Alan Kwok, Ph.D., the climate and disaster resilience director for Northern California Grantmakers, has a sobering reminder for all Californians: “There is no wildfire season anymore in California in part because of our changing climate. While fires have always been part of the California landscape, they are affecting more people and livelihoods nowadays due to a combination of land mismanagement by various government agencies for over the past century, drier vegetation, more Californians living in high fire risk areas and increasing socioeconomic vulnerabilities of residents living in these areas.”
California has kept fire records since 1932, and the 10 largest fires in that recorded history have all occurred since 2000, including the 2020 SCU Lightning Complex fire that reached parts of Santa Clara County. We need to prepare for the next disaster, particularly wildfires, Kwok said, but he emphasized that our planning ought to take into account all local residents.
“We need to think about how these events impact people on a day-to-day basis. Then, we can start implementing certain solutions to ensure that vulnerable and socially marginalized populations do not get further marginalized because of these events,” Kwok said. “This is going to be happening every year, now.”
On an individual level, it’s good to have a go-bag and supplies to get through a multi-day evacuation or other situation in which you would be isolated without access to food, water or power. Organizations and governments need to be prepared, too, and that’s where a Voluntary Organization Active in Disaster, or VOAD, can play a major role. In Santa Clara County, SVCF grantee Collaborating Agencies’ Disaster Relief Effort (CADRE) works to strengthen the coordination of disaster response and recovery efforts of governmental and non-governmental entities.
Marsha Hovey, CADRE’s executive director, explained that when disaster strikes an area, people want to help immediately, but if the response isn’t thoughtful and deliberate it can sow confusion and hamper relief efforts.
“CADRE reduces duplication of effort and makes sure that people are coordinated in the event of a disaster,” Hovey said. “In the past, we have seen groups mobilizing volunteers and collecting donations, and we have expertise in that area we could share but we didn’t know they were out there. Mobilizing was the good and right thing to do, but if we can talk ahead of time — or even just be connected during — we can help make sure that nobody has a bad taste in their mouth when this is all over. The important part is thinking things through ahead of time and having people collaborate.”
A major element of CADRE’s work planning for disaster ahead of time is helping nonprofits and other organizations think through and commit to roles in the event of a crisis. To simplify what can be a very involved process, Anna Swardenski, CADRE’s director of planning, training and community resilience, explained that organizations might think of their readiness like a three-tiered pyramid. At the wide base, are they prepared to provide basic services the community may rely upon them to provide? Have they established procedures for staff and volunteers to ensure their own safety? In the narrower middle tier of the pyramid, does the organization have a disaster mission statement that defines their role in a crisis, which might change somewhat from their mission at other times? Finally, at the tip of the pyramid, have they defined how they will coordinate with a local VOAD and other entities in their area in order to maximize everyone’s expertise in any relief effort?
The folks at CADRE are well aware this takes time and funding that many organizations may not have. However, they are here to help with a variety of resources, and they’re also hopeful that a silver lining of the COVID-19 pandemic is that it has given more people experience with unexpected isolation and, therefore, the value of preparation for a disaster.
“I know the studies. I know less than 10% of the population are actually prepared and has thought it through,” Hovey said. “You have to be intentional about it and it takes a little bit of work. When we shut down for COVID-19, I think that was a lot of people’s first major experience at home, isolated, realizing, ‘I might not have supplies.’ I think it was a reality check that this is what an earthquake could be like, except you might not be in your house.”