Learn about the empowering and effective model of community organizing around wildfire resilience coming out of Sonoma County after the 2017 Sonoma Fires. Credit: James Gore, Sonoma County

Block Captains: Community Leaders Emerge in the Wake of the 2017 Sonoma Fires

By: James Gore, Sonoma County

Topic: Communications / Outreach Resilience Wildfire recovery

Type: Success Story / Lessons Learned

We still talk about “Saturday’s problems” in Sonoma County. Saturday’s problems are the pile of two-by-fours in your backyard for that deck project, or the housewarming gifts you received last week and need to go through, or that pesky squirrel at the bird feeder again. Then came Sunday, October 9, 2017; Saturday’s problems were suddenly a distant memory.

A massive wind storm started more than 120 fires throughout the northern San Francisco Bay Area, scouring the hills between Sonoma and Napa counties before one of those, the Tubbs Fire, was racing into downtown Santa Rosa, home to 175,000 people. In the days and nights to follow, 24 lives were lost, 5,300 homes burned down and the lives of hundreds of thousands were changed forever.

Emergency services were saturated with calls and the fire was moving so rapidly that many were awoken by their neighbors knocking on their doors.

Over the next several days, I brought as much information to my constituents as possible, leveraging the reach of social media as well as press conferences, and traditional media such as print, radio and television.

I reached out to local fire chiefs and held impromptu Facebook Live video updates with topics ranging from where dozer lines had been cut, where the fire was held overnight, and wind forecasts.

We also held massive town hall meetings with hundreds of fire survivors and evacuees, all of them wanting more information: When can we go back home? Where can we find a rental in Sonoma County’s already severely stressed housing market? Where can our kids go to school? These large-scale meetings were necessary in those early days, while the fires were still burning and people needed to be reassured that leaders were stepping up.

Birth of the Block Captains

I worried, though, that the messaging was taking too long to make it out of government silos, with too much emphasis on fine-tuning press releases and too little on getting out into the community and delivering the much-needed, timely updates. At a chaotic town hall meeting in November, I brought out some maps of the region and asked community members to delineate areas defined by geographic and communal features. Within each of those areas, I asked them to pick “block captains,” i.e., representatives who would meet with me weekly and report back to their neighbors.

We held our first meeting in late November in a restaurant. We staffed and organized the meetings, but really, all these local leaders needed was a basic foundation to organize and the concept just took off. At every meeting, we brought in speakers who could address the issues that their neighbors were facing: FEMA officials came in and talked about debris removal; county public works gave updates on road closures and the removal of burned trees; utilities talked about re-establishing services; the police heard out fire survivors who had construction materials stolen from their rebuild lots and in turn rearranged patrols; and mental health professionals talked about coping with trauma.

We covered the gamut of response and recovery topics and partnered with dozens of government agencies and nonprofits. Community-based organizations were critical to the effort, as they brought in grant funding, legal assistance and help navigating insurance, which had become a major obstacle to recovery.

It’s been a source of great inspiration to me that these community leaders have built so many connections out into the community. Several of our block captains’ neighbor groups marked the anniversary of the Tubbs Fire with block parties and celebrations of their resilience.

Building Resilience

Even as we put so much effort into recovering from the disaster that had just struck our community, we needed to build resilience into the future at the same time. Groups of neighbors in areas that hadn’t burned are already self-organizing with a focus on disaster preparedness, and my office threw itself into working with them too.

Now, we have a dozen so-called Communities Organizing to Prepare for Emergencies (COPE) groups, which are developing Community Wildfire Protection Plans, taking inventory of their neighbors and neighborhoods, coordinating evacuation routes and actively planning to be more prepared in the face of the next disaster.

There’s still a lot of work to do to recover from the 2017 fires, but we’ve made a lot of progress. More than 3,000 of the homes that burned down are in the process of rebuilding. And our block captains continue to be a huge source of motivation for me. In early May, a group of them drove up to Paradise to offer advice and share lessons learned with that community.

They’ve become a force multiplier that applies pressure on local and state government to implement change, and they’re actively making our community stronger and more resilient.

James Gore is the supervisor of the 4th District in Sonoma County, California. A passionate public servant and sixth generation Californian, James is driven toward building a vibrant and resilient future for his community, his neighbors and his family.

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