There’s a story of devastation behind each GoFundMe campaign for Valley fire victims
Within 24 hours of the start of the Valley fire on Saturday afternoon, fundraising appeals for fire victims started popping up on the crowd-funding website GoFundMe.com.
Launched mostly by family members and friends of evacuees who lost their homes and belongings in the Jamul and Alpine areas of San Diego County, the online appeals detail the families’ losses and their often-harrowing escapes from the flames. The appeals range from a $7,000 campaign for a rancher who is roughing it with her rescue horses on her burnt property to a $70,000 campaign for a retired Navy veteran and his wife of 21 years who are starting over from scratch.
Fortunately for these and other victims, donors are responding in a big way.
The following are interviews and excerpts from several Valley fire campaigns that have been verified as legitimate by GoFundMe’s Trust & Safety team.
In the 20 or so years the Campos family has lived in the Jamul area, they’ve seen their share of wildfires. But nothing compares to the blaze that wrapped around their 40-acre Lawson Valley property on Saturday, said Brooke Campos, who owns the land with her father, Eddie Campos, and her brother, Blake Campos.
The family and farm employees fought the fire for as long as they could before evacuating Saturday night. They rescued their neighbor’s horses, dogs and chickens but were forced to leave behind their stubborn pig, Bruce. Bruce survived the blaze but his pen did not. Neither did Blake’s house or most of the $500,000 farming business that the family launched last fall. Because of the ranch’s rural, fire-prone location, Brooke said her family had been turned down four times in recent months for property insurance.
The Campos family purchased the land in 2016 to build No Boundaries Farm, a federally licensed hemp-growing operation. The fall crop in the ground now survived the flames, but almost everything else was lost, including the barn that housed the company’s offices, a plant-cloning lab, indoor grow rooms and lighting, rolling, drying and trimming areas, and all the inventory and merchandise from their new CBD jarred product line. Blake’s now-destroyed home was shared by his girlfriend and a roommate.
“The only thing Blake has left is a pair of shoes, a pair of sandals and a couple changes of clothes,” Brooke Campos said.
The Campos family is now living together in Eddie’s small home and trying to figure out how to recover. Brooke said that despite the devastation, it’s hard to imagine ever leaving the area.
“When everything happened, my first thought was I can’t do this anymore,” she said. “But when you live out in Jamul, it’s a lifestyle. Being surrounded by Mother Nature, the quietness of being in the mountains ... it’s a home to us.”
On Tuesday, Brooke launched two campaigns on GoFundMe. The first is to buy Blake and his girlfriend a fifth-wheel trailer they can park on the land as their new home. The second campaign is for rebuilding the farm. As of Friday morning, the Blake house campaign’s 156 donors had raised $18,331 of a $20,000 goal. And the No Boundaries Farm Rebuild campaign’s 57 donors had contributed $6,145 toward a $100,000 goal.
On Sunday, Jason Vicks of Baltimore launched a campaign for his uncle Dewey Bratcher and Dewey’s wife, Anabel, who lost their Jamul home and all five of their cats in the blaze. The couple, along with Anabel’s mother, Lupe, who lives with them, weren’t home when the fire swept through on Saturday.
Bratcher is a 22-year Navy veteran, a stand-up comedian, high school baseball umpire, father of three and a new grandfather. Anabel has worked for Kaiser Permanente for 35 years. The loss of their home came just a few weeks after they lost their oldest child, Adan, to cancer.
In a Facebook post on Sunday, Bratcher wrote that he was trying to not be embarrassed about the GoFundMe campaign and teaching himself to just “embrace good things.” And when the the fund was already nearing its goal on Wednesday, he posted a note thanking the public for its generosity.
“There are no words. There are none in the entirety of the English language that can express our gratitude for what each of you are doing or have done,” Bratcher wrote. “Please know that what you have done will resonate for a long time and, like the clanging of a bell or the tossing of a stone into a lake, the ripple effect will go on and on and on.”
The campaign was created to raise money for the supplies the Bratchers will need to start over, such as clothing, linens, cookware, furniture and a new place to live while their home is rebuilt.
As of Friday morning, 865 donors had contributed $65,098 toward a $70,000 goal.
On Tuesday, Robert Anderson launched a campaign for his friend Jesus Mendoza, a 42-year-old tree-trimmer who lost his home, truck, car and all of the equipment he uses for his gardening business.
Mendoza lived in a motor home on a widow’s property in Alpine, where he also stored all of his tree-trimming equipment. When the fire began Saturday afternoon, Anderson said he and another friend rushed to help Mendoza evacuate. But Anderson said that when they arrived at the property, Mendoza wanted them to focus their efforts instead on helping the widow pack up her valuables, her dog and her chickens.
By the time she left, the fire was just over the hill and fire crews were already staging on the property to save the house. Mendoza didn’t have time to collect any of his gear before he was forced to leave. Although the property owner’s home was saved, everything Mendoza owned was lost. Anderson decided to launch the campaign without initially telling Mendoza because he said his friend isn’t the type to think of himself. But Anderson said Mendoza deserves support from the community.
“He is a very honorable person and will give the shirt off his back to help anyone out there,” Anderson said.
As of Friday morning, 71 donors had contributed $6,850 toward Anderson’s $10,000 goal.
Not long before the Valley fire swept through her property, Shelley Brown had signed the purchase agreement for the house on Lawson Valley Road where she’d lived for seven years. She had also just adopted five rescue horses.
The fire came over the hill to her land so quickly Saturday afternoon that the only thing Brown had time to do to save her horses was open up their stalls and let them run free. Everything else that she owned, including all the stored product inventory for her online sales business, went up in smoke, according to her close friend Shannon Clark.
“The only thing she salvaged was her son’s baby book and her ex-husband’s baby book,” Clark said.
Over the weekend, Brown was able to round up her horses and take them back to her property, where she has been staying with them ever since, sleeping in her car. The property has no electricity or running water. A Gofundme campaign launched Monday by Clark’s daughter, Sierra Noriega, is raising money for the supplies Brown and her horses will need to survive on the land, including a gas-run generator, a water pump for the well, water hoses for the horse pens and basic living necessities.
“She’s a really simple person. She doesn’t ask for much. But Shelley’s animals are her life,” Clark said. “At this point, she doesn’t know what she’ll do.”
As of Friday morning, 11 donors had contributed $402 toward the fund’s $7,000 goal.
Two campaigns have been started on behalf of Irving and Anita Beeman, who lost their Jamul home in the fire. The couple were able to grab some mementos, clothes, a car and trailer before fleeing the flames, but everything else was lost, according to their friend Kari Coronado. They are now staying with a friend, but donations are being collected to help the Beemans rent a place to live until they can rebuild.
As of Friday morning, 91 donors to the Beemans’ “fire fund” campaign had raised $7,895 of a $25,000 goal. And a “lost home” campaign had raised $6,450 from 39 donors toward a $10,000 goal by Friday.
Mandy Sullivan launched a campaign on Monday on behalf of her grandmother Eileen Menzies, 78, who lost her Jamul ranch, all of her possessions and several of her animals in the fire.
In an interview on 10News, Menzies said wildfires had come within half a mile of her home before, but she had a feeling this one was going to be the one that would “take me out.” As her son, Pat, drove her away from her home of 17 years with her four dogs, Menzies told 10News she didn’t see any firefighters or water-dropping helicopters between the flames and her home, so she knew her home was doomed.
When she returned the next day, her worst fears were realized. Some of her outdoor animal pens remained intact, but some of the animals they housed succumbed to the smoke and flames, including goats, peacocks and a turkey. Fortunately, Menzies’ home was insured and she will rebuild, but the loss of her pets and possessions has left her devastated.
“You constantly turn into new chapters of your life. At 78, you start over,” she said.
As of Friday morning, 125 donors had contributed $10,895 toward a $15,000 goal.
On Sunday, Donna Jones launched a fundraiser for her friend Kimberlee Leslie, a single mother of two who lost her Jamul home and all its contents. Leslie could not be reached for comment, but one donor mentioned being moved to give to the campaign because Leslie is a generous person who had donated her artwork to fundraisers for others.
As of Friday morning, 90 donors had contributed $10,406 toward a $30,000 goal.
How to help California wildfire victims and others
Because of the high volume of GoFundMe accounts launched in the last two weeks for California wildfire victims, the company has created a central hub for verified individual accounts. The company has also launched a charitable campaign of its own for fire victims in California, Oregon Washington and Colorado.
Kragen writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.
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