Five years After the Fire, national recognition for Sonoma’s Thompson

Jennifer Gray Thompson, CEO of the Sonoma-based nonprofit After The Fire, is on Forbes ‘50 over 50: Impact’ list of national changemakers. The publication called Thompson a leader in the recent field of megafire disasters across the American West.

Thompson’s path to leadership took several turns, Forbes noted. She was a high school dropout, a homeless teenager and a poverty-stricken single mom. But she self-funded her education, ultimately earning a master’s degree and then landing a job in Sonoma during the wildfires of October of 2017.

The Sonoma job inspired Thompson to start After The Fire to help people as they recover and rebuild their lives after wildfires.

“It’s been a long, hard, wonderful, challenging, amazing, sometimes heartbreaking, oftentimes inspiring five years,” Thompson said. Over time, the organization, which began as Rebuild North Bay, pivoted to become national in scope, stepping in to help communities that were hit by fire disasters much like Sonoma County endured.

Thompson, center, in the field during a wildfire in Santiam Canyon, Oregon, November 2021

“October 7, 2017 is the last time I did not think about wildfire,” Thompson said. “I know many of you, if not most, feel the same. Life changed for all of us and for many hundreds of thousands of folks across the nation since then.”

Thompson, a Springs resident, is humbled to be on a list of social leaders and entrepreneurs that includes prominent CEOs, philanthropists, college president and deans, and Supreme Court Justice Kentanji Brown Jackson. But she’s also fiercely proud of the collaborative work her nonprofit has done.

Responding to the South Lake County fires of Sept. 2021 with a $5k donation of materials: from left, Pamela Van Halsema, Chief Paul Duncan, Molly Curley O’Brien,  and Jennifer Gray Thompson.

“For me personally and professionally, it has been a five years long exercise in leadership, both good and bad,” Thompson said. “I have flown high with joy at our impact. I have white knuckled my way through times that blew my mind. I’ve learned and learned and learned again.”

Thompson is also the podcast host of “How to Disaster,” a show that amplifies best practices, survivor experiences, and mitigation measures to ensure safety.

From fire line to board room: Thompson meets with Sen. Dianne Feinstein, at left, about federal disaster funding

“We have legit moved the needle and dare I say, exceeded expectations by far. We made it to five freaking years and we did great work that mattered.”