What started out as a North Bay effort to coordinate rebuilding after the devastating 2017 wildfires has turned into a national effort to take lessons learned locally to help burned communities elsewhere quickly organize in the aftermath.
In recent months, Rebuild NorthBay Foundation has become After the Fire USA.
But the transition has been underway for the past few years as megafires have raged across the West, according to Jennifer Gray Thompson, CEO.
“Our name makes a lot more sense,” she said. “We worked with the county (of Sonoma) on COVID response. We do more than build houses.”
That expansion started in 2018 with helping Paradise and Malibu organize after the Camp and Woolsey fires, respectively. Then the group was called in to help after blazes local and distant in 2019 and 2020, from Santa Cruz into southern Oregon. And last year, help was sought for Greenville in California’s Plumas County after the nearly 1 million-acre Dixie Fire in November near Paradise.
“There are a thousand Greenvilles and a thousand Paradises in the American West,” Thompson said. “There is a huge need out there for convening hubs for long-term recovery. What usually happens in a disaster is that a small group stands up to help and then stands down after three years. With megafires, we can get people across a line much faster if we share lessons.”
That’s why the organization focuses on coaching local leaders and doesn’t get involved directly with individual property owners. One frequent partner in its community responses is United Policyholders, a San Francisco-based group that helps homeowners navigate insurance claims after disasters.
“We don’t do insurance at all,” Thompson said.
Since insurance is a big part of any recovery, drawing on United Policyholders’ experience is a good match with After the Fire’s efforts, she said.
The coronavirus pandemic was partly responsible for the Sonoma County-based effort’s transformation into an organization with a growing staff and an increasing toolkit of online resources for far-flung, hard-hit communities, Thompson said.
“With COVID, we were deciding whether we should ramp down or up,” Thompson said about discussions she, the main employee as of early 2020, had with the organization’s board of directors, which includes former Kaiser Permanente Marin-Sonoma executive Judy Coffey and Napa Valley vintner Michael Mondavi.
In the past year, the group has recruited veterans of local organizing efforts to its staff.
A key hire is Pamela Van Halsema, once president of Coffey Strong, which formed after the Tubbs Fire in 2017 to help residents of Coffey Park neighborhood in Santa Rosa. She came to After the Fire to ramp up its online presence and now is director of community and digital programs. The group got permission from Coffey Strong to trademark recovery-effort organizational terms such as “block captain” and “zone captain,” to prevent what Thompson said have been attempts by some companies to profit from trauma. That’s why the organization doesn’t charge for its services to communities.
And three years after Thompson helped guide the creation of Rebuild Paradise Foundation, homeowner Charles Brooks late last year handed off leadership of the Paradise group as rebuilding there had accelerated to 25%. He started working with After the Fire on helping other communities and was set to come on to lead operations. But in early January following work with survivors of the Dixie Fire, which erupted to the east of Paradise, Brooks decided to quietly step back from the role, Thompson said.
Brooks told the Business Journal that seeing the plume of smoke from the Dixie Fire from his driveway and knowing fellow Paradise survivors who had moved to an area threatened by the new fire made him realize that he needed to heed advice he heard about taking care of himself after a disaster.
“If I can share anything with other people is to be very, very focused on that and setting time aside and being intentional about personal recovery,” Brooks said.
After the Fire USA now is gearing up for a trip next month to help local residents and officials in Boulder County, where Colorado’s costliest fire destroyed over 1,000 homes around the end of last year.
Previously, Thompson, board members and partner organizations had been the ones primarily hitting the road to visit California and Oregon communities for initial and follow-up help. Now the effort is taking flight via an agreement announced this month with Alaska Airlines, which flies to Western states out of Sonoma County airport. The arrangement includes a $25,000-a-year travel credit with the airline.
The board approved an expansion of the staff last year, and it now numbers seven, including contractors. The organization is looking to raise $2.5 million to cover three years of operating costs, Thompson said. That would allow the group to dedicate more staff to more communities, such as a request from Boulder County to dedicate one staff member half-time to get that effort kick-started.
“We’ve learned from our four years of experience that most communities are well on their way after three years, but we ask communities to then mentor other communities,” Thompson said. It’s what the group calls the Wildfire Resiliency Network.
That funding would also go toward at least three years’ use of a civil-engagement online platform called Social Pinpoint that community leaders and residents can use to see best practices used by burned communities across multiple states to rebuild, recover and build resiliency against future fires .
Until wildland-urban interfaces — where forests meet neighborhoods — are hardened and woodland fuel loads are brought into balance, communities in the West will likely need more help with recovery from megafires, Thompson said.
“We have a really rough decade ahead of us,” she said.
The organization has received a $4.9 million grant from the US Department of Agriculture to work with Cal Fire, Clear Lake Environmental Resource Center and resource conservation districts in Colusa, Mendocino, Napa, Solano, Lake and Yolo counties on land-management practices that help prevent forest fires.
Jeff Quackenbush covers wine, construction and real estate. Before the Business Journal, he wrote for Bay City News Service in San Francisco. He has a degree from Walla Walla University. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 707-521-4256.