“’Emily, come and get me right now,’” said a friend of Emily Barany, late night, Dec. 4, 2017. Barany’s friend had called from downtown Ventura, where he lived across from City Hall. “’The Botanical Gardens are burning and I can’t get my car out of the gate.’”
Driving into Ventura as everyone else was in the process of evacuating, Barany collected her friend and took him to Camarillo. The following morning, Barany noticed that donations for those who had lost their homes overnight were beginning to be collected in Oxnard. Barany sprang into action.
With water and granola in hand, Barany arrived at the epicenter of donations in Oxnard, The Collection at River Park, only to be turned away.
“I was turned away because they had already been overwhelmed with donations,” said Barany.
Barany’s day job involves running business operations for nonprofits. As she drove away from The Collection, her professional experience came to mind. Soon, she would co-launch ThomasFireHelp.org, a network dedicated to organizing recovery and relief efforts so that they become more efficient, getting to where they need to be.
ThomasFireHelp.org launched in the days following the beginning of the Thomas Fire, when most of Ventura was still under mandatory evacuation orders and the skies were a rusty hue of orange. Barany met with Chris Collier, founder and president of Rincon Strategies, at his Camarillo offices to brainstorm.
It began with a Google spreadsheet. Barany and Collier created the document and began spreading it around social media, where it quickly became the “Craigslist for fires,” said Collier, where anyone with something to offer — be it a service, assistance or items to donate — could coalesce.
“Put what you have and what you can offer in the form and this is a quick place to figure out what people need,” said Collier.
As the document grew, with hundreds of users adding and interacting with the spreadsheet at a time, Collier said that they realized that they would need a brand to further organize the effort, which is when the pair registered ThomasFireHelp.org.
Collier was in Camarillo when the Thomas Fire broke out, but his family is mostly from Ojai. His one-bedroom apartment became a temporary shelter for his family who were displaced. Collier works as a political strategist and said that he is in tune with trends, adding that something such as ThomasFireHelp.org hadn’t been invented yet and that there was a very real need for this type of organization.
For example, hay.
“We became a kind of clearing house,” said Collier. “I got a Facebook message from a client of mine’s industry association, saying, ‘Hey, we need hay,’ and two hours later, unrelated, I get that [Facebook] ping from someone in a legislative office saying, ‘I’ve got this hay. How do we get it where we need to go?’”
Using the database and resources that had come together under ThomasFireHelp.org, the hay was picked up and delivered.
During the Montecito mudslide event that followed the Thomas Fire, ThomasFireHelp.org created the Montecito Airlift, a volunteer airline of 64 pilots who flew 117 patients to appointments who were left without the ability to go on their own.
Barany said that one of the lessons learned during the operation was that social media isn’t the best tool for organization and that Facebook is a “bad database.”
“We learned early on that everybody wants to help in the community, but that organizations historically do not do a great job of harnessing that power,” said Barany. “They want to do something but don’t know what to do, so they come up with something to do which is not necessarily helpful.”
Both Barany and Collier point to Facebook’s algorithm as being unhelpful during the course of an event. Because of the way the timeline is organized, those who want to help could end up in an “echo chamber,” said Collier, as actual information gets lost.
Barany notes that in a recovery effort, the “disaster after the disaster” is what is known as receiving too much in the way of donations without the ability to distribute it to those who need it. To solve the issue, Barany points out one particular unilateral decision made by all of the nonprofits working with ThomasFireHelp.org early on: to not accept used items, and instead, create partnerships with thrift stores. All used items were donated in exchange for gift cards, which were then given to those who needed them to go shopping.
With the passing of the Thomas Fire, ThomasFireHelp.org became 805help.org, and Collier returned to his day job in order to prepare for the November elections. The modules created during the Thomas Fire, however, remained, readily available for response to the Hill and Woolsey fires as well as the Borderline shooting.
“With Thomas, we were building it day by day,” said Barany, adding that she hopes to use the network as a proof of concept for an online platform and phone app that revolutionizes the way communities respond and recover from disasters based on the 805help.org platform. “Now, we’re just improving it day by day, which is a pretty cool opportunity.”
For more information on 805help, visit www.805help.org.