smiles and people keep hugging us.”

Walco and a handful of other young volunteers are program participants at Taking It to the Streets, a nonprofit serving homeless youth in the Upper Haight.

“We give them the job of taking care of the community and in exchange we give them housing,” Powers, who sits on the nonprofit’s executive board, said about her volunteer crew. “They are all here helping out.”

Haight Street resident Justin Dermody met Powers in the local music scene and said she’s always supported the youth there. On Thursday, he too was busy loading up his Honda Civic with donations — children’s clothing and diapers that were dropped off at Love on Haight — and transporting them to a warehouse in Santa Rosa.
For Dermody, his engagement is personal.

“I grew up in Napa. The older couple that died, I coached their kid in the little league. My brother worked for their company,” Dermody said, his voice breaking with tears.

Dermody said that while his family is safe, he has been looking for opportunities to help others. That’s when he came across Powers’ call for volunteers on Facebook.

“Too many of my friends have lost their homes already,” he said. “There is a feeling of powerlessness being here.”

Shortly after Dermody pulled out of a parking spot on Masonic Street, a white van imprinted with the word “Backroads” — referring to an active travel company that leads biking and walking tours in Napa — pulled in. It’s driver, Kelly English, and a friend jumped out to take boxes from the hands of other volunteers.

“We were grounded this week because obviously we weren’t leading trips in Wine Country,” English said, adding that her company “donated all of its vans, labor, trailers and food to head up to Santa Rosa and help out.”
Since Wednesday, six Backroads vans have made the trip north to drop off supplies.

“This is not like leading high-end biking tours, that’s for sure,” English said. “So many people we know were affected by this. This is the best use of my time.”

The Haight isn’t the only neighborhood where merchants, community members and local leaders are lending space and manpower to coordinate relief efforts.

In the Mission, a neighborhood notoriously hard hit by fires in recent years, the executive director of the Carnaval festival opened his Florida Street home to donations from the community.

“We are targeting people that don’t know how to go to the Red Cross — the farm workers, who are poor, who are immigrants. A lot of them are scared to go. There’s a lot of them who are sleeping on the streets,” said Roberto Hernandez, a former United Farm Workers organizer.

“We have been victims of fires here in our neighborhood and we know the cause and effect of that. And the pain and the hurt,” he said.

On Wednesday, Hernandez with the help of volunteers brought diapers, baby formula, socks, blankets and food to a ministry in Santa Rosa. Another load will be driven up on Saturday.

“It’s like abandoned cemeteries — there are structures that literally burned down. I’ve been around and seen fires, but nothing like this,” he said.

Several blocks from Hernandez’ home, the 24th Street diner St. Francis Fountain is accepting donations through Monday. An employee there was personally affected by the fires — her family is currently housing “seven extra people, three extra dogs and two extra chickens in the North Bay,” according to another employee, Keri Fishman.

At the Mission’s SPCA adoption center at 250 Florida St., 17 cats and 17 dogs have been rescued from shelters threatened by the blazes in the North Bay.

Throughout the weekend, the animal rescue organization will host an Adopt-A-Thon, during which adult animals will be free to adopt, spokesperson Elizabeth Evans said.

“The more [animals] that are adopted this weekend, the more animals we will be able to bring down here,” Evans said.

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