How to Improve Community Preparedness After a Wildfire with Pamela Van Halsema
“It’s through those human relationships that make this whole thing tolerable to do because it’s about the people involved.” -Pamela Van Halsema
Wildfires are a natural part of the globe’s ecosystem. But in recent years, they’ve become more common and destructive due to climate change. Wildfires have been occurring with greater frequency and intensity.
When preparing for a wildfire, it’s important to think about the community as a whole. This kind of planning is important because it ensures that everyone in the community has access to the resources they need when disaster strikes and after.
In this episode, Pamela Van Halsema returns as an official part of the After the Fire family. She serves as the Director of Community and Digital Programs and oversees the organization’s Community to Community Series.
Listen in as Jennifer and Pamela discuss how we can rebuild with climate resiliency in mind, how to help survivors emotionally and prepare them for the next steps, what adaptable systems can we use, and why getting to know our neighbors is a big factor in resilience.
- 04:56 Pam About Helping One Another
- 09:09 Helping People Build Back
- 13:49 The Scope of Work to be Done
- 19:16 Different Responses to Disasters
- 29:38 Know the People You Are Trying to Help
- 36:41 Helpful Resources for Rebuilding
- 43:47 2022 Wildfire Leadership Summit
- 49:15 It’s About the People Involved
The only way we can survive a disaster as a community is: preparedness. Tune in as @JenGrayThompson and @pammylalala, the Director of Community and Digital Programs at @AfterTheFireUSA share resources and practical advice that can help us improve community preparedness and resiliency in a more strategic and systematic way. #Recover #Rebuild #Reimagine #NorthBay #podcast #wildfire #DisasterRecovery #DisasterRecovery #AfterTheFire #Season4 #HowToDisaster #CommunityPreparedness #communityconnection #strategicplanning #funding #housing #climateresiliency
10:18 “The heart of the work is to take the people who have been through the experience, having empathy, knowledge, and experience, help another community.” -Pamela Van Halsema
13:01 “The talent to rebuild the community exists within the community.” -Jennifer Thompson
23:47 “When you have that position of openness and collaborative disposition, it’s remarkable how relieving it is to you, but also opening doors to new ways of problem-solving and resource sharing.” –Pamela Van Halsema
42:12 “It helps when more people understand your challenge and the whole world was creating different ways– those are silver linings.” -Pamela Van Halsema
46:51 “The hope is, this is something that we can do. You’re in, you’re out, given the appropriate funding [because] the kind of work we do is not inexpensive.” -Jennifer Thompson
49:25 “You could never do this work if you were a person who thought you had all the answers. You couldn’t do it well.” -Jennifer Thompson
50:41 “Even if you haven’t been through a fire or some other emergency, know your neighbors. It starts with a very human one-to-one relationship building. And that is a huge factor in resilience.” -Pamela Van Halsema
51:43 “It’s through those human relationships that make this whole thing tolerable to do because it’s about the people involved.” -Pamela Van Halsema
Pamela Van Halsema has lived in Coffey Park with her husband since 2001 and raised three children in the neighborhood. Pamela is an educator and librarian who values getting involved with community work, including advocacy for children and families and issues around equity, human rights, and the environment. Pamela serves on the Community Services Advisory Board, is a participant in the Leadership Institute for Just and Resilient Communities, is on the Housing for All project for Santa Rosa Together, and serves on the Sonoma County Resilience Collaborative steering committee. For Coffey Strong, she has helped many people navigate the landscape planning and permitting process in the rebuild.
Pamela also serves as the Director of Community and Digital Programs for After the Fire since June 2021. Her expertise in the job she was assigned has enabled her to put together inspiring videos for the Community to Community section of After the Fire’s Official YouTube Channel. Not only does she possess excellent organizational skills, but she is also an outstanding example of compassion and empathy.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Welcome once again to another episode of The How to Disaster Podcast where we help you recover, rebuild and reimagine. Today’s guest is actually somebody that I had on a couple of years ago, and it was Pamela Van Halsema.
A couple of years ago, she came on to the podcast to talk about her role in Coffee Park and the 2017 Tubbs Fire. In 2017, Pamela and her family, she has three children, they actually lost their home that night on October 8. And it was a real turning point for her in so many ways. She’s a librarian by trade, she’s worked in education, she’s got all of these really incredible skills around communication, digital assets, and really just wonderful people skills. And so about maybe a year after I interviewed her, she contacted me about something else. I was like, why don’t you come work for me? Why don’t you come work for After The Fire? I think that we could use your talents. We’re doing our website, we’re doing this big change over. And then I had been doing so many of our community visits by myself. I was recognising that from an institutional point of view that we really needed to bring other people into the fold, especially those who’ve been there like Pam who have not only lost their home, but have actually taken on a huge leadership role in their community.
Pam is actually past President of Coffee Strong, which was an organization that helped about 1500 homeowners rebuild their home and provide communication care, weekly meetings, and information sharing. She was excellent at communication especially a lot of people may look towards other folks in that organization and give them most of the credit for what happened. But I believe this is my opinion that really so much of their success and staying in the news for literally years was due to Pam’s excellent people skills and communication.
So over the past, maybe that year, I’ve been working really closely with Pam as she builds out the community to community program. And I think that it is, no, I’m not exaggerating at all when I say that she has taken what was a good program that did good work and made it into a great program that does great work. We’ve traveled together a lot. We go into these disaster affected communities. Pam has not only excellent organizational skills, but also so much compassion and empathy. And when you match those two things together, especially when you work in a disaster, you really do have a formula for building community trust and efficiency. Having Pam in that position has really allowed us to make that program. Something that I am just super, immensely proud of. And as we are about to do our first big summit, we’ve done some smaller things here. She’s also the driving force behind organizing that. So I asked Pam to come and do this podcast with me to really talk about, once again, to share her own personal story, but also to talk about the work she’s been doing here at After The Fire for the past year.
I hope that you enjoy this next 45 minutes to an hour. And I hope that you come out of it with the same sort of appreciation for the skill set that she brings to this work. And then you also learn from the things that she talks about, about how to take something that’s painful thing in your life, and actually not only turn it into something that benefits so many other people, but really sort of as a capstone in one’s own healing, and recovery, and rebuilding, and reimagining what life is like after a mega fire.
So once again, thank you for spending this time with us. I’m Jennifer Gray Thompson. I am the host of this podcast, as well as being the CEO of After The Fire USA. If you want to know more about our organization, please visit www.afterthefireusa.org.
Welcome to the podcast.
Once again, Pamela Van Halsema, welcome to the podcast.
Pamela Van Halsema: Thank you so much for inviting me.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: So I was hoping that even though we have already recorded an entire podcast about Coffee Strong and your fire story, but for those people who haven’t heard, would you mind taking a couple of minutes telling the audience about your fire story and how you came to do this work?
Pamela Van Halsema: Sure, absolutely. You know, back in the Fall of 2017, I was living here in my home of 20 years, Coffee Park, which attract middle class neighborhood in Santa Rosa, California, with my three children and my husband, our dog and our cat, and just living our life. My children were all in public schools. My husband is a professor at the local junior college, and I was teaching at a junior high in Petaluma as the teacher librarian. I was also doing some advocacy work in the area for children’s issues. I was definitely embedded in working with the community. What nobody ever believed would happen occurred where in one night, our neighborhood and many other places throughout the county burned up in flames. Of course, that night, we went to bed knowing that there was a fire in the next county. I knew that, I read it on the news. But never did I dream that in a matter of, that was 11:00 PM. By 2:00 AM, I’d be evacuating. My house was gone in the next 30 minutes. That was a fast moving, terrifying fire. We all got out, but the cat rest in peace. That was a watershed moment in our family. Everything changed. Not just for me, but for everyone else who lived in Coffee Park. We had 1400 houses burned that night in my neighborhood alone. And so just what happened was we all just had a million questions, and I started typing up questions, and questions, and questions, what do we do? Where do we go? What resources are there for us to figure out our next move?
It was a learning experience each step of the way. And the good thing was, I had a little bit of background in community organizing already. I had some neighbors who are also thinking about, let’s work together. And so we worked together and got involved right away in helping one another in building a community organization that we ended up filing as a nonprofit and calling ourselves Coffee Strong. And it was really a place where we could think through the challenges that lie ahead, define what those challenges were, and figure out what options people had, and share what those options were. And we partnered with all the different stakeholders in the area to try to figure out what resources were needed. So my background as a librarian, what we do is we find, we vet resources, find resources and make them accessible to people at the time that they need them. And also, as a background, as an educator, just being able to understand and explain things that were complex and make them more easy to understand. I felt like those were the things that I was able to contribute to that work. And there were others in my neighborhood who had backgrounds in construction, who had backgrounds in insurance, who had background in finance, all of those different things were needed. And so we came together as a group that everyone had a skill to share. And those were the ones that I did.
So I helped a lot with communication and interpretation of information and making sure that people could find it when they needed it. I’m happy to say that I’m sitting in my rebuilt home. We were able to move home at the two year anniversary of our fire. I know that’s not the story that every fire region has. Sometimes, it takes much longer. I’m grateful that we were able to get back on our property in a newly rebuilt home within those two years.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: So thank you so much for sharing that part. So fast forward about a year ago when we, you and I were having a conversation, and maybe I can’t even remember how long it’s been that maybe year and a half ago, maybe. And I asked you if you wouldn’t mind helping us on a project and we were reimagining ourselves as After The Fire, but also to bring you on to work on the community to community program. So I’m hoping that you can actually talk to the listeners about the community to community program. What does it do? And how has it grown since you’ve come on board?
“The heart of the work is to take the people who have been through the experience, having empathy, knowledge, and experience, help another community.” -Pamela Van Halsema
Pamela Van Halsema: Thank you. Yeah. I knew about the work that Jennifer was doing with Rebuild NorthBay all throughout our own recovery here. In fact, Rebuild NorthBay helped Coffee Park directly with some public projects. Big infrastructure projects. So thank you for that work. And I also knew that other fires began to happen. In fact as that common wall, it’s a wall, you can read about it. Read about it on our website to learn more about that project. But that was literally being dedicated. There was the Paradise fire, the Campfire. You could see the smoke in the distance, and we all felt in our bones that, oh, my goodness, this is not happening to another community. And even though we had Coffee Strong and Jennifer with her work, a lot of us went up there and really wanted to find out, can we be help? What can we do to help because we know what this is like. We’ve been through this, and we don’t want it to be as hard as it was for us, for you. So that’s really the heart of the work is to take the people who have been through the experience before and have them with empathy, knowledge and experience, help another community. And so making those connections between communities, making connections from one person who is really knowledgeable and experienced with another who can really use the help, sometimes they’re not. They don’t even realize that they need the help yet, but know that it’s available.
And just in the community, the community really doesn’t think anyone should have to reinvent recovery. But there are people who have gone through it. And we also realized that not every fire is the same. Certainly the geography, the people, the economic status, all different variables make a difference in what happens next. And so each new fire is inventing and discovering, and being creative and problem solving. We want to learn from them too. So that constant learning, constant sharing and collaboration is really at the heart of the work. And so now the work of After The Fire has expanded beyond the North Bay region to be available, and this was long before. I got invited to work with After The Fire. But in working up in Oregon in 2020, there were devastating lightning fires that happened along Labor Day just two years ago, helping folks think through that. And now, there’s been subsequent fires. Today, there’s terrible fires. This very day is burning in Oregon down in Southern California, in the Central Valley, or in Tahoe area, in New Mexico and Colorado. And really, it’s the western United States. And in fact, beyond that as well that’s having these new climate disasters with fire. We really need to understand the systems that are at play here, share the information and build a network of leaders. It’s really at the community level that we’re looking at these things. There are other other agencies and wonderful programs that help individuals with individual assistance. But I think what we’re really trying to do is look at the community level, and what can be done at that level to speed things along, get back more resiliently, help people have a safe and secure future.
“The talent to rebuild the community exists within the community.” -Jennifer Thompson
Jennifer Gray Thompson: You just highlighted it. One of their secrets to success is that I think because we had all been through or been very severely impacted by a disaster. We knew firsthand that the talent to rebuild the community exists within the community. We don’t need anybody to come in and supersede our role in the community. But having coaches that say, oh, you’re a leader. Let me support locally led and designed recoveries and reimagining what your community will look like because it will never look like it did the day before. I love that. That approach is essential so much to what we do in this work is no heroes. No savior, no capes, no kudos. It’s more like we go in, and we start to evaluate like, who are the effective leaders across sectors? And how can we support their particular recovery? So can you talk about that? What does the deployment look like when we do it?
Pamela Van Halsema: By deployment, we bring a team to a community that is in the midst of a recovery process. That could be immediately after a fire or it could be a year later. It could be two years later. It doesn’t matter really. Often, if you’re in the midst of an emergency, there are a lot of things that occur especially if it’s a federally declared emergency. There’s going to be a Red Cross, and there’s going to be your own county emergency management folks, and there’s going to be a lot going on. There’s gonna be first responders. They’re gonna be second responders as well. And the press. But as that clears a bit, you’re no longer in a shelter, but you’re or living on a friend’s couch. You may be in a motel. You may have a somewhat temporary shelter if you’ve been directly impacted. For me, I was living in a friend’s house for a while, and then we moved to another rental. As that smoke clears, that’s when you have, as a leader, maybe you’re the mayor, maybe you’re the County Administrator, or maybe you’re in the planning department, maybe you’re in a community based organization, that’s when you’re like, okay, what are the first steps that we need to take strategically? And how do we not duplicate efforts? And what programs are we eligible for? Maybe there’s public assistance that we might not have dreamed of. So that’s what we may go and have many conversations before coming to visit, finding out, let’s just listen. Let me hear what the conversations are. What’s the situation on the ground? We’d like to bring some people with us that we think would be really knowledgeable about what you need now.
And so sometimes, we invite folks along who are experts in that area. We just go. If not, we’ll just go and we’ll just listen, because that’s really the first step. Like I said earlier, each fire is unique, and the situation and the people involved. Then that’s a learning mission, really a learning and relational, building a relationship of trust, and hope that there is a future, there is a way you can move forward. Also understanding, I know, there’s often a rush to try to get things done quickly. But it’s long. And just the realization to take a deep breath, this is gonna take a while. And that’s not always the thing you want to hear. But these do take a while, but things will come together. And we try to be that encouraging word and kind of knowing what to expect next. Then we just stay on the line with those folks. We write up notes in a formal way so that they have that moment in time recorded for their own reflection because there’s so much going on literally after a disaster that it’s hard to remember it all. So we try to memorialize that in a formal document, and then we continue to connect, and problem solve, and be basically advisors and consultants to that community after that first visit until we visit again. And we don’t charge anything.
So we do this, but we don’t force ourselves on folks either. We just want to be a resource. We are funded through philanthropy, and through corporate philanthropy, and that’s very needed to do this work. And the work doesn’t happen for nothing. Travel and bringing all those people together. And so it is important to find the right funders for this work. But I know that if you talk to the communities that we have worked with. The work really was very pivotal, and then being able to move forward. I’m grateful for that opportunity to help in that way.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I’m so glad that you pinned that last part. It’s a little bit unusual what we do, because we’re not part of the National VOAD. So we’re not running in to help them with like replace their driver’s license or papers. The Red Cross has a very specific mission. Even United policyholders, they only help people who are insured, and we have a lot of people who are not insured. So they’re great. But there’s that whole picture. So it’s a little bit funny for philanthropy sometimes to understand that we also have a commitment to serving the entire community. And that means everybody who’s affected, they are in whatever leader or whatever stakeholder group they fall into. We’re interested in supporting that stakeholder group, and it depends on the community. So I’m glad that you mentioned that there’s also the factor of like, we have to really, one of the things that we do as soon as there is a fire that we think we’re going to go into is that we pull all of the demographics, the voting history. We want to know what level of civic engagement is there, everything. So we work in fires that are everything from the suburbs, which was much like the Tubbs Fire that took Pam’s home to the frontier, which is like way rurals of very small communities, which may have under a thousand people in them, and may take a very long time to get to. And then a similar fire like in Colorado, the Marshal Fire was also a suburban fire. So I’m hoping that you can talk about some of the differences. Or what are some of the things that have surprised you about the different responses to the same climate based event?
Pamela Van Halsema: If you imagine, even the fire that we experienced here in Coffee Park, the first thing you want to do is talk to your neighbors, and nobody’s there because their house burned down. So one of the very first things you have to do is try to figure out where everyone is, where they went and how can I communicate with you. And if you’re in an area like Santa Rosa, which part of the city burned, but part of it is still there, chances are you may be able to find people. If you’re in a rural area where the entire town burned, where is everybody? It’s also difficult because there may not be any broadband communication infrastructure left. They may be completely destroyed. Some of these rural areas, there’s no place for people to temporarily live. And sometimes, it ends up being in an RV. Sadly, sometimes it’s almost like a tent. Or it may be a whole nother state where they moved to live with a relative. And think about that not only their home is gone, but probably where they worked and their source of income is gone as well. And then their childcare. Coffee Park was a hotbed of child care homes.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: You just made me think of that there.
Pamela Van Halsema: There were at least a dozen in home childcare centers that burned. One of my friends had one. So all of those things that you might take for granted? Oh, yeah. No, it’s gone. And in fact, even up in Greenville, in Plumas County where they had a devastating fire a year ago, the Dixie Fire, they had to drive so far to pick up any mail to access broadband. Their elementary school became a place that was definitely a hub so that they could get online. So the challenges become much difficult and much more cumbersome. And just the time that it takes you to send a message because you don’t have Wi Fi. So you have to go far away. And in addition to trying to live your normal life, that doesn’t stop. You have to somehow still earn a living. Still raised children. Children still need to go to school somewhere. So it’s a lot. And I think people say to me sometimes, are you sure you want to work with fire survive? Isn’t that triggering that you’re working with fire survivors? For me, just the reaction I get sometimes is one of feeling exhaustion, because it is just so much work. It is so much work. That’s the empathy feeling I get when I encounter people about to start this road to recovery is just I feel empathy for how exhausting it is. I want them to take a break and make sure that they’re caring for themselves because it’s a long haul. It’s like preparing for a marathon, and you hear that a lot. It’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon. It’s true. You just need to conserve some of that energy.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Yeah, because there’s a reason why people burn out. I see a lot of burnout. We both have seen that, especially if they’ve been through a disaster. Because those first couple of years in particular, you’re not only dealing with, in your case, the rebuilding of your home, and having your children, all of that. I didn’t even lose my home, and I know that it took years for my central nervous system to calm down. I think it may have just come down in the past six months, quite frankly. But it takes a lot. There’s a huge trauma response. When we walk into a community, we know that they’re in trauma, and the unimaginable has become their reality. And it can be incredibly triggering, or exhausting to stand in front of them and understand how far they have to go. So I appreciate the fact that you’ve not burned out.
“When you have that position of openness and collaborative disposition, it’s remarkable how relieving it is to you, but also opening doors to new ways of problem-solving and resource sharing.” –Pamela Van Halsema
Pamela Van Halsema: Well, that’s the more reason to take an approach that is willing to collaborate. Whether you’re an individual fire survivor, or you’re the mayor of the town, or the county supervisor, or whichever role you have, you should not try to go it alone or think that you have all the answers because nobody has all the answers. Frankly, nobody. There isn’t one right answer a lot of the time. And so the more you can have this kind of, it’s a bit of a vulnerable position. But at the same time, when you have that position of openness and collaborative disposition, it’s really remarkable how relieving it is to you. But also opening doors to new ways of problem solving and resource sharing. And frankly, it’s just a little bit more fun, I think.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Yeah. Oh god, I think it’s so much more fun. There’s those moments like all we can really do is show up, bring the people to the table that we think should be there. And then we have to leave room for the process that’s in front of us, and the people, and how they need us to move through it. And then there are moments when you and I were standing at the condominium complex recently. We had brought Fannie Mae and a couple of other national organizations, and just to listen to you like, what’s going on here? Every single time I’ve never worked in a wildfire where I came out of it, I’ve learned so much. But you and I were standing there and the President of the condo association walked up, and he’s got glasses on, and he’s a guy in his 60’s is my guest. He wanted to just say thank you. He burst, he did that talk sobbed thing where he was just so grateful. Those are the moments that I live for, because I feel like we’ve met humanity where it lives when it works. It feels like poetry. Do you know when you see people actually feel like, oh, my god, maybe I can do this.
Pamela Van Halsema: Taking that time to just sit and listen to it, listen to each other, even in my own experience in my neighborhood, listening to my neighbors, and like, what decisions you’re making, they’re not going to be the same decisions that I’m going to make because each family has their own situation, their own needs, their own goals and resources. It’s going to be different from each other. Taking time to listen and to do it with so much grace is really important because you’re all coming raw. A lot of it is raw. The emotions, the thoughts, but that’s huge. And I think, why is it that sometimes, we’re at our best selves when we’re in the most vulnerable or difficult situations? I think it is true. And sadly, we wouldn’t want that to happen to anyone. However, it’s a time when people do shine, sometimes. And the hope is let’s just try to do this better. Let’s build back better, let’s fix the systems that aren’t working anymore. And that’s really why we like to work at the community level and try to figure out. Is there something systematic that can mitigate some of the difficulties, and maybe help people have a more resilient home. Help communities be more resilient. Help us take care of the land around us so that maybe we won’t all burn up again, because the climate thing is really challenging from fires, to floods, to wind, to tornadoes, all those different things. It’s not the way it was before in previous generations.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: There’s no shortage of need for the type of things that we’ve been doing and that we want to continue doing. I think that that community based piece is our most instructive place. I just have to call it out over and over again. One of our goals is really short in that space between the people making all the decisions, the funding decisions, the policy decisions, all of the decisions that actually affect the frontline folks. And if they don’t know what’s going on at the frontline, then those policy or funding decisions will not be as effective and informed as they could be. And it’s one of the things that I like about so much about when we go on to community and learn something new, but also connect something across all of the wildfires or mega fires that we’ve worked in. We see that that’s a constant need being able to more easily access grant money or even know that that’s there. It’s very challenging.
Pamela Van Halsema: And to have it show up in a timely way so that you can actually get people under a safe roof and not wait for five or six years before the check arrives.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Wildfires is different than it is more displacing than wind and rain events. You can have some tornadoes where you do see whole neighborhoods are gone. And we’re not disavowing any of those things. We’re seeing that wildfire and the kinds that we have now are uniquely displacing. That’s what you were talking about people just scatter. And so we’re always learning about new ways to help them communicate. I know in Paradise, Jenna Murray with zone captains was sending out postcards to former addresses knowing that the post office would actually forward them to where they were living now. In Colorado, they’re using slack which you can only really do in a broadband rich community, but it doesn’t. We kind of like hold on to all of those tools.
Pamela Van Halsema: It just speaks to the fact that you have to know the people that you’re trying to reach. And it may be making a phone call. Greenville actually, I know one of their leaders called so many people on the phone when they were able to get the phone number and just talk to them. I know in Lake County, to my colleagues up there that would just call people on the phone and check on them, maybe older individuals or ones who don’t use a computer very much just have to, it’s comes down to human beings, human behavior, human beings, human needs and some amazing humans who are the leaders who connect those dots. And I liked that.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: You put into that because it is meeting the community where they’re at. And that’s one of the things that we really work at is we try to figure out where they’re at. And then we would like to reverse engineer in that sense, and to figure out what, how we can be of the greatest service. And I often get questions from funders like, what will you do in the 2022 fire Season, for example? Well, it really depends on where it is. And I know that these are things that we will do for sure. But if you want to know exactly how many people we will help, I don’t know where that fire is going to burn down, so I cannot tell you that exactly. I would love for you to talk about two things. The first one is that when you started really working in other wildfires, what surprised you the most? And the second thing is to talk about the virtual, the monthly meetings. That’s one of some of the topics because I know I have a favorite topic.
Pamela Van Halsema: What’s the point that surprised me the most? Well, there’s a sameness. When you visit right after a fire, there’s an odd sameness to what you see to that raw destruction. And again, that weary feeling. I don’t know if it’s a surprise, but it’s a delight to meet. The individual people in the different communities, and how remarkably smart, creative and caring these folks are, and, and how hard people are working. I would just say that, I hope that’s enough. A lot of times, it comes down to money. And unfortunately, I personally just like get so bored and hate thinking about money. But unfortunately, it’s how our society works. And so if some of these people can be compensated for their very hard work so that they know that their services can continue with disaster case management and providing assistance with all kinds of programs, we would love to know because they’re needed for a long time. They’re not just needed in a short amount of time.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: A minimum of three years of funding should go to these communities for their case management, and it should not be hobbled together. It should be a block grant. It can also afford to pay people not only what you’re willing to pay them, but what they actually need to survive in that area to remain part of the community science. Very important.
Pamela Van Halsema: Yeah. And so also, what surprised me maybe with my own recovery, and I like to talk about with other communities is thinking differently about like, what am I going to rebuild in replacement of what was here because I was never setting out to build a house ever. But now that I have that chance, what can I do to make it safer, and make it more responsible use of resources. And I know that water is an issue that is near and dear to my heart, and making sure that, because weather is not a renewable resource. And we need to have clean water. We need to have enough water in the atmosphere to make things not so dry. We were living through a historic drought in California, and how can we retain water in our landscape on our property and in the region so that it won’t burn so quickly. So those ideas of thinking about water infrastructure and energy, and maybe what the materials are in my home. Those are important things to think through. I don’t know that necessarily unless you were in the building industry. You’d be thinking about those things, but you need to make those decisions very early on, and you might not be ready for them.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: They can be expensive. And that’s one of the things that we run into often in a lot of communities is those who want to employ the best practices for both energy and resiliency for their homes. But that’s also a point of privilege where not everybody can afford that. I’m happy that the Inflation Reduction Act actually has a lot of more tax credits and the ability to actually build back safer, greener, more earth friendly. But it’s been a struggle for our communities, and hope that changes.
Pamela Van Halsema: Yeah. I would say for rental, I think another thing to think about is how many people rent homes. And who owns those homes, those apartment buildings, those places where those people want to live in a safe resilient place to how can we make sure that our rental housing stock is also built back in a way that is, thinking about those things.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Yeah. And Laurie Schoeman, Enterprise Community Partners, is a big initiative that they have, which is about making sure that affordable housing also has climate resiliency built in. They’re really on the forefront of working with CDFIs, and working on that. I’m so glad you brought up renters. I actually hoping that renter’s insurance become something that’s written into contracts. A lot of people don’t know that they’re not covered by their landlord. And unlike in coffee Park, I understand that 50% of the people who lived there were renters.
Pamela Van Halsema: 40 to 50%, yeah. Many had no insurance at all, and it’s very affordable. Those people are not saddled with the cost of rebuilding a house, but they lost all of their possessions. And in order to just replace your possessions is pretty daunting. And if you do have renter’s insurance, it does provide help for that temporary replacement living arrangement. And so it’s really just asked, tell all your friends who are renters and your children to definitely get a policy.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Even if it’s only $5 a month, get it anyway. I was really happy when you came on for a lot of reasons, but one of them was a lot of this work I had been doing as a lone soldier. And when you come on, you have a great skill set, amazing experience, of course, and you took over these community to community meetings. So where can people find those? And what are they?
Pamela Van Halsema: Oh, yeah. So After The Fire has a YouTube channel. That’s a really easy place to look. You can find us on After The Fire USA on YouTube. One of our playlists is called the Community To Community playlist. We have recordings of somewhat monthly meetings that center on hot topics that come out of this listening that we do when we’re just attending meetings, visiting in deployments to areas and hearing like, wow, I’m hearing a lot of people with this particular question or this particular challenge. Let’s get some folks who really know about this to come on online. We’ll have a conversation and take questions. And that’s really what that’s about. I tell you, it runs the gamut of like, for example, there’s one about how do we have some kind of remembrance gathering one year after our fire? What would be appropriate? What have other people done? So we had one about that, oh, it’s gonna start to rain really hard. What do we need to do to make sure that the land is secure or protected because there’s so much potential. First of all, toxins that could run off, erosion and those kinds of mudslide situations after a fire. So we have experts on that. We have one about, there’s a challenge down in Santa Cruz where very rural mountainous areas burned where there’s a lot of challenges with having adequate septic infrastructure for the rebuild, and it’s very costly. And what about composting toilets? Like what if we could have composting toilets instead of regular, traditional kind of toilets as our toilets? And what are the issues that we need to look at to use those. It goes all the way to erosion, to toilets, to contracts with builders, to all kinds of things. It just depends on what we’re hearing out there. We may be doing another one coming up on contract, understanding the parts and the words in a contract before you sign it with a builder. We’re working on that issue right now.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: You’re really good about asking our current communities because after about three years, people, they sort of have an engine in their community, and they may not need as much. That may be when we ask them to come back, and newly fire affected communities. So that the piece around contractor fraud, though, has been just so important. You have highlighted that there. But also, I feel like there are opportunities inside of our Community To Community website that some things to help people along that you’ve brought to the table.
Pamela Van Halsema: It came out of my experience. And I certainly didn’t invent them out all of my brain. And again, just like all of our stuff, it’s been learning and collaborating. But we’ve compiled, for example, a really helpful document that questions that you should ask when you interview different builders if you’re going to rebuild your house to make sure that you’re really going into this long term relationship clear eyed and understanding what you’re getting in that formal fight. It’s probably the hugest financial commitment that you’ve ever made, so what am I signing here? That’s really what I want to make sure people know. We also have, how to organize your community guidelines for that? We call them block captains or zone captains where it’s really having a representation of certain, it could be geographical representation, or it could be demographical representation to be basically a conduit for information during the rebuilding process because not everybody can go to every meeting, and not everybody can ask every question. It just streamlines things and helps to make sure that vetted information is being shared. And so we have a guideline for that. How to organize your community into block captains for the–
Jennifer Gray Thompson: We call them adaptable systems. And then if people want to change them, how they need to in order to work. And then we just kind of learn and watch that zone captain’s come out of meeting with the block captains, and the Paradise folks, they devise that on the way home, and they even improved it in some ways. Because then they realized that they had to have a bigger, more rural, bigger swath of land for the number of houses, and then they can use CalFire evacuation zones to do that. We’ve yet to not learn a lot from a community. I think we’re pretty good about saying, well, why did we do that thing wrong? Maybe you’ll do it right, we’ll learn from you too. So it’s important, I think, that you and I share that when we walk in there. We’re not like, yeah, we were perfect at this.
“It helps when more people understand your challenge and the whole world was creating different ways– those are silver linings.” -Pamela Van Halsema
Pamela Van Halsema: Let me just say that my hat’s off to those communities who had to do this with COVID as another layer of disaster, not being able to gather inside a building and have a meeting, but had to figure out ways. Maybe you didn’t have broadband and you couldn’t gather. So those kind of really huge challenges. Very, very difficult. And I suppose, I always say the whole world had that challenge in a way it helps when more people understand your challenge. And so the whole world was creating different ways. We all know how to use Zoom now. Didn’t everybody know before now, and people are more willing to use it to which is actually a benefit. So those silver linings, I guess.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Something you’re working on right now that I just want to mention, by the time that this podcast comes out will be months in the rearview mirror, and I’m sure that it will be very successful. But I had gathered together three wildfire affected communities. Well, four counties, plus Paradise and Woolsey fire in 2019 for a two day conference where I cycled people in and out, including the Coffee Park folks. And I asked the people I was serving, and they were like, this was profound. Then we started another one. We wanted to do it in 2020, May of 2020. Of course, that did not happen. And one of the great things was when you came on. One of the things that’s great about having great staff is they actually give you the bandwidth or the ability to even do something in the way that it shouldn’t be done, which is what we’re doing with the 2022 wildfire Leadership Summit. You are the team lead on that. I can say that I’ve built relationships over five years that I think are very helpful in this space, but the organizing and understanding it intuitively for where it should be and why it should be there, it’s all on you. You’ve been remarkable. Can you talk about that summit, because I’m very impressed.
“The hope is, this is something that we can do. You’re in, you’re out, given the appropriate funding [because] the kind of work we do is not inexpensive.” -Jennifer Thompson
Pamela Van Halsema: Well, I’m really looking forward to this. This is going to be happening later this month, and it’s an in person event. So we’re all getting ready to be back at an in person gathering. It’s going to span three days, and it’s just 150 people each day. It is big enough, but small enough at the same time where folks can really meet each other and talk to each other. And it’s across all different sectors of wildfire and wildfire recovery. First day is focused on community, the communities that have been through this. We are calling that day recover because it’s really focusing a little bit on, what does that mean to recover? How do we recover together? And how does our community have to think about things moving forward? And then the second day is about rebuild. So rebuild is bringing together public funding questions, building insurance, philanthropy, all these different issues, economic issues around what it means to rebuild who are the stakeholders that need to be a voice in the rebuilding and after understand what the parameters for that. And then the last day is called reimagine where we’re really highlighting those folks who are taking that bold step to think differently about how stuff works at post disaster, specifically with wildfires. Whether it’s innovating with new fire resistant materials for building my house, or there’s information systems that help us with emergency management and communications, or whether it’s thinking about our systems. We’ve mentioned so many times how can we make this work better to help more people more quickly, more effectively.
And so we’ve brought together over all three days, lots of opportunities to listen. We’ve said, listen a lot during this chat, we’ve had to listen to one another. And probably people may not have listened to before because they’re in their own sector. I should also add that there’s more than one opportunity to listen to some folks who are bringing the wisdom of indigenous practices to caring for land and thinking in a holistic way about how our ecosystems can be healthy, including people, plants, animals, water and land. And so I think it’ll be great. We’re all going to have different viewpoints and different perspectives. But I believe we’re going to be doing a lot of learning.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I’m very proud of the fact that it is the only Wildfire Summit Conference gathering in the nation that has a 360 view of what it means to experience a wildfire. And these are mega fires. These are not like your grandparents fires, but like experienced the fire, deal with rebuilding the fire. Then think about how to do things differently. So it’s certainly a challenge to wrangle all of those people. But the hope is, this is something that we can do. You’re in, you’re out, given the appropriate funding. So if you hear this out there, it’s always funding. Doing these things, the kind of work we do is not inexpensive. Talent is not inexpensive. Also really doing it right in a way that honors where people have gone through, and what they need to keep going, and how we can continue to work together to have a very different world, a very different approach to wildfire in the future because at least we’re not trying to hold back the sea in the sky. We can do a lot about wildfire. I hope that you feel really proud of your work here at After The Fire because I know I am very proud of the work that you’ve done here.
Pamela Van Halsema: I am grateful for the opportunity. I think many people I know here locally who have lived through this and navigated this keep thinking, wow, I feel like I need to share this somewhere. I could just go on with my life and then leave it behind. But there’s something that seems very urgent to actually, when we read the paper and we hear that there’s another fire, I would like to be able to help others. I consider it building new knowledge together. Knowledge that’s not just trivial. It’s knowledge that’s literally life and death knowledge. Hopefully that we can take into consideration as we as a leader that we tried to build the capacity and knowledge set of leaders to make very informed decisions for their communities.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: And it’s that soft infrastructure piece, though, to hard infrastructure is really important. Materials are really important. All those things are really important. But actually, building around that soft infrastructure so that people have a place to call. I know that there are leaders who call you just to ask you a question or run something by you because it’s easier when you’re not like a stakeholder within the community. But instead, you are a trusted advisor that’s outside of the community encouraging that collaboration and untangling all of the complexities of navigating this as a community because you’ve been through it, the rebuilding of your home. I just really want to hats off to you, Pam.
Pamela Van Halsema: I don’t know all the answers. But we can lead people in the direction of folks who can they find the answers.
“You could never do this work if you were a person who thought you had all the answers. You couldn’t do it well.” -Jennifer Thompson
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Because you know that you could never do this work if you were a person who thought they had all the answers. You couldn’t do it well, that’s for sure. There’s a really funny story about this young guy who emailed me. I was like, will I come in? And he was, oh, no. I know everything you know. I was like, really? Because I don’t even know enough, and I’ve been doing this five years straight. More power to you buddy. You know that happens too.
Pamela Van Halsema: Our librarian skills to find the resources they need.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I’m here to tell you librarians are ninjas. Man, I tell people, well, Pam is a ninja at this work. All of her librarian ism, along with her experience is really pivotal and super effective. I thank you for coming, doing this work. A lot of people who’ve been through rebuilding their homes. It’s true, they wouldn’t want to do this. They might want to share their knowledge, but they may not want to put as much heart and soul into it as you have. And thank you so much for doing this with us.
Pamela Van Halsema: Thank you again. It’s been a very strong and good experience. Thank you.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Do you have any closing thoughts or anything that I should have asked you that I didn’t ask you.
“Even if you haven’t been through a fire or some other emergency, know your neighbors. It starts with a very human one-to-one relationship building. And that is a huge factor in resilience.” -Pamela Van Halsema
Pamela Van Halsema: I would just say that even if you haven’t been through a fire or some other emergency, know your neighbors. It starts on a very human one to one relationship building. And that is a huge factor in resilience. Whether you’re a kid and adult, single, married, whatever, know who your neighbors are. Maybe the closest 10 houses, go bring them a cup of sugar. I don’t know what you’re gonna bring in. Bring him a beer, get to know your neighbors and talk to them. Make sure that you each understand how to help one another on that unfortunate day where it might happen to you and you can keep each other more safe. It’s much worse if you don’t know each other first. You may say, oh, save a life, so it’s going to be worth it. And a block party is fun. Do it in a joyful way. Find joy and hope. It’s through those human relationships that make this whole thing tolerable actually to do because it’s about the people involved.
“It’s through those human relationships that make this whole thing tolerable to do because it’s about the people involved.” -Pamela Van Halsema
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I can’t say anything better than that, so we’re gonna do it right there. And thank you once again, Pamela Van Halsema, for being on The How To Disaster Podcast for the second time.
Pamela Van Halsema: Thank you, Jen.