By John Andersen
Across the country, news reports shared the gripping images of fire roaring through Northern California. For those of us living in Mendocino and Sonoma counties, this was devastation of life as we knew it.
The Northern California firestorm was a record-setter, causing at least $9.4 billion in insured damages and predicted to cost the US economy at least $85 billion dollars. The cause remains under investigation, but the scale and power of this firestorm was unprecedented.
When the smoke cleared, the numbers were numbing: 44 lives lost; 8,400 buildings leveled; nearly a quarter-million acres scorched. Burned-out cars stood in driveways that led nowhere; charred swing sets stood within view of chimney stacks that were once surrounded by homes. Months later it looks much the same, with some signs of life. FEMA and private contractors are mostly done clearing lots that were uninhabitable after pollutants, plastics, metals married with the soil. The rebuilding effort will continue for at least another 2 or 3 years.
Within our own company, a dozen and a half of our employees evacuated their homes – half of them losing their entire homes and contents. The few things they were able to take with them when evacuating are all that remains of their homes. We interrupted our business operations, both for safety and in order to help our neighbors.
There is more to rebuild than just homes, though. The compass points of our community were wiped out with the same fire-stoked sweep: community centers, parks, playgrounds, public safety buildings. Unfortunately, some of these places that are crucial to our lives may not be covered by FEMA grants.
That realization is what led the Mendocino Family of Companies to establish the Redwood Valley and Santa Rosa Community Recovery Fund. We are committed to helping communities in Mendocino and Sonoma counties to rebuild those community assets that are just as critical to recovery as rebuilding homes. So far, we are very proud of how the community has rallied around the rebuilding efforts. Several months after starting the fund, the total fund value has exceeded $500,000. So far, this fund has awarded grants that will:
• Supply athletic equipment for local track and field team
• Outdoor movie and sound equipment for a local middle school
• A special, in-kind product donation to build mailbox posts for some of the residents who lost their mailboxes in the fires
• Temporary power poles
• Scholarships for summer camp opportunities that will support children affected by the fires
In terms of reducing the risk of fires, we hope action can be taken to help avoid the catastrophe of the autumn of 2017. Indeed, after decades of fire suppression, and minimal management, thinning or removal of brush from public forestlands, the odds of such a devastating fire multiplied with the low humidity and high winds that fed this firestorm. We believe that in the future a combination of forest thinning and prescribed fires should be standard practices to reduce fire risk.
Recovery is never fast. To help make our communities whole, there is more to rebuild than just homes. There is a community. And as we work all fronts of the recovery efforts, we will find ourselves whole again.
John Andersen is Director of Forest Policy for the Mendocino and Humboldt Redwood Companies.