UC Hastings Community Offers Legal Help to Wine Country Wildfire Victims

As other volunteers donated food and clothing to victims of the wildfires in California’s Wine Country, members of the UC Hastings community, like Little Fawn Boland ’05, Amy Bach ’89, 2L Trang Luong, and Jon Eisenberg ’79 were doing what they do best-providing legal aid.

On the Monday morning after the fires started, Little Fawn Boland ’05 received calls from two communities of Pomo Indians in Mendocino and Lake Counties. One group told her their reservation was on fire, and the other said that flames were at their doorstep. Boland, who owns a small Marin-based firm that represents Native American tribes, had worked with the Pomo Indians for years and began mobilizing to help.

Two days later, she drove down to the hard-hit community of Redwood Valley to provide counsel to disaster victims at a legal aid fair. She enlisted 16 volunteers to join her, including UC Hastings 2L Trang Luong; three UC Hastings alums were also on call to assist by phone. Boland and Luong helped people understand insurance policy coverage, file claims with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), start replacing lost records, and handle landlord-tenant issues.

“I just figured there were probably people there who are intimidated by the process and didn’t have access to computers or know how to navigate these things,” Boland said.

Luong’s efforts forced her to miss a class, but having to catch up on school work was worth the opportunity to help people and learn in the field. “I’d been reading stories in the news, and it was devastating. It bothered me not doing anything about it-I just wanted to do something for the families,” she said.

The nonprofit United Policyholders, cofounded and led by Amy Bach ’89, has also offered guidance in the heart of devastated communities. The 26 year-old national consumer advocacy group, which focuses on the insurance industry, mobilized volunteers to provide aid at local assistance centers in Santa Rosa and Napa. This week, the group is also holding the first in a series of “Roadmap to Recovery” workshops to educate residents about the insurance claims process.

“Insurance is one of the most important sources of recovery help for people, but history has shown that dollars don’t always flow the way they should,” Bach says. “Our role is to give people the straight scoop, help them be proactive, help them navigate the claims process, understand their legal rights, and come out as close to whole as they can.”

Bach says common challenges in the aftermath of disaster include people realizing they’re not fully insured, running up against fine print, and facing a claims process that is more adversarial than many expect. Bach has also shared her expertise widely in the media following the wildfires, including with The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and National Public Radio.

United Policyholders has hosted numerous UC Hastings students as interns, and alumnus Daniel Veroff ’13 sits on its board. Last week, Bach got a call from another UC Hastings alum that wanted to help: Jon Eisenberg ’79. An appellate attorney with Horvitz & Levy and adjunct professor at UC Hastings from 2001 to 2011, Eisenberg had personally experienced the devastation of watching his home burn in the Oakland Hills fire of 1991. When some friends texted him at 4:00 a.m. on October 9 about a “monstrous” fire, he was happy to welcome them and two of their neighbors at his Healdsburg home-along with two dogs, two birds and a cat. Wedged between the Tubbs and Pocket fires, Eisenberg was worried they’d all have to evacuate again, but his thankfully home was spared.

Drawing on his legal expertise and personal experience, Eisenberg helped his houseguests start figuring out the insurance process. This inspired him to put together a guide to help others get through the insurance maze while dealing with the emotional fallout of the wildfire disaster. The guide (available here) has been circulated on social media and will appear on United Policyholders’ website. Boland also used this guide at the Redwood Valley legal aid fair.

“I had gone through the process, and it had taken me weeks to puzzle through my insurance policy and understand what it meant and how I had to negotiate with my insurance company,” says Eisenberg. “I felt like I could help people who were in shock and suddenly had to do this stuff right away. Insurance policies are difficult to read in the best of circumstances.”