Pride, resiliency, and bagpipes — Jennifer Thompson on the post-fire rebuild

Two years ago, in the tumultuous aftermath of the devastating wildfires, the Rebuild NorthBay Foundation was formed, with Jennifer Gray Thompson as executive director. The Sonoma native had previously been an assistant to Supervisor Susan Gorin. Suddenly, with the backing of developer/lobbyist Darius Anderson and other influential figures, she was tasked with getting to work on short-term aid and long-term strategy, defining the organization’s role along the way. Here she talks about her work two years in, and how her own life has been, in essence, rebuilt.

The Sun: October, 2017…

Jennifer Thompson: Like many people, the fires changed my life – my entire career shifted into disaster recovery and relief. It’s been hard to talk about the emotional toll because I am acutely aware that I did not run for my life, I did not lose my house. But during the fires, I was terrified of losing my home, the city of Sonoma, the Springs. And because I was in the Emergency Operations Center every day and knew the real risk, it was extremely scary. But I did not want to freak people out, so I adopted a tone of honest optimism.

Sun: What has encouraged you along the way?

JT: The fires affirmed that people really are basically good, even great, when afforded the opportunity. That humankind is not lost to the current divisive state of our nation. That I am so freaking proud of our hometown first responders who made THE difference in how and where our fires were fought. That together, we can do anything.

Sun: You’ve been candid about the emotional toll the experience took. 

JT: As far as my own “rebuild,” the problem was I continued to work for 18 months as though we were still on fire. I listened to Pink’s “Beautiful Trauma” album on repeat in my car for the first six months – LOUD. And I just kept moving onto the next task. Still, after about 18 months, I started feeling very tired and tired of being so stressed. My blood pressure was high, I gained weight. Today, I am finding an actual balance between work and my personal life.

Sun: How did you cope?

JT: I made a change. I admitted that I needed help, and got it through Kaiser. I learned to breathe in ways that can reset it. And yes, I started meditating every morning. I have also had to confront the grief I swallowed during the fires – the fear of losing this place; the subsequent disasters I have viewed since then. If I have to cry, I do. I actually schedule it in the morning after meditation and before the treadmill. My husband, Douglas, keeps me sane. To be clear, I am and will forever be a work in progress. You are not going to see me featured on the cover of Yoga magazines, but I am trying. Bagpipe music helps.

Sun: It’s been two busy years. 

JT: Rebuild NorthBay Foundation was born from the fires – the same week in October – and we are very proud of our success in what is a larger matrix of community organizations all doing their part. Collaboration is key to our success and the outcome of the rebuilding effort for all.


Sun: In a very real sense, rebuilding is an ongoing process. What’s next? 

JT: We always begin with the question, “What do you need and how can we help?” because we believe our role is to fill the need and not set the agenda. In year three, we will continue to collaborate with our public sector partners for the four counties we represent (Sonoma, Napa, Lake, Mendocino). Our next Advocacy trip (October 28-31) to Washington DC will include representatives from all four counties, plus Paradise. We will meet with several elected officials from parties and agencies (HUD, FEMA, FCC, USDA). Rebuild organizes the trips, makes the appointments, and provides support. We know that unless you continue to go back, people will forget.

Sun: And…

JT:  This year, we have $400K for grants to neighborhoods and organizations for projects related to rebuilding and resiliency. We hope to grow this fund to $1M dollars over the next year because there is a ton of need and still much to be done. Rebuilding will take us a minimum of eleven years. We’ve been collaborating with Rebuild Paradise Foundation, our brother organization, and Malibu Foundation for 11 months. We believe we are better together and when we share knowledge, we recover better, safer, faster, and stronger. I also travel to other places affected by disaster to talk about the “ecosystem of care” we have created here.

Sun: Are we as a community safer than we were in September of 2017?

JT: This is a huge question. I think we are all more aware of our vulnerability. And because of climate change and a 50-year history of not employing regular controlled burns, we continue to be vulnerable to more fast-moving firestorms. I do absolutely believe our first responders have increased their aggressive approach to fires in impressive and effective ways, but they are not magical. We need a multi-faceted approach to reducing our risk.

Sun: What’s your bumper sticker?

JT: Be The Change