From wildfire relief to resiliency: Coastside communities look to the future

From wildfire relief to resiliency: Coastside communities look to the future

Many organizations responded to the call for rapid relief for victims when wildfires tore through our communities this summer. Our Coastside communities in San Mateo and Santa Cruz counties were already facing challenges due to COVID-19 when the wildfires made the need for economic aid, food and shelter even more acute. Following the immediate recovery efforts, these organizations are now shifting focus to long-term resilience.

“The multiple crises of 2020 have exposed the stark social, racial and economic disparities of our region,” said Gina Dalma, executive vice president for community action, policy and strategy at Silicon Valley Community Foundation. “The people that were most affected by the crises — the pandemic, the following economic devastation and wildfires — are the ones who have faced historically the harshest circumstances: our low-income communities, people of color and those with undocumented status.”

In a recent webinar co-sponsored by Legacy VentureMagnify Community and Silicon Valley Community Foundation, representatives of three local groups explained how their organizations are working to help these communities increase their ability to withstand future health, environmental and economic risks.

Participants included:

  • Dr. Belinda Hernandez-Arriaga, founder and executive director of ALAS (Ayudando Latinos A Soñar), a mental health and social justice nonprofit working with families in coastal Northern California.
  • Dr. Peter Cowan, director of conservation science for the Peninsula Open Space Trust (POST), a nonprofit dedicated to protecting and caring for open space in Silicon Valley.
  • Jered Lawson, director of partnerships and strategic initiatives for Pie Ranch, a sustainable farm in coastal San Mateo County that provides agriculture education for local youth and aspiring organic farmers.

The conversation covered both the immediate relief efforts and strategies for long-term resilience. Here are the key takeaways:

The wildfires exacerbated difficulties residents were already experiencing due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Prior to the fires, we had already seen the critical impact that COVID was having on income, work hours, and just the dire economic situation – not having enough money to pay for rent, not having enough for food. So when the fire happened, it magnified the situation times 10,” Dr. Hernandez-Arriaga said.

ALAS worked with families who had to evacuate their homes and travel to unfamiliar places; the organization brought the families food, clothes, toiletries and gift cards. Even after the families were able to return to the area, the challenges continued: A number of them caught COVID-19 during the evacuation, and some had difficulty with the paperwork required to get economic relief. Those who were undocumented were not eligible for federal aid. ALAS is continuing to provide direct relief to these families through programs such as a pop-up food pantry and a Christmas gift drive.

“It’s been this compounding experience of COVID, the fire, and the economic relief that they need,” Hernandez-Arriaga said.

Pie Ranch also had to pivot quickly in response to the layered crises of the pandemic and the fires.

The group partnered with other local organizations “to get the fresh produce that the fire-affected farms had in the field off the farms and into the households of fire-affected evacuees,” Lawson said. They helped get food to the hotels where evacuees were staying, as well as to first responders.

The land needs both immediate and long-term help as well.

Preparing for the coming rains and preventing further damage to the land will involve a coordinated approach to removing debris and stabilizing the ground.

The Peninsula Open Space Trust saw a significant portion of its lands affected by the CZU Fire in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

“The fire impacted the core of our redwoods program,” Cowan said. “The immediate needs are immense.”

Because the fire burned in August and September and continued to smolder during October, there was a brief window in which workers could repair the damage to protect waterways during the upcoming rainy season. Members of the farming community also had immediate needs for access to the land and their crops.

For Pie Ranch, as well, the near-term tasks are cleanup and debris removal, as well as efforts to prevent erosion when the rains start.

Looking to the future, Lawson sees an “exciting opportunity” to address the prevalence of invasive eucalyptus trees in Northern California. The trees, which can suppress the growth of other native plants, have flammable oils inside that make them highly combustible.

Likewise, Cowan noted the “multifaceted” problem of the increase in wildfires in California. Forest management and climate change, which both contribute to the problem, will both require sustained attention from all involved.

Creative solutions are needed to ensure future economic and environmental stability.

Coastside residents have a wealth of talent to share and need more opportunities for economic mobility.

“This is an exciting time to rethink and grow opportunities,” Hernandez-Arriaga said. Her organization is looking at providing everything from sewing classes to entrepreneurship programs to Coastside residents. “How do we give others opportunities to grow the gifts that they have?”

Lawson noted the importance of considering the environment in future development plans, thinking carefully about building fire-resilient homes in the wilderness-urban interface to support local farmers.

“It’s really important for us to think regionally,” Cowan said. “POST is increasingly thinking about our area and the social-ecological system: It’s people and nature together — and dependent on each other.”

The success of these initiatives will require groups working together. Learn more about SVCF’s San Mateo and Santa Clara counties relief efforts here, and click here to stay up to date with our foundation’s work as a catalyst for community change.