The Cambrian

What's a VOAD? A key part of Cambria disaster readiness

Bruce Fosdike, left, and Ron Alsop were the primary speakers at the forum.
Bruce Fosdike, left, and Ron Alsop were the primary speakers at the forum.

The North Coast needs a VOAD if the area to recover as quickly as possible from a future natural disaster. That was the consensus after a recent informational forum in Cambria.

What’s a VOAD? It’s the acronym for Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster. The Cambria area needs one because it’s very difficult to get federal and state assistance after a catastrophe.

According to the national group’s website at, a VOAD is “an association of organizations that mitigate and alleviate the impact of disasters.” A VOAD roundtable promotes “cooperation, communication, coordination and collaboration,” and “fosters more effective delivery of services to communities affected by disaster.”

North Coast residents and businesspeople have weathered natural disasters before — floods, fierce winter weather, windstorms, earthquakes, even wildfires in the neighborhood.

Most people handled the catastrophes with equanimity, determination, skill, lots of elbow grease and the help of some local and countywide governmental agencies that stand ready to step in whenever Mother Nature wreaks havoc.

According to details shared during the March 27 forum, recovery efforts by Cambria Fire Department, Cal Fire, Cambria Community Healthcare District, Cambria Community Services District, county Office of Emergency Services and various other county departments are enhanced by volunteers from Community Emergency Response Team, Cambria Anonymous Neighbors, American Red Cross, Cambria FireSafe Focus Group and the county FireSafe Council, members of churches and service clubs and many individuals who just want to help.

For that help to be most efficient, however, each entity needs to know, ahead of time, its role in the recovery — where to go, what to do and how — to be most effective.

Some already know, but others could use guidance and all need to be fully coordinated with one another and aware of what responsibilities are being handled by which agency, group or individual.

Dan Turner, business manager for the FireSafe Council, was in charge of 12 federally declared disasters during his 37 years in fire service.

“Managing a recovery is much bigger than managing the incident,” he said. “The emergency is an event. Recovery is the disaster.”

With mutual aid agreements and other cooperative arrangements, he said, “if there are resources available, they’ll get them to you … if they can get here.”

The forum

Ron Alsop is a 28-year veteran and manager of the county Office of Emergency Services. Bruce Fosdike is a retired Cal Fire training officer with disaster experience. They were the primary speakers at the forum cosponsored by the two FireSafe entities.

Fosdike compared Cambria to similar areas decimated by wildfire, such as Clearlake in Northern California, where he led a National Guard unit that was assisting in the recovery efforts.

“It took two-and-a-half weeks for these people to go ‘home’ again” after the fire, he said, and when the shell-shocked survivors did, “they didn’t know what to do. We had to give them a plan, because they didn’t have one.”

He said having governmental agencies, churches, businesses and volunteer groups preplan for a North Coast disaster would make recovery efforts more cohesive and effective.

Alsop commended North Coasters for “being as prepared as you already are,” and said emergency-response capabilities in the county have improved considerably since Cambria’s 1995 flood in West Village and the 2003 San Simeon Earthquake.

Shirley Bianchi, leader of the Focus Group, said after the forum, “I was thrilled to learn that there are now four helicopters available for medical or other emergencies if Cambria is cut off and isolated by a catastrophic situation” in which highways 1 and 46 are blocked.

Disaster assistance programs

Alsop explained that “federal and state disaster assistance is often very difficult to obtain after an emergency.” He added that county areas affected by large fires and storms in the past decade received limited or no federal assistance.

He explained the “extremely complex” process for getting a federal emergency declaration, and then told forum attendees that, in terms of federal funding, such a declaration only provides assistance to governmental agencies and, through Small Business Administration’s low-interest loans, to businesses.

“There is no state disaster recovery program for individuals,” he said. Alsop’s somber advice? “Do not count on state, federal or other governmental fiscal assistance to help with recovery from a fire or any other disaster.”

As one of his Power Point slides reiterated five times, residents and business owners must “buy and keep adequate insurance.”

Bob Putney, former Cambria fire chief, added the need to have “full replacement insurance.”

An April 1 story in the Santa Rosa Press Democrat said a recent survey showed that nearly 70 percent of October fire victims there believe they do not have enough insurance to rebuild their homes, with the gap between loss and policy ranging from tens of thousands of dollars to more than $1 million. Many of those homeowners likely “will sell their land, use what insurance funds they have to pay off their mortgages, if they can, and walk away.”

“Recovery lasts a long time,” Alsop said, adding that so far, only one building permit has been issued for reconstruction following the 2015 Chimney Fire between Lake Nacimiento and Hearst Castle.

He emphasized that in emergencies and disasters, “We’re all in this together.”

And the VOAD? Fosdike already has done some preliminary work toward establishing such a North Coast group. He and the FireSafe groups plan to ramp up those efforts soon.