From Devastation to Confusion: Fire Victims, Volunteers Question Red Cross’ Response to Wildfires

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On Sept. 9, the Butte Fire sparks and spreads fast.

Three days later, the Valley Fire quickly tears through hundreds of homes.

In all, thousands of families lost everything. Desperate for help, many turn to the Red Cross, the relief organization that's been responding to disasters for decades.

The shelters go up, help pours in, but so do the complaints.

"I got a Band-Aid from 'em. Got a cot from 'em," said Valley Fire Victim Danielle Fletcher. "Not tryin' to hate on 'em, but man they don't represent at all."

And from Butte Fire volunteers like Sherri Reusche.

"We're having people come that don't want to donate to the Red Cross because they're not sure where it goes," Reusche said.

In the immediate aftermath, victims hoped for more help and community members questioned where their donations were going.

Several weeks have passed and Viri Agapoff is still frustrated.

"It didn't seem like they had a procedure or even a clue on what to do," said Agapoff.

Days after the fire, she coordinated volunteers alongside the Red Cross at the Valley Fire Evacuation Center in Calistoga.

"As the piles got bigger, Red Cross started to turn people away," Agapoff said.

She stepped in after noticing the Red Cross was rejecting donations and volunteers.

Red Cross Director of Regional Communications and Marketing Lilly Wyatt says there's a reason outside help is turned away.

"We need to background check our volunteers, and we can’t manage donations. When people donate we need to make sure that they're clean. We need to have someone to sort those items and distribute them," Wyatt said.

And what about the money?

Wyatt insists 91 cents to every dollar given to the Red Cross goes to humanitarian services.

As of October, $2.5 million has been donated to the "California Wildfires Fund."

The Red Cross estimates it spent $5.5 million on fire relief for shelters, food and supplies for victims of the Valley, Butte and Rough Fires.

The organization grouped the three major disasters together. That caused confusion for some donors who emailed FOX40.

Wyatt says the problem is donors had to be specific. If not, their money was sent away from the fire fund and to generic "disaster relief."

"We actually made that recommendation on our social media and on our website to designate as California Wildfires," said Wyatt.

The Red Cross is consistently there to help people at their most vulnerable, however, the organization has frequently been the target of complaints following disasters.

This September, the U.S. Government Accountability Office released conclusions of a study recommending congress consider federal oversight of the Red Cross.

Wyatt could not comment specifically about the GAO's recommendation.

When asked why she believes the organization gets so much criticism she said, "Because I think it's easier to complain than to give praise. And were always going to receive these type of emails but the truth is we are transparent."

Despite the call for oversight and the questions from disaster victims, donors and volunteers, next time a disaster strikes, the Red Cross will be there.

"We're gonna be there for people that like us and people that don't like us," she said.

It's important to note that FOX40 partnered with the Red Cross in fundraising efforts to help victims of the Butte and Valley wildfires.

That campaign raised over $60,000. Half the money went to local food banks and the other half went to the Red Cross for fire recovery relief in the affected areas.

FOX40 brought these questions to the Red Cross after receiving inquiries from viewers about where their donations were going.