Writing and Reporting by Jake Brown
California has been traditionally famous in the realm of natural disasters for its earthquakes, but in more recent years, its wild fires have become just as legendary for the competitive devastation that can cause to destroy entire communities in mere seconds. Raging up and down Southern and Northern California throughout 2017, whether during the notoriously hot, dry summers or the 245,000 acres across the Napa Valley and other treasured parts of Northern California, including the Tubbs fire which has been recorded as the most destructive wildfire in the state’s history.
Along with the heroic firefighting forces that have been working around the clock to save peoples’ homes and businesses, every other available community service provider hand on deck has been called up to help out, and LIHEAP has been among those programs funding relief efforts. Coupled with the traditional seasonal assistance the program offers to hundreds of thousands of families throughout the state – especially in Northern California where the winters are commonly colder – across both urban, rural and Native American landscapes, the state’s Community Action Agencies were working in overdrive to marshal their considerable outreach resources to help during the crisis.
One hero among these front-line fighters to help families in need throughout the state’s richly diverse patchwork of communities is one of Northern California’s oldest and most respected, the Redwood Community Action Agency. Headed by Val Martinez, who has been at the helm as Director for close to 4 decades and a longtime leader as an advocate in the field of energy assistance, she agreed that this past year’s wildfire frenzy was the worst she’s ever seen in her long and storied career:
Dir. Martinez: I did check with the state to see how we’re responding to that with LIHEAP dollars and here we’ve instituted what’s called a Stress Program for emergency response program we have whether its extreme cold or extreme heat and in this case, natural catastrophes – whether its an earthquake or in this case a wild fire – so they’ve been able to use vouchers for temporary housing that are LIHEAP-funded and include sleeping bags, quilts, blankets - and also offer utility assistance. They can also use some of that money for transportation and purchasing generators, portable heaters and cooling appliances for those parts of California where its still hot.
I can truthfully say, this is an exact way of how the flexibility of LIHEAP is really important, both on the utility assistance side, their crisis assistance program, and on the weatherization side, and I think its critical we make it flexible because in 2006 we had a fire that killed people up and down the state, and on a personal level, one of my great aunts died in that fire because her smoke detector stopped working. Her husband woke up the next morning and found my aunt dead, and it was the extreme heat that killed her and other people. But we were able to utilize LIHEAP dollars to help transport people to cooling centers and were able to go in and buy fans and wall A/C systems or repair A/C systems in order to make life livable.
LIHEAP.org: The Redwood Community Action Agency has as richly rooted a history in making a difference in the lives of generations of Californians as a CAA could aspire to have in the remarkable nearly-40 year career. Once you started working at the agency, how far back can you remember seeing LIHEAP make a difference on the ground, so to speak, as you had families start walking through the front door applying for assistance?
Dir. Martinez: I started at Redwood Community Action in December of 1980 and I was hired for this new energy program called LIHEAP, and our agency was one of the last community action agencies created by the old Community Services Organization, which directed funds to Community Action Agencies throughout the country. So we had just opened our doors when President Reagan was elected to office and CSA was eliminated under him and they created the block grand programs, and when I started with LIHEAP it was basically just a 1 or 2%, which was basically a small $100 rebate, but it meant a lot to the people it helped even back then.
LIHEAP.org: Northern California is almost a separate state entirely from Southern California where weather patterns are concerned, especially in the fact that the region of the state that Redwood serves gets equal doses of extreme cold and heat in the winter and summers, making yours a year-round program. Could you share a little from your own perspective about what makes your region of California such a unique one to serve given the weather you deal with in and out?
Dir. Martinez: We’re located in the Northwestern corner, two and a half hours from the Oregon border on the West Coast, and geographically, the area we serve is huge – over 3000 miles – with coastal ranges, mountains and valleys, we have two of the largest Indian reservations in California, numerous Rancherías and smaller service areas, but population-wise, we’re not that large, I think around 120,000, but we’re widely dispersed. About 80% of our population lives around what they call the 101 corridor, and then there are other parts that are remote communities – some of which are totally off the grid. For instance, some of our Indian reservations have no running water, no phones, no electricity, the poles all stop way before they get onto that portion of the reservation. So we have some pretty remote customers, and we serve all of them. We also serve Modoc County, which is in the Northeastern corner of California where the population is very remote as well, and Humboldt County as well, which has a pretty temperate climate where the temperatures along the coast dip down into the 30s in the winter and we’re 5 hours North of San Francisco on the coast and 5 hours Northwest of Sacramento, so there are parts of our county that do get snow and ice too.
We target services during the first quarter of the year intentionally because we know everybody has those high utility bills from the holidays and from heating, and then we also do it again in the fall. We have year-round heating here because of the climate so we target not only utility assistance but weatherization, and in California, we also have what we call Emergency Heating and Cooling Services where we replace heaters and repair or replace related heating and cooling appliances, and for us, that also includes wood stoves, which are a big thing for rural communities. So we will repair or replace them – more often than not we replace them – so it’s a big deal. We also target people living in remote areas of the community because we want to make sure they get served, so we make it a priority point because of the fact that it is difficult to serve them, and we want to make sure they get their fair share of access, and under that heading for remote areas, we target resources for Native Americans living locally on and off tribal lands. We find that we have to work with a patchwork quilt of resources in order to make things work and we’ve been very successful with that because LIHEAP has been very helpful, both on the utilities side, and in years past during the winter when we have extreme cold. It’s a very vital program that because of its flexibility can be responsive to community needs.
LIHEAP.org: We’ve seen LIHEAP make as much of a difference on Tribal Nations throughout the years as we have any other community the program serves, what has Redwood’s experience been working with the Native American populations who fall within your service territories?
Dir. Martinez: As I mentioned earlier, we have the two largest Native American reservations in California in our service territory and these include some of the most remote and highest poverty levels of people in our state. Because of the isolation, there’s not a lot of jobs and the unemployment rates are very high, and I think the set-aside for the Native Americans within our tribal lands is a good and necessary thing that should complement the LIHEAP program and it does. The state of California requires that we work with the tribal LIHAP programs to ensure we don’t duplicate services, and anything we can do to reach out to remote communities and target services to them is important. I routinely every year go out to these reservations 2, 3, maybe 4 times a year depending on how much money I have to target services to tribal members and anyone located in that Eastern pocket of my county. We don’t just restrict it to tribal members because anyone living in that area can come to our outreach. I think that’s really important. Having worked with Native American kids in the late 70s, I have a special affinity to reaching out to these families because I know how difficult it can be, especially when you’re living on the reservation with limited resources and that it takes a lot to make ends meet.
LIHEAP.org: Seniors are another population where outreach is so key, what has Redwood’s specific strategy been for successfully serving this especially vulnerable population where LIHEAP makes such a difference year in and out?
Dir. Martinez: I created years ago a special Seniors and Disabled Outreach Program that works specifically with that population because these people often can’t get around, and so I wanted to make sure that they don’t miss out on services. So every year we advertise for that and create a list of clients to contact and do our best to serve them and I’m very proud of what we do. This last year we had 606 seniors specifically that we helped, which doesn’t seem like a large number but we’re in a remote area, and we also served 634 disabled persons. Of those Seniors, 162 are over 80, and 39 were over 90, with the oldest person we serve being 99 and still living in his home!
LIHEAP.org: Children are arguably the most vulnerable population Redwood like so many other CAAs around the country serves, would you be able to illustrate through any recent data the actual numbers of children whose lives are benefited by LIHEAP and your related energy assistance efforts?
Dir. Martinez: They are the life blood of all of our programs. When we did a holiday party just a couple weeks ago, I was briefing my top staff on the numbers for 2017, where we helped over 17,000 people in the past year, of which 12,000 plus were children under the age of 18. That’s a huge of the people we serve. Under Heap in 2016, of the 1200 households we served, we served 196 children under the age of 5. Then in our crisis program, we helped 202 children under the age of 5. With weatherization, the number was right in that same ballpark because they’re generally the same populations now. These are high concentrations of single parent households.
LIHEAP.org: When you look back over the past 4 decades, do you have any personal favorite victories among the career accomplishments you’ve achieved as head of Redwood Community Action?
Dir. Martinez: I think, for me, the biggest things for me are the stories I can share where we were able to help save people’s houses. A lot of people who are poor live in substandard housing, and housing conditions can not only be uncomfortable, they can be unsafe. A number of years ago, I can think of a client where my assessor went into the house for weatherization services, and when he went in, the ambient air in the house was really testing high for CO and gas. He started talking to the family, and found out the family had all been sick, and grandma was exhibiting early stages of dementia, and when we started testing all the appliances, we found out they had a cracked heat exchanger and were all suffering from carbon monoxide poisoning. So they sent the family to the hospital, had the utility come in and shut it off, and ended up changing out the furnace, and we worked closely with the utility on this. So the whole family were in the hospital for a few days, and Grandma was in for a couple weeks, and it turned out the dementia was not dementia but the effects of the carbon monoxide poisoning. So I always think of that family.
Then most recently, in the last couple weeks we had a grandmother and 2 children and a couple grandchildren living in the house who’d signed up for weatherization. Again, my assessor went out and they had mentioned they thought they smelled gas by the back porch, so he went to investigate under the house and found that the gas line into the house was rotted out. So the whole underside of the house was full of gas, so he immediately sent them out of the house and called the utility company, because any spark could have ignited that house! In fact, when they came out, the utility company said all it would have taken was for someone to drop a cigarette or a match and the whole thing would have blown up with everyone in it. So that was a pretty shocking discovery.
Then the little things: I can recall being able on a Friday night of a holiday weekend working with a Senior to help her get her utilities straightened out because she was having a very difficult time with them about to be shut off, and working those extra hours, while I’d have liked to be home with my family, it meant more to me to make sure that this Senior was safe and doing well.
LIHEAP.org: In closing, with December just passed, along with helping households avoid the classic “heat or eat” choice, did you have any favorite personal moments of pride where Redwood helped a family with energy assistance and saw it make a difference for the better this Holiday season?
Dir. Martinez: Yes, with some of the LIHEAP assistance families received, it actually made it possible for them to buy their kids Christmas presents this year! (laughs)
Visit Redwood Community Action Agency online at www.rcaa.org
How do RCAA's programs impact you?
- Natural Resouces Services (NRS) works directly with Humboldt County community leaders, schools and parents to improve safety and encourage more children to safely walk and bicycle to school. NRS helps coordinate both the Greater Eureka and Humboldt County Safe Routes to School Task Forces.
- Teaching preschoolers oral health care is a result of the TOOTH program.
- Natural Resources Services works with community members, civic groups and local jurisdictions to enhance neighborhood street tree planting and support the development of community forests for public access and watershed protection.