How Californians came together to deal with wildfires during the pandemic

How Californians came together to deal with wildfires during the pandemic
The Carr Fire is a 2018 California wildfire that burned in Shasta and Trinity counties.// Photo by Eric Coulter, BLM

It was no fluke that the entire western U.S. was choked by wildfires and blanketed by smoke this past summer. The global climate disaster promises worsening fires, floods, droughts, storms and other natural disasters. The rate of these disasters has doubled over the last 20 years, and this rapid increase is caused by humans, according to the top climate researchers around the world. On October 12, the United Nations warned that the Earth will become "an uninhabitable hell" for millions of people if world leaders continue to fail to take drastic actions necessary to curb the climate crisis.

In a report released in 2020, the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction calculated that at least 7,348 major disasters had occurred between 2000 and 2019. The report, titled "Human Cost of Disasters: An Overview of the Last 20 Years," estimates that these disasters cost 1.23 million people their lives, impacted 4.2 billion people, and cost about $2.97 trillion in "economic losses worldwide."

In an effort to mitigate increasing climate impacts, many cities in the U.S. are implementing climate emergency preparedness plans. And at a micro-level, individuals around the nation are working to mobilize their neighborhoods to prepare for increasing climate impacts. In the surf-meets-redwoods city of Santa Cruz, California, about 70 miles south of San Francisco, a coalition of neighbors came together mid-pandemic to mitigate the potential impacts of foreboding disasters. The neighbors were prompted by the efforts of one woman, Nora Shalen*, a small business owner who became increasingly concerned by the research reports coming out about climate change. Her neighborhood formed an emergency preparedness network to offer mutual aid and a plan for resiliency when faced with increasing challenges in the future.

As it happened, the network was formed just in time, before the devastation struck the Santa Cruz region. While much of the West Coast has experienced historic wildfire impacts this year, the blaze in Santa Cruz, dubbed the C.Z.U. Lightning Complex fires, caused some of the worst damage to date. As James Ross Gardner wrote in a September 28 New Yorker article, "of the more than seven thousand five hundred structures damaged or destroyed by California wildfires so far this year, C.Z.U. burned a fifth of them."

And, Gardner further reports, "Climate change undoubtedly played a role, scientists affirm. The fires this summer resulted from a confluence of factors, including a severe drought that California began experiencing in 2012 and this year's unprecedented heat waves, in August and early September, Lenya Quinn-Davidson, a University of California wildfire expert, said, adding that, together, these factors produced 'a condition in California where our fuels are basically drier than they've ever been. … Then we get this slightly unprecedented lightning storm' with thousands of strikes 'within thirty-six hours.'"

In Santa Cruz, the smoke grew so thick over the city that daytime passed for night. Residents were ordered to evacuate amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, and local aid workers and volunteers rushed to piece together emergency shelters that would allow for social distancing.

Shalen, a Santa Cruz resident of 17 years, recalls having to turn on the headlights of her car to see in the middle of the afternoon. She says having the emergency resilience group helped the neighborhood to navigate weeks on end of unbreathable air, darkness and encroaching fires.

"One piece of feedback people kept giving me was that before we started doing this they were feeling really anxious and alone about the pandemic, about what's happening in the country," she says. "They realized once they started participating [in the emergency preparedness effort] that they were feeling a sense of well-being, feeling connected, feeling empowered."

How to Start

While Shalen had no community organizing experience and wasn't sure how the idea would be met by her neighbors—many of whom she had never spoken with before—she decided to take action. She began by distributing flyers in the neighborhood and inviting people interested in the project to email her. She says it's important to note that she, along with her husband, framed the initial outreach as an invitation to people to enter into a mutual aid agreement and bring their best selves to the project.

"All this happened organically, as people just wanted to find a sense of purpose," Shalen says. "I didn't really know these people and it was a lot to ask of strangers, so my husband and I wrote this email introducing the idea of mutual aid. This turned out to be very important, it's what distinguishes what we're doing from other neighborhoods," she says. "We explained that mutual aid is based on an ethic of mutuality, care and resourcefulness, and attending to the most vulnerable. I really wanted to start off with a certain mindset rather than saying, 'This is scary.' It was about introducing the idea with an expectation of agency and capability in the face of disruption."

In the email, she linked to an article predicting that the 2020 fire season would be worse than the previous year and explained that because the pandemic was already impacting the city and county emergency budgets, in a widespread emergency, those emergency services were likely to be overwhelmed and residents faced the possibility of having to be their own first responders.

"I mentioned [in the email] that if we approach these preparedness exercises [prior to an emergency], we will make a giant leap in our ability to respond or to have a resilient outcome; and if we choose to go it alone, we will all be weakened," she says. "If [we recognize] that we are each other's immune system, and we prepare, it will strengthen each of us individually and make us all more resilient. I also said that if we have a clear plan, it helps our chances of being able to think clearly and calmly as a group."

Then, a small coalition of interested neighbors began to hold meetings online, then in socially distanced ways outside. The group quickly grew into a structured one, with each person working together to come up with a plan to tackle any given emergency and assist neighbors in need. While not every household was interested or able to participate, those involved took stock of what resources and skills they collectively had to offer by filling out shared Google Document questionnaires. They shared specifics about their professional skills, adjunct skills, medications and/or special needs during a given emergency. The group discovered that the few blocks of residents who had responded to the survey had all the requisite qualifications needed to form an emergency preparedness team: they ranged from doctors, nurses and EMT workers willing to become emergency medics, to mental health professionals, firefighters and many others who offered a range of additional skills. From there on, they began to form teams based on specific skill sets.

In an initial Zoom call, they reviewed their basic emergency prep plan, agreed on an emergency meeting place, and one family offered their home as a care shelter for seniors and/or families with small children that might be vulnerable during a disaster. Another person offered their home as a place for anyone experiencing emotional or physical trauma.

"If you can have some basic clarity, [decide on] practical steps and roles, it makes a big difference," Shalen says. "We all know where to meet and have a place where we can go if we're injured. If you're elderly, you have a place to go where you will not be alone and there will be someone to help you."

Among the group's many Google Documents is a personal preparation sheet, which includes a checklist of items to include in an emergency grab-and-go bag, how to prepare for fires or an earthquake, how to prepare for a three-day emergency or a month-long emergency, and so on.

Shalen says that because the Santa Cruz neighbors prepared themselves for a number of potentially dangerous scenarios—from earthquakes to water shortages—prior to the fires, the group was able to mitigate feelings of panic or helplessness when the fires hit. Her hope is that their neighborhood collaboration can serve as a replicable model for how any community in any part of the country might become better prepared.

Mapping the Neighborhood

One of the resources the Santa Cruz group used is a program offered by the Emergency Management Division of the state of Washington called Map Your Neighborhood (MYN). This program offers step-by-step guidance to improve emergency preparedness in small neighborhood communities. According to the MYN website, the idea is "to improve disaster readiness at the neighborhood level, 15-20 homes or a defined area that you can canvas in 1 hour."

The group also looked to Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) programs, and two members completed an online CERT training through the University of Utah, followed by a COVID-compliant in-person CERT training in Santa Cruz.

Richard Roullard, one of the members who completed the training, says CERT has been a key resource. "Much of what we were trying to create [in our neighborhood] already exists," he says.

Once the group had formed and agreed to participate, Shalen sent each member a bright yellow folder including the MYN program's nine crucial steps to take immediately following a disaster. The folders also included an emergency contact list the neighbors had filled out online and a map of the street, as well as a laminated sign to indicate whether anyone needed assistance with one side reading "HELP" and the opposite side that said "OKAY," which the MYN program recommends placing on the front door or in a window visible from the street during an emergency.

The neighbors also masked up to meet in person and walk around the neighborhood, physically mapping out the locations of potentially dangerous utilities, like gas and water mains, electrical lines, etc., in their surrounding blocks, as recommended by MYN.

"We all put on our masks, and we brought our folders, we showed up at our meeting place and then we went from house to house and carefully marked and took note of where the gas and water turn-offs were," Shalen says. "What was really amazing is that everybody had a blast. People were talking to each other, everybody was getting to know each other. And in the end, we put a portable speaker at the center of the street and we had a little dance party and raffle to celebrate."

Next, the group formed action teams within the larger group.

"Everybody was so energized by the in-person MYN event that during the next Zoom call we started thinking about our different skill sets," she adds. "It turns out, we have two retired surgical nurses, a firefighter and a paramedic [along the street]. There are several neighbors with wilderness survival skills training… We have people who know CPR or have emergency first responder training."

The group created an emergency medical responders' team, an emergency radio communications team, and a team dedicated to going door-to-door to check on seniors, differently abled individuals, or those with little kids. Several neighbors with professional water resources expertise became dedicated to a water resilience information team. One member created a Google Drive folder dedicated to water, which includes a dynamic FAQ where neighbors can post questions for the member to respond to.

Another group, made up of trauma survivors and mental health experts, formed as an emotional resilience team dedicated to helping those experiencing a fight-flight-freeze trauma response or other mental health impacts during a given emergency. Shalen, who joined the emotional resilience team, says it's been critical to offer this kind of support throughout the fires and pandemic.

"The emotional resilience team is what distinguishes our group from other neighborhood disaster approaches that focus on known impacts of natural disasters and are often motivated by fear," Shalen says. "Our approach is more proactive. The emotional resilience team has emotional first aid tools for emergencies, but we also have practices for strengthening trauma resilience in advance of an emergency. My hope is that this will create the conditions for our street being an island of sanity and stability as things unravel in unpredictable ways following the election."

Plan in Action

Not long after the emotional resilience group was formed, the skies darkened, the air outside became unhealthy to breathe and emergency evacuation orders began to take effect as the wildfires began to threaten Santa Cruz. While Shalen's neighborhood is located closer to the ocean, and most of the fire devastation happened up in the forested hills, she says she and her neighbors were aware of the fires that had spread to destroy entire towns in Northern California recently so they were on alert. She adds that rather than panicking or adopting an "every house for themselves" attitude, Shalen's neighborhood put their plans into place.

"It was really good that we had a system in place," she says. "We all had roles. We had clarity about a lot of things, and mostly we had the trust and communication, and that was what we relied on the most."

The team assigned to check on neighbors who were elderly and/or differently abled began to go door-to-door every day. Neighbors stayed in communication and took advantage of the support system.

"We knew who the vulnerable people were," Shalen says. "We went to their doors and asked 'Are you doing okay? Can we do anything for you? Do you have any concerns?' A lot of the seniors really just wanted to talk because they felt alone, [since] they don't go online as often or stay in constant communication in the same way."

Since the fires, more neighbors have joined the resilience group.

"We had a resilient response and it actually made us feel closer," she says. "What's really nice is I now have some very good friends on the street, which was kind of a happy accident… it's been deepening the trust among us, and there's a lot of appreciation. All of us are so glad we had this in place."

She adds that looking toward the future, with the election and the uncertainty that lies ahead, she is especially glad the resiliency group is in place.

"I'm glad we started with the mindset of collaboration, care for the vulnerable, and coming to it with our best self and a sense of inner resourcefulness and agency," she says. "I think what lies ahead is going to come down to your capacity for self-regulation. And I think we really do need each other. Even if it's just a few neighbors, our capacity to endure what lies ahead will be much more enhanced if we have a foundational mindset that we are in this together. It creates a better chance of group and individual emotional resilience. It helps our capacity to remain clear, calm, connected, flexible, compassionate and collaborative. It ensures a much more resilient response to whatever comes at us—whether it's social unrest or even violence, or overlapping things that we can't anticipate."

*Name has been changed to protect their identity.

April M. Short is an editor, journalist and documentary editor and producer. She is a writing fellow at Local Peace Economy, a project of the Independent Media Institute. Previously, she served as a managing editor at AlterNet as well as an award-winning senior staff writer for Santa Cruz, California's weekly newspaper. Her work has been published with the San Francisco Chronicle, In These Times, Salon and many others.

This article was produced by Local Peace Economy, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

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