I immediately started doing the work that I thought I could do best and one of those things as a general contractor was helping people navigate some of the paperwork around permitting, and what type of debris removal they should sign onto, and putting in orders for people's original plans and stuff to really speed up that process. People who are in the trauma of having lost their home, you can't expect them to go sit in a waiting room at the planning department, or go to another meeting, or read this whole document from FEMA and OES, you know? So I was like the clearinghouse for that stuff because of my experience in construction and other crisis situations.
I'm transitioning to just basically doing full time watershed protection work for anybody who's lost or been affected by the fires. Anybody in the burn zone now we just offer free help to do land remediation [and] toxic containment on their property; just liaison to figure out when their property will be cleared.
The worst thing you can do especially if someone's been traumatized is tell them, “YOU need to do this! YOU should do this.” No. What you need to say is, "hey, we should ALL do this and I will help you do it. And if you can't be there, if you can't go to your site, if it's too traumatizing, just give me permission and I will bring some people and I'll just get it done. And you won't have to worry about it.”
Because I'm on the city board of public utilities as a public official, I could go to the watershed task force and say "hey, we need to ramp this up. It's urgent. Let's make sure that we don't have a second disaster of toxic runoff and debris flows and landslides. So let's get ahead of it.” So we mobilized pretty quickly, coordinating all the different agencies. I would go out and talk to property owners. And if there was something really urgent, I could elevate it to CalFire or through Fish and Wildlife and California Office of Emergency Services.
Straw wattles, what they're intended to do is filter sediments so they let fluid through. These fiber rolls are just a basic containment strategy that's part of what they call BMP- Best Management Practice- in erosion control and water protection. You can have hydrological event where there's rain coming down the hillside and you can let water through without fine sediments, fine carbon or also potentially toxic contaminants like heavy metals or hydrocarbons. You can secure those within a burn site so it doesn't enter a creek or a waterway or a drinking water source. There's a lot of creekside wells out there in Mark West Springs area and then there's also drinking water wells along the Russian River and in Larkfield that if you get really fine carbon sediment, it can actually threaten the gravel filtration mechanisms; the ionic mechanisms that filter the water naturally. So we're just trying to prevent that and the wattles are kind of the most basic and the easiest to deploy kind of strategy of mitigating sediment and toxic runoff and erosion and landslides and anything like that.
I knew that we needed probably a million feet of it, minimum. And we hadn't sourced it. It wasn't on site. It wasn't clear where we were gonna get it. How much it was gonna cost, and who was going to pay for it. So I just started going out there and I talked to the producer, the supplier. Then we went to the waterboard and got funding for it and just started deploying the logistical mechanisms to get everything out there.
Private sector's been really helpful. Everybody from Doug [Allard] of The Wattle Guys to...I've set up a program with Friedman's Home Improvement: we supply them with free straw wattle and they give [them] to anybody who comes to the store who lives in the burn zone.
We knew from my knowledge of Paul Stamets's work on bio- and myco-remediation. It was, "okay, if you can add any kind of mushroom mycelium or bio-remediative quality to a straw wattle, you might sequester more heavy metals.” We don't know how much. And we don't know how effective but we know that there's a chance that that BMP could perform better and do more to keep the water clean. So we started inoculating wattles and putting strategic placements of mushroom mycelium in substrates around the sites that I thought might contain the most toxic materials; the highest concentrations of things like lead, you know?
In the beginning, it was about 50 percent. That's tapered off because we've had to do such high volumes and the labor intensive nature of it and the time it takes, you just have to triage and say, "ok, how many sites can we get done with just a basic wattle?” Then of all those sites, what are the ones that might contain the most toxic contaminants that we could go back and really strategically place some more measures?
The relationship of residents to the natural landscape- whether it's food production or recreation or the recognition and the tie you have to the place you call home- when that changes substantially, I think there's a level of trauma there where, between the damage to the wildlife habitat and the water and also to our relationship to all that, it is a lot. And potentially could be even more if we weren't doing all these things.
To be brutally honest about it, the recovery is gonna be a twenty year recovery because of all the trees we lost. Southern California is going through lot of really massive tragic landslides right now. We could be facing those in ten years because Southern California has a lot less dense old forests with real deep tree roots and stuff. Whereas we have a lot of that. So the projections I've seen, everything from the year after to ten years after, you start to get these waves of real risk of landslides and hillsides just moving and sloughing away because those old trees, those root structures that were real deep keeping everything together are just not there anymore.
We have 3000 volunteers now logged on this website we set up www.sonomacounty.recovers.org. It's a grassroots website. People say “I have need” or “I have something to give” or “I want to volunteer.” Just three categories. And it's direct needs matching. We established an MOU, memorandum of understanding, with the county and the city to be able to help with relief and recovery though that website.
It's tough. There's definitely a lot of mental, emotional, and physical fatigue. And people just want to either get back on track and start building or some people are definitely moving away, selling properties. It's a really difficult time to try to figure all that out.
The permanent displacement of our community, that's what would be the biggest disaster right? If just everybody moved because they couldn't find a place to live, or something. That's kind of always on my mind. and I know it's on [county supervisor] James Gore's mind and [mayor] Chris Coursey and other folks.
I think the biggest task is maintaining that spirit of mutual aid and hope and just knowing that emergency response work doesn't end when the supposed disaster's over. You have to be there for people long term. It's keeping that sense of “we're here for you and we're all here for each other.” Let's keep that spirit. Let's not let it get soured. Celebrate things that are relevant to people and can at least give them a good quality of life during what is not the most ideal circumstances.
...and underlying all that convinced me again that THAT is a basic need; you cannot survive without that. It can't just be food and shelter and what you think of as “basic.” It HAS to include expression and music and art celebration, gathering, eating together! That stuff to me is as much a part of human survival as food and water.