Lomakatsi Restoration Project


Fire Lessons Live On in Rural Oregon

After scorching fires swept from southern Oregon to the Willamette Valley to the coast just after Labor Day 2020, the Oregon Community Foundation got a call from then-Gov. Kate Brown. State and federal resources would help survivors rebuild, but it would take time for all of the dollars to arrive. And government aid would not be enough, nor sufficiently flexible, to match the immense need.

Meanwhile, individuals and organizations all over Oregon and the nation were eager to help. But no single entity existed that could pool donations and direct them in a strategic way to support fire-stricken communities statewide over the long term and respond effectively to the local nonprofits seeking relief for their neighbors, and in most cases, themselves.

With much of rural Oregon still burning, the Governor asked, would OCF partner with other major foundations to form a new collaborative effort that could step into the gap?

With that, the Community Rebuilding Fund was born. Like the 2020 Fires, the state had never seen anything like it.

A collaboration between OCF, The Ford Family Foundation, Meyer Memorial Trust and the American Red Cross, the fund was housed at OCF and ultimately raised $10.8 million from individuals, corporations and foundations for community-led efforts to make fire-devastated areas stronger over the long term and more resilient to disasters. OCF donors stepped up to give generously.

Now, all dollars raised have been dispersed into communities. Yet, the fund’s impact lives on: In local nonprofits more equipped to help their neighbors. In funders that act faster and work together more effectively to help communities after disasters.

And the impact lives on in dozens of places like Chiloquin, a tiny town of fewer than 800 residents in Klamath County, south of Crater Lake National Park, where local leader Cathy Stuhr described the impact of Community Rebuilding Fund grants and the donors who made them possible:

"Finally, a small, Tribal, disadvantaged, historically underserved community feels like somebody cares. And that it's our turn. Like there are people who recognize our situation and will provide assistance, so that people in our community can take that support and move forward and do something on a bigger scale for the community. That’s the really heartfelt impact that runs through this: Gosh, somebody sees us. Somebody cares.”

Community-led grantmaking

By the spring after the fires, Community Rebuilding Fund grants were flowing into Glide, in Douglas County, and Otis, near Lincoln City on the coast, where they enabled local nonprofits to add staff and resources so they could better help their neighbors.

Over the next two years, a grantmaking process designed and advised by residents of fire-impacted areas went to 120 grants to communities in ten counties for services that benefited survivors immediately; projects to prepare communities for future disasters; and efforts to address systemic inequities that the fires magnified and made worse.

When disaster strikes, coordination, collaboration and leverage are key to success. Oregon Community Foundation rose to the occasion with the 2020 Wildfires by bringing the right people at the right time with great response. The reality of disaster is the community-based organizations respond and need money to do that. Southern Oregon is more resilient - and continues this work - because of OCF and the Community Rebuilding Fund's efforts!

Dee Anne Everson, Oregon Community Foundation Board Member and Executive Director of the United Way of Jackson County

In Medford, La Clinica used grant funds to train community health workers and embed them in health centers, local schools and outreach teams to support Latino/x adults and children, including many farmworker families, reeling from fires that had ravaged Jackson County.

In the McKenzie River Valley east of Eugene, where fires had ripped through a string of small rural communities, grant funds helped build a new childcare center to serve primarily low-income families – a crucial ingredient for their recovery and long-term resilience.

Investing in the helpers

Crucially, Community Rebuilding Fund grants created or bolstered long-term recovery groups that became essential direct service providers and conduits for state and federal disaster aid.

McKenzie Valley Long Term Recovery Group

Yet immediately after the fires and for many months after, “federal dollars weren't there, state dollars weren’t there, to support those groups. It was essentially philanthropic dollars that got them up and running,” says Max Gimbel, director of rural community building at The Ford Family Foundation.

Grants from the Community Rebuilding Fund enabled the groups to serve 2020 survivors and later, to assist their communities more effectively after subsequent fires, says Kristin Kelley Monahan, whose firm, Kelley Nonprofit Consulting, was contracted to manage the fund.

“The Community Rebuilding Fund invested in that capacity. What we got back from those organizations in terms of knowledge and human capital – it was such a high return on that investment,” Monahan says. “Because they had staff members who had already experienced this and were set up to do this work, they could spring right into action.”

"That’s one of the biggest things that (the fund) has been able to do: To provide real capacity that stays in communities, that can help people who have been through traumatic events,” Gimbel says. “Now instead of waiting nine months to get access to resources, they can receive them in nine hours.”

Water for the flames

Rural communities have used Community Rebuilding Fund grants not only to recover and rebuild, but also to fend off future fires.

On Sept. 7, 2020, in the first six hours of the 242 Fire in Klamath County, Chiloquin Fire and Rescue was the area’s primary defense against a conflagration that would eventually burn 14,800 acres around Chiloquin and in the Fremont-Winema National Forest.

Fire Chief Mike Cook, seven career firefighters and 32 volunteer firefighters – whose own homes and families were also threatened by the fires – led the evacuation of nearly 1,000 households and raced to contain a wind-driven blaze that bore down on homes, campgrounds, and important hunting and gathering grounds for the Klamath Tribes.

Lacking sufficient water in the area, firefighters were forced to drive to Chiloquin and back 16 miles roundtrip to refill their trucks from city hydrants.

The 242 Fire destroyed 50 structures, including eight homes and part of a state-owned fish hatchery, as well as many natural places sacred to the Tribes. Still, the fire district’s efforts, soon fortified by firefighters from around Klamath County and the state, saved 1,532 homes and hundreds of lives.

Today, a new 36,000-gallon water storage tank, paid for by the Community Rebuilding Fund, helps Cook’s crew protect 1,000 square miles of northeast Klamath County, including “a large amount of the Fremont-Winema National Forest, as well as numerous homes between Chiloquin and the community of Sprague,” Cook says.

Oregon Department of Forestry and U.S. Forest Service crews also use the tank to squelch brush and lightning strike fires in the forest, no longer needing to drive into Chiloquin to refill their vehicles.

“It's a huge benefit for not just Chiloquin Fire and Rescue, but also for numerous fire departments in central Klamath County,” Cook says.

The Community Rebuilding Fund also allowed this district to purchase a new wildland fire engine for the district; helped staff an emergency manager position for the Klamath Tribes in 2022; and enabled Chiloquin Visions in Progress (CVIP), a nonprofit, to conduct a community wildfire survey.

Data from that survey, and the momentum that local leaders gained from Community Rebuilding Fund support, has since helped Chiloquin pursue other, potentially transformative grants – including the city’s current application to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for up to $20 million to build a community resilience hub, Stuhr says.

“Everything we did with the Community Rebuilding Fund money brought together the fire chief, the city, Oregon Department of Forestry, Klamath Watershed Partnership – all these people who can help make things happen, and who can take that ability to work together and leverage that into other activities” that strengthen the community, Stuhr says.

Readier for next time

Key to its impact was the Community Rebuilding Fund’s ability to move quickly compared to government programs; to provide dollars to local organizations for staff and operational expenses that disaster aid typically won’t cover; and to deliver sustained, community-informed support over months and years, evolving with rural communities as their needs changed.

Those principles live on in the Oregon Disaster Funder Network. This collaboration was initiated by The Ford Family Foundation and the Roundhouse Foundation and now includes OCF and 36 other funders. They continue to work together since the 2020 fires, activating three to seven times a year since.

After a fire, flood, ice storm or other calamity, Monahan and her staff, who run the network, reach out to their contacts in affected communities, rather than expecting people in the middle of a crisis to find and apply for grants. Their needs are then synthesized and shared across the network.


“As funders, we work diligently to not add unnecessary burdens to communities seeking support, especially when they are in crisis. We are now able to distribute resources to meet community needs within two or three days after a disaster,” Gimbel says.

Another lasting legacy of the Community Rebuilding Fund is OCF’s new Oregon Disaster Relief and Recovery Fund. It has made rapid response grants for shelter, food, supplies and staff costs for local organizations in communities affected by, among other events, the Cedar Creek Fire in Lane County (2022), the Golden Fire in Klamath County (2023) and flooding and ice storms in Tillamook County (2024).

The 2020 Fires were “hopefully a once in a lifetime event. But we’re realizing that every year, something's going to happen that's going to overwhelm a community,” says Carlos Garcia, OCF senior program officer for environment.

“There’s always going to be a need for some quick-acting dollars from philanthropy that can move at a much swifter pace than the larger public dollars can,” Garcia says. “And it's better that we acknowledge that and plan for it.”

Helping Oregon communities weather disasters: what you can do