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Meet the Woman Behind Sonoma’s Volunteer Fire Foundation

Jacqui Jorgeson founded the Volunteer Fire Foundation following the Kincade fire. The nonprofit provides financial, wellness, and mental-health support to firefighters.

Jacqui Jorgeson has always walked an unconventional path: Journalist, hula-hoop instructor, filmmaker.

When the Syrian refugee crisis broke out in 2016, she became the associate director of the Schoolbox Project, which provides mobile, ad hoc schools for displaced children.

In 2019, as the Kincade Fire erupted, Jorgeson was home in Santa Rosa with her husband, local climbing legend Kevin Jorgeson. She quickly redirected her attention toward a concern she had first explored during the Tubbs Fire: what could she do to help the firefighters risking their lives to save others?

Within months, she had formed the Volunteer Fire Foundation (volunteerfire.org), which today provides financial, wellness, and mental-health support for the hundreds of volunteer firefighters in Sonoma and neighboring counties. It is the only nonprofit of its kind in the nation.

Finding her way

I was raised to really follow my heart and do the work that I was passionate about. I remember getting career counseling in college because I had no idea what I wanted to do. The counselor put me through all these tests and questionnaires, and finally he threw up his hands and said, “Advocacy.” I was like, yep, that makes sense.

Jacqui Jorgeson is the founder of Volunteer Fire Foundation. (Laura Schneider)

A lifeline for volunteers

During the Tubbs Fire I called a family friend who’s a Cal Fire engineer, and I asked what the firefighters needed. He gave me the stock reply that they had trained for this and were fine. But then he added, “Hey, Jacqui, if you’re serious about helping firefighters, when the smoke clears after this thing is out, remember the volunteers, because all they have is a pancake breakfast a year to live on.”

Why they do it

They live in service. It’s what fills them up. It’s why they do all that they do for free, with no safety net if they fall. It’s why they wake up in the middle of the night or leave their kid’s championship softball game or their anniversary dinner to respond to calls. That’s what I hear again and again in conversations all over the county and beyond. But that being said, it’s as hard as you would imagine for them to carry on their work.

Paying it forward

The volunteer fire service is an absolutely critical feeder system into the paid fire service. And they carry the ethos of the volunteer firefighter with them, of neighbors helping neighbors, no matter how high up they go. Whether they’re just starting out at a local agency or they are now a battalion chief for Cal Fire, they never forget where they come from.

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