Editors’ Note: Magdalena Valderrama is a FAC Net Core member and a co-founder and the Project Director of the Seigler Springs Community Redevelopment Association (SSCRA). The SSCRA “helps small, disaster-vulnerable communities use their best assets to build and enhance their capacity to partner effectively with government and nonprofit agencies in envisioning and realizing a local and comprehensive vision of resilient, sustainable and regenerative development.” In this blog Magdalena shares her personal experience of survival from the 2015 Valley Fire and reflects on the journey of her community, the land and her organization through recovery into mitigation and eventually proactive planning. 

“What have been the effects on planning and mitigation in the communities affected by wildfire in recent years?”

“Could you talk about the demographics of the people affected and how many homes have been rebuilt?”

These were just two of the questions posed to my Executive Director and I this morning in an interview with a university research team from a joint research project between a state university Department of Emergency Management and Disaster Science and a WUI-researcher from the US Forest Service. This research team had requested time to talk with us “survivors” about possible changes to wildfire policy and practice related to housing recovery, land use planning and future wildfire risk reduction.

The first question seemed pretty straightforward, but it stunned me.  The speaker’s emphasis on the effects “from recent years” was so painful. Although the research team had included “our” September 2015 Valley Fire in their list of cases to investigate, the seemingly objective framing of this question belied a lingering sense of expectation that there would be little “real” information we could offer. Almost six years is too long really to be relevant, the interviewer seemed to imply – and that was so far from the truth.

In spite of that awkward moment, the interview ended well, but the interviewer’s question echoed annoyingly. What did the past five years really accomplish?  How could I possibly describe what it’s like to have survived that level of destruction, watch as some but not all neighbors rebuild, and continue to apply whatever catalyst for change is needed so that we not only recover but thrive in the years ahead?

A road before mitigation actions 5/9/19

A road after proactive planning and mitigation, 8/3/20.

The thing is, so much has happened that when I look at the cumulative actions taken in these past 5 and half years I’m in awe, exhausted, inspired and ready for more. We survivors are in it for the long haul but are still navigating the scars on the land and in our communities. We are empowered but are also tired. We are determined but are also anxious. What we bore witness to 6 years ago this September changed us and our community forever. So as I was posed the questions about what we learned and what we see that needs change, I realized this was as good a time as any to do a personal review. I went through my diaries and notebooks from the last 5 years and picked up an entry or two, going year to year starting with life ‘pre-fire’. The entries present snapshots along the long and tortuous path from immediate recovery to mitigation to planning and prevention. Reading through these entries I’m left with a feeling of pride for all the details we’ve covered in each accomplishment, humility at how much we’ve been through, and hope for what’s ahead.

June 2015 (pre-fire)Moving in earnest now; all the loose ends where we used to live have been packed and shipped. Acclimation for the cat is still rough – I couldn’t find him in the house anywhere even after a thorough search and calling his name aloud. Sat down to work again, and was startled by strange sounds coming from the master bath, but nothing was visible and I was going to call Eliot. Turned out Maverick (the cat) had found a way to get into the undersink cabinet, somehow climbed into the back of a middle drawer, and curled himself up for hours in the drawer.

June 2016We’ve been throwing ourselves into this (recovery) project daily – but now signs are catching up: fatigue, Nancy (our nonprofit assistant hired at the beginning of the year) feeling left out and no time set aside for correction. More committees loom ahead / walking groups – these have to be thought through and organized, and tomorrow and Thursday are the first Cobb MAC (municipal advisory council) planning meetings. No exercise.

June 2017I couldn’t find the Council minutes to work on . . . intense dreams last night – once again of wildly obstructed roads, and then racing down and around curves as well as uphill. We continue to experience obstacles for distributing the American Red Cross (supplemental funding assistance) cards. “Can’t give the money away.”  I’m worried about my project assistant whose symptoms are flaring up from all the stress around disaster case management.

A property before mitigation 7/15/20

June 2018This Cal Fire grant application isn’t going to get itself written overnight, and we’re out all day tomorrow! Finished our first community fire

A property after mitigation treatments 9/1/20.

safety event last April, planning the next one for October. No energy even for discrimination – mental exhaustion; neatened up some, ate, napped, herbs and acupuncture. Even the wind continues its frantic disturbances tonight so much so that I moved some of the plants back inside for the night.

June 2019Our Paradise brothers and sisters are grappling with the idea of rebuilding while we are grappling with the next potential for wildfire in the new season! They want “heart-wisdom”. We watch and support our new friends going through what we did: knowing some of the outside offers of help are meant well, not wanting to be told what to do or how or what to be. Meanwhile, there was massive praise from all our county government and nonprofit guests regarding the pre-event reception we held for the free public screening of the Wilder Than Wild Documentary: Fire, Forests, and the Future. Turns out we’re the first ones to include a strategic pre-event reception in addition to a post-screening discussion with the general audience. We have made our fire conversations much more public.

A front yard before mitigation actions, 5/9/19.

June 2020I thought that the pandemic would make everything go quiet. This month was so full of recovery and mitigation projects —  housing project

A front yard after mitigation actions, 8/3/20.

updates, reimbursement grantee site visits (socially distanced because fire mitigation is critical work), preparing for our first ever Drive Through Wildfire Preparedness Fair; webinars and trainings in prescribed fire and other important fire mitigation topics; economic development consultations; meetings with the fire safe councils, the county risk reduction authority and our nonprofit partners…(then half of my diary entries are just prayers of divine invocation).

June 2021Everything seems to be piling in on many important fronts. Finished the previous month with a ten-day Community Mitigation Assistance Team process, and I’ve been asked for updates on the Firewise USA® sites program to update our Community Wildfire Protection Plan. We’re now under $60,000 left to spend on our Cal Fire Fire Prevention Grant to reimburse property owners, and I’ll be working on an MOU with one of our nonprofit partners to administer a portion of their Fire Prevention grant in our neighborhoods.   (More prayer entries.)

Cobb area volunteers Peggy Kimiecik (L) and Wendy Collins (R) accompany Smokey Bear* and SSCRA Executive Director, Eliot Hurwitz, (C) in advertising the first Drive-Thru Wildfire Preparedness Fair during the first half of the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown in Lake County, California.

So though it may not be as recent as last fire season our journey continues day by day, month by month, season by season. Recovery is a long haul marked with many speedbumps but we as a community partnership are committed to our neighbors and we are committed to living better with fire.

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