Broom Buster Day along CA State Highway 175. Magdalena sitting front center in green vest. Photo: Maya Leonard.

Taking Responsibility for What is Precious to Us: A Day in the Life of Magdalena Valderrama

By: Magdalena Valderrama

Topic: Defensible space / Firewise Planning Preparedness Resilience Wildfire recovery

Type: Interview

Editor’s Note: This month FAC Net’s Michelle Medley-Daniel had the opportunity to touch base with a FAC Net Core member, the indomitable Magdalena Valderrama. Magdalena took the complete loss of her own home in the 2015 Valley Fire and converted that into founding a non-profit, Seigler Springs Community Redevelopment Association, that is working to help her entire community recover from and adapt to wildfire. SSCRA’s purpose as stated on their website “is to promote the most advanced methods of sustainable community development and community resilience, including whole-systems thinking and field theories in ecology, community organizing, sacred architecture, integral healing, intentional community and group process, that are at the core of the most advanced community development practices today.” Magdalena’s work and outlook on fire adaptation is incredibly inspiring and holistic so we hope you enjoy a Day in the Life of Magdalena!

Michelle: Tell us a little bit about yourself and your role in fire adaptation. What led you to begin working on fire adaptation issues?

Woman speaking on microphone holding papers

SSCRA Director, Magdalena Valderrama presiding over a panel discussion with the audience at a screening of the documentary, Wilder Than Wild.

Magdalena: Following the 2015 Valley Fire in Lake County, California, we began our nonprofit, Seigler Springs Community Redevelopment Association (SSCRA), to assist with relief and recovery efforts, and convene support groups and large neighborhood meetings. Having lost our own house in one of the hardest hit neighborhoods, we also inaugurated the development of a cooperative housing model to replace some of that housing. I convened the group of community leaders that led to the establishment of a municipal advisory council, giving the community its own voice in disaster recovery. Then in the process of looking for ways to further organize around wildfire readiness, I discovered an entire world, at first of fire prevention, and then FAC Net for fire adaptation.

Michelle: When people think about “community development” they might first think of projects in lower income neighborhoods or urban areas. How does your work expand those assumptions and what community development means to include fire adaptation work?

Magdalena: At its heart, community development is a process where people come together to take action on what’s important to them and become able to affect their own positions within the context of larger social institutions. Wildfire adaptation is something many are concerned about these days, or need to be concerned about. Applying the principles of asset-based community development, a strategy for the sustainable development of communities based on their strengths and potentials, as well as, working with a community development provider in your area can be very helpful in drawing on the community’s involvement. The FAC Net blog has featured a couple of articles from Jana Carp about this.

Group of people stand on a front porch with sign.

Jones Creek Crossing Firewise USA® sites residents joining together on National Wildfire Preparedness Day, May 2019. Photo: Cindy Leonard.

Michelle: Where might your job take you on a typical day?

Magdalena: Even with pandemic restrictions, there’s been no let up on my schedule. During this summer, I started my mornings with pre- or post-treatment evaluations for our homeowner grantees clearing their parcels of fire fuels. The other afternoon, I met in person with two residents who are interested in starting a Firewise USA® Site in their respective neighborhoods. After that I debriefed with a fellow Firewise USA® Site leader, Cindy Leonard, who is also one of the original members of the Cobb Area Council, on the status of our projects. Back at the office, I exchanged questions and answers via email and phone with the administrative liaison for the county’s Risk Reduction Authority, and a representative from the Scotts Valley Band of Pomo Indians needing support in a planning appeal against their biochar energy project.

Man in car, woman stands with Smokey the Bear, and a third woman hands the man a backpack.

Promoting the first Drive-Thru Wildfire Preparedness Fair in Lake County during the June 2020 pandemic restrictions, (L to R: Peggy Kimiecik, Seigler Springs Firewise USA® site leader; Eliot Hurwitz, Executive Director, Seigler Springs Community Redevelopment Association; Smokey Bear, USFS; Wendy Collins, Cobb View Firewise USA® site leader). Photo by Magdalena Valderrama.

Group of people standing outside with sign

Broom Buster Day, February 2020, along CA State Highway 175. Community members from four different Firewise USA® sites gathered with Friends of Boggs Forest and Americorps volunteers from North Coast Opportunities and removed three large trailer loads of scotch broom. In the background is the Boggs State Demonstration Forest four and a half years after the 2015 Valley Fire. Photo by Maya Leonard.

Michelle: Tell us about a person who has influenced your fire adaptation work.

Magdalena: Gary Prather is in his 70s and is a member of a family that traces back several generations in these mountains. They still own most of Seigler Mountain. Gary was a hotshot firefighter with the US Forest Service back in the day, and also worked with Cal Fire. He and his family carry on the tradition of controlled burning, and along with many other older families helped protect many properties during the Valley Fire.

Check out this video from 2017 featuring Gary’s family from The Lower Lake Historical Schoolhouse Museum. They have been gathering oral histories to collect the experiences of the fires for future generations.

Gary has always been very generous with his guidance and help, leaving us a free copy of the slideshow he gave us about his family’s controlled burns to use for one of our community fire safety workshops.

Michelle: What’s a project that you’re particularly proud of?

Magdalena: Our screening of the “Wilder Than Wild” documentary was an important success. It’s still the only large public education event there has been in the county about why catastrophic wildfires are occurring and what needs to be done. We introduced the first pre-event reception associated with the film, bringing nonprofit and county officials together. And the community got to discuss ideas with our speaker panel afterwards. That event also got the attention of our newest ally, the Clear Lake Environmental Research Center, that is spearheading much-needed mapping and other critical technical work.

Man and woman write on a big poster board

Community representatives taking their turn piecing together the wildfire agencies, county plans and other community organizations during a pre-event reception for a screening of the documentary, “Wilder Than Wild”. Photo by Magdalena Valderrama.

Michelle: The post-fire recovery focus that Seigler Springs Community Redevelopment Association brings to FAC Net is unique among our core members. What advice do you have for recovery-oriented groups that are seeking to expand their scope beyond recovery?

Magdalena: Get educated quickly about the true recovery timeline for the land and forest after a wildfire, and who the players are in the community to help the land and forest recover. Dr. Leavell and his associates at Oregon State University have put together a recorded webinar series “After the Fire” that can be very helpful.

Let the community set their own priorities and support their successes. Charity plays a necessary and welcome part in relief and recovery, but people listen better if they have a hand in their own resilience and well-being. We took advantage of the need to clean up and prevent another wildfire, obviously, and introduced the idea of forming Firewise USA® sites. Now people listen closely when we talk about the need for implementing and updating the Community Wildfire Protection Plan (CWPP), and developing “shovel-ready projects”.

Firefighter, man, and woman point to map.

Cal Fire Division Chief Paul Duncan receives maps from Cobb View Firewise USA® site leaders, Wendy Collins and David Thiessen, showing the locations of dead-end roads, problem lots, evacuation routes and firebreaks. Photo by Magdalena Valderrama.

Michelle: What motivates you to do this work?

Magdalena: A spiritual philosophy and the disposition of “prior unity.”

There’s something amazing about forests that have been well cared for and can still provide a lavish home to humans and non-humans alike. The pioneers who came here discovered that the woodlands they found so beautiful had actually been tended to by generations of Indigenous peoples over thousands of years. We don’t have a fire culture like our original hosts did, but we can make a fresh opportunity out of recharging our excellent CWPP and develop the capacity to implement it. I think many residents feel we need to take better responsibility for what is precious to us.

Michelle: What advice do you have for organizations that haven’t yet begun working on post-fire issues?

Magdalena: You have to plan for them, since it’s not a matter of “if”, but “when.” Do you know your local disaster agencies and where relief and recovery might leave off and you need to step up with greater capacity? How would your organization step up and what would you yourself be doing in that effort?

Your organization should have its own disaster plan. What if your office was knocked out of service and you still had to provide services? Be prepared to work on your own survival as an organization and be able to help others at the same time.

Michelle: Ten years from now, what do you hope you and your partners will have accomplished in Lake County?

Magdalena: Ten years from now will be fifteen years from the Valley Fire for us. These items are all in the works in some form:

  1. Ongoing implementation and regular updating of our CWPP.
  2. Proactive coordination of large-scale wildfire adaptation activities between our fire agencies and community groups, including support for watershed and soil health.
  3. More concerted participation in our two fire safe councils.
  4. Firewise USA® sites in many more corners of our county that are creating defensible space and helping keep roadsides clear.
  5. Development of a workforce knowledgeable and capable in helping with home hardening, tree-clearing biochar creation and sales.
  6. Air filter program for residential and business smoke management.
  7. Cultural burning, prescribed burning or controlled burning on a much larger scale with support from the public.
  8. Establishment of strong forest management co-ops, prescribed burn associations and other mutual aid groups.
  9. Well-funded and efficient code enforcement of vegetation abatement.
  10. Engaging annual or semi-annual fire safety workshops around the county that cover all aspects of community participation and knowledge about fire in our county.
  11. A countywide website resource regarding fire safety, fire adaptation and Firewise USA® sites.
  12. Continued existence of some nonprofits dedicated to fire adaptation work.
Man and woman hold blueprints

SSCRA Directors Eliot Hurwitz and Magdalena Valderrama holding plans for the first cluster of units at the project site for Bright Village, a cooperative housing development inaugurated in Lake County, California, June 2020. During the 2015 Valley Fire which destroyed 1300 structures and burned 75,000 acres, 38 of the 48 houses in this neighborhood burned down. Photo: Nancy Piotrowski.

Michelle: What’s the most helpful piece of feedback you’ve ever gotten, or lesson you’ve learned?

Magdalena: If you’re going to work with government grants, have a backup funding plan to bridge the inevitable gaps between allotments and advance payments. Our momentum with area residents is regularly interrupted by the requirement to spend all of an advance payment before asking for another one.

Michelle: What else would you like to share with our readers?

Magdalena: I was once asked at a job interview what single thing I might advise the President of the United States to do to help prevent addiction. I answered, “Develop community,” and to my surprise, the research showed this was a critical direction. I’m grateful to see that the Federal government is taking its own science-backed advice by supporting FAC Net, and that you are counting me as part of that community.

Three woman pose in a coffee shop

Celebrating the success of the first Drive-Thru Wildfire Preparedness Fair at the local Cobb Mountain High Coffee Shop, June 2020. (Standing to sitting: Jessica Pyska, Cobb Area Council Vice-President; Magdalena Valderrama, Director, Seigler Springs Community Redevelopment Association and regional community leader for six Firewise USA® sites; Cindy Leonard, Cobb Area Council Secretary and Community Leader for Firewise USA® Group 2). Photo: Eliot Hurwitz.

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2 thoughts on “Taking Responsibility for What is Precious to Us: A Day in the Life of Magdalena Valderrama”

  1. We’re stars ! Regeneration & Community would be the goal

  2. AMAZING work leading our sweet community in the direction we ALL want & need !

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