The California Fires and Community Engagement (Part 3)

To read about our journey from the beginning, start here.


Week 2:
We have finished the first week of intensive workshops for California’s local Fire Safe Councils. It is Sunday morning the 21st. Dimitri gets online, and learns there are 2 fires burning in the area. One look out the window tells us why: The treetops are all blowing sideways in the gale-force Santa Ana winds.

We spend the morning transcribing the notes generated from the week’s facilitated classes (to be able to share those with the attendees). Then we begin packing up yet another hotel suite with our boxes and luggage and computers and such, to once again hit the road.

But the wind is so strong, it keeps blowing the cart filled with our luggage across the parking lot. The wind is so strong, it blows the car doors shut each time we try to move those boxes and bags from the cart to the car. The wind is so strong it takes an hour and a half just to pack up the car. They always talk about the Santa Ana’s as “hurricane force winds, but in dry conditions.” Suddenly, we get it.

By the time we leave the hotel parking lot and stop at the gas station on the way out of town, we learn there are now 5 fires burning.

Heading west, the sky starts to get hazy. Then the haze becomes thicker. It is smoke. The farther we drive along the Ventura Freeway, the thicker it becomes, blotting out the afternoon sun.

By the time we head north and arrive in San Luis Obispo, where we will spend the night on our way to Oakland and our next workshop, the only news is the fires.

As we continue our journey the next day, heading north and away from the fires, we have become born again to the cause of teaching local Fire Safe Councils how to Govern for Community Impact. And we renew our commitment to helping them address the question they all seem to want answered most – how to engage their communities in becoming fire safe.


In the car, our ears are glued to the radio; when we are not in the car, our eyes are glued to the news online. Google Maps has a fire map, which we check regularly throughout the day.

The Headquarters of the Cleveland National Forest, where we provided our Rancho Bernardo / San Diego workshop, is now the seat of the worst of the fires. The very people who were in the room that day are now being evacuated. Just days ago they were asking how to engage their communities and how to govern to create community impact; today they are the very people whose homes and lives are at stake.

As we arrive for workshops in Oakland and Sacramento, the terrain is fire free. But the issues raised by these northern California communities are the same as those raised by attendees of the ironically-timed workshops just days before the Southern California fires.

How can we engage our communities in creating their own safe place to live? How do we create a shared sense of responsibility? How do we make fire safety a natural part of life, rather than something extra to be done?

And how do we do all that when fire is not grabbing headlines, when people have, once again, just gotten on with the business of living their lives?

By the time it all settles down, there will have been 23 fires overall, destroying 500,000 acres. Approximately 2,000 homes will have been lost. Depending on which news source we listen to, anywhere from 250,000 to 1 million people will have been instructed to evacuate the Los Angeles and San Diego areas.

And 9 people will have died.

Even in these early stages, though, one thing is becoming clear: In those communities where Fire Safe Practices were put into place, loss of life and property was less than elsewhere in those fire-struck regions.

We have spent the last two weeks teaching the boards of small, local Fire Safe Councils how to govern for maximum community impact. It is that very impact the groups we are teaching want to engage their communities in creating.

We are now seeing firsthand how dramatic that impact can be.

The story continues with Part 4…

(Photo credits: #1 – AP / #2 – Me, as Dimitri drives along the freeway)

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