Encore: How to Rebuild as a Public Sector Official with Tennis Wick
“You’re in that place where disaster hasn’t hit you, but you know it’s coming. Start training now.” -Tennis Wick
In the aftermath of the devastating 2017 wildfires that destroyed thousands of homes in Sonoma County, Tennis Wick found himself at the center of recovery efforts as the director of Permit Sonoma.
This interview explores how to effectively navigate the dual roles of public servant and fire survivor in the crucial period after the fires. Listen in as Tennis details the immense challenges of the initial disaster phase from managing emergency response operations around the clock to setting up a local assistance center where displaced residents could access vital services.
Jennifer and Tennis also discuss how Permit Sonoma adapted its processes to better serve overwhelmed homeowners seeking permits with a commitment to rapid five-day turnarounds, creative problem-solving through the block captain system and leveraging community relationships, and lessons learned about the importance of mitigation and managing wildfire risk proactively.
- 02:11: On the Disaster Frontline
- 11:15: Meeting the Needs
- 16:04: How to Approach Rebuild Projects
- 20:35 The Role of a Block Captain
- 25:15 The Problem with Contractor Fraud
- 30:19 Be Disaster Smart
- 36:51 Risk Mitigation is a Collective Effort
- 42:31 How Helpers Can Help Themselves
Be disaster smart and prepared! Listen in as @JenGrayThompson interviews Sonoma County PRMD Director, Tennis Wick on how to successfully transition from disaster response to recovery. #Recover #Rebuild #Reimagine #NorthBay #podcast #wildfire #disaster #credential #rebuild #recoveryapproaches #leadership #reinforcements #blockcaptain #contractorfraud #insurance #riskmitigation #SmartDisasterIntelligence #funding #equity
01:15 “We often look towards the public sector in times of great disaster for all of the answers, we also often place all of the blame at their feet. But one thing we forget is that there’s a human being at the center of that too. And they’ve often undergone the disaster themselves.” -Jennifer Gray Thomson
15:03 “Setting up a system where people could come in and start rebuilding their lives wasn’t just the bureaucracy of getting their house re-permitted. It was helping people recreate their identities.” -Tennis Wick
27:15 “People are under constant strain if they don’t have a good, reputable contractor. That stress probably starts way back in insurance. If you’re under insured, you’re already coming in with less money than you need to build back what you had. So unless you’re going to build a smaller place, you’re constantly going to be under pressure.” -Tennis Wick
31:07 “We have to stop responding to disasters, and get in front of it once and for all.” -Tennis Wick
32:18 “Sea level rise has accelerated. Fires have accelerated. Flooding has accelerated. Drought has accelerated. You can either be overwhelmed by it, or you can start planning for it and being smart about it.” -Tennis Wick
39:20 “We’re all at risk. So unless we want to suffer the tragedy, we’ve got to respond collectively to this.” -Tennis Wick
39:44 “We’re spending billions of dollars of tax money in disaster response. That’s certainly not the best way to be using our funding. We’re going to end up spending less money working on smart disaster intelligence and proper management of natural resources.” -Tennis Wick
42:24 “You’re in that place where disaster hasn’t hit you, but you know it’s coming. Start training now.” -Tennis Wick
46:17 “As a helper, you have to prioritize your own physical and mental well being. It’s good to give a lot, but you’re not supposed to give everything.” -Jennifer Gray Thompson
47:10 “Turn off the media for a while and experience what’s happening. There’s a lot more good news out there than bad.” -Tennis Wick
Tennis Wick has served as Permit Sonoma Director since November 2013. The agency balances environmental protection and sustainable development of Sonoma County’s natural resources through the agency’s planning, engineering, building, well and septic, code enforcement, and customer service sections.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Welcome to the podcast of How To Disaster, recover, rebuild and reimagine. My name is Jennifer Gray Thompson, and I’m the CEO of After The Fire. We have a very special guest on this week’s episode, Mr. Tennis Wick is the director of PRMD for the County of Sonoma. He is on the show because he has a lot of experience navigating disasters while they’re happening, and also navigating how do you rebuild? From the public side, what is it that you need to know about? And how do you even navigate that as a public sector official as well as the person on the other side of the rebuilding? I want Tennis to come on today because I saw his work during the 2017 wildfire disaster that struck the North Bay of San Francisco. It was an incredibly hard thing to navigate. I feel like he really showed up for people, and it was not without a great personal sacrifice in many ways. We often look towards the public sector in times of great disaster for all of the answers. We also often place all of the blame at their feet. And it’s not that that isn’t always warranted. But one thing we forget is that there’s a human being at the center of that too, and they’ve often undergone the disaster themselves.
One of the things that we do at After The Fire is we help public officials actually navigate this time. And we also help the public navigate public officials. This is really important work because there is no way to actually get through a disaster without collaboration from all sectors, public, private and nonprofit. That requires a measure of grace at the time when it’s most difficult sometimes to offer it. So I wanted Tennis to come on to talk about his experience navigating four mega fires, one flood in the past four years alone.
So once again, welcome to the podcast, How To Disaster.
Welcome to the show, Tennis Wick.
Tennis Wick: Well, good morning, Jennifer. Thanks for having me on. Tennis Wick, Director of Permits Sonoma, where the land use regulation agency for the county. We balance environmental protection with sustainable development. And we also staff the planning and intelligence section emergency operations for the county.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I’ve had the pleasure of working with you for about four and a half years in the county. And during that time, in 2017, we underwent a mega fire disaster recovery for counties heavily impacting Sonoma County. We lost about 6000 units of housing, and it really was a sign of things to come for the rest of the American West. I’m hoping that you can talk to people today about your first year experience just as a human being in a lead position for the County of Sonoma, and how you experienced that event.
Tennis Wick: Sure. So about 10 days before the 2017 Complex Fire, we actually had done a tabletop exercise with our team and emergency operations gaming a fire that happened above Oakmont. So we had the strategy in place about how to respond to a fire. What we weren’t prepared for is what happened that night. And for me, I live in Petaluma and my phone started ringing around midnight to get up to the Emergency Operation Center in Santa Rosa right away. So I flipped into my clothes, got into my truck, and started driving out of town. I didn’t get as far as Lydig Avenue, just on the edge of downtown.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: People in another area, can you give them the measurements of that because they may not know it.
Tennis Wick: As the name would imply it is a market road that leads from the coast in the agricultural part of the West County into Petaluma and connects us with the Bay Area. So major arteries at midnight, there’s usually very few people on it. And when I got out there, there were thousands of cars streaming from the West County through town. Of course, we could smell smoke. And as I passed the gas station on the edge of town, there were people already fighting over gasoline. And I thought, okay, this is way better than anything we’ve dealt with. And then of course, going up the highway with almost nobody going northbound and all the southbound lanes for all the roads leading out of the county jammed. We were already in chaos. Really, that’s what it was. And when I got into the Emergency Operations bunker, the setting was pretty similar. I think this was the biggest disaster that the county had ever faced at that time. I’ve come to learn after going through many disasters since then here in Sonoma County and in other jurisdictions where we’ve provided support that that’s the nature of it. There’s a lot of disinformation flying back and forth, and our job is to sort that out, figure out what’s really happening, where it’s happening, and how we get resources there.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: So this is the first time that anybody had experienced a mega fire of this magnitude and had taken out not just homes in the wildland urban interface, but it actually took the freeway overpass around to get another 1500 homes. So you walk into the Emergency Operations Center. One of the things I talk to a lot of leaders on this podcast, and one of the things that I always like to bring in is there is the call to duty and a call to action and to help. And at the same time, managing your own trauma because it was an incredibly traumatic thing to witness. So can you talk about what the next 10 to 14 days like for you?
Tennis Wick: Non-stop. We typically are told that we’re gonna operate on 12 hour shifts, and it ended up being pretty much around the clock the first three days. And as you said, with parts of the fire attacking parts of Santa Rosa like CoffeePark that no one would ever think of is the wildland urban interface. And also, Oakmont and then coming down Fountaingrove towards downtown Santa Rosa, and that threat remained for over a week. So we were even looking at where to set up a local assistance center in Santa Rosa. At the same time, we were also realizing the struggle that if we put it in certain locations, we’d still have the risk of the fire taking up the assistant center. So we were still fighting the fire and trying to help fire survivors simultaneously. It was extraordinary.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: And you had the extra added bonus that we had many fires at once. The Tubbs Fire was the major fire, but Napa was also on fire which borders Sonoma County and where I live in Sonoma Valley. We were surrounded by a ring of fire which really hampered the county’s ability to actually serve a valley of 40,000 people. And that was an extraordinary thing to witness both our strengths and our vulnerabilities. They also had 400 patients from a very, very medically fragile community, Sonoma Developmental Centers. So can you address how the Emergency Operations Center had to be creative at times to make sure that the needs were met?
Tennis Wick: Yeah. I’m glad that you brought up the Nuns’ Fire and the fire in relation to Sonoma Valley because that was an extra ordinary time. My family, like your family, has been in Sonoma Valley for generations. Very close to heart for me. And the incident commander who’s the CalFire chief was in charge of the whole thing called at one point and said, his team, which is an extraordinary group of people were tapped out. And he wasn’t sure how long he could hold the fire off from the town of Sonoma. He needed us to come up with an evacuation plan for Sonoma Valley, and then we had four hours to do it before he would have to execute. So I’ve told numerous groups since then that it really showed the power of a liberal arts education because the people on our team are from all sorts of backgrounds, technical and liberal arts, and that emphasis on public service, critical thinking and clear communication. The pillars that we use for hiring in our civilian life here in Permit Sonoma served us really well that night. Because you can go through all the training in the world you want. But when you receive a task like that, you need creative thought and people that can work well and communicate operate quickly. So we had to do what people might see more typically for hurricanes in Florida and figure out contraflow on state highways to get tens of thousands of people on public transit and out of harm’s way.
So part of it was identifying the most vulnerable populations, as you mentioned, those that sit in the developmental center, those at senior homes. Figure out how we are going to wrangle every single bus in the region to come in. How do we get them as many cars are going out? And then where do we take them? So all of the sensitive populations had to go to places outside of harm’s way in the East Bay in the inner Delta. That was an incredible logistics exercise. And then for the fire survivors who needed another place to go, we at first were relocating them to the Civic Centre in Marin County, and then found out two hours later that we wouldn’t be able to. So I called my old friend, Steve Page. It’s an example of the extraordinary nature of Sonoma County. So here’s someone I’ve known for decades, called him and said, Steve, I need your help. And he said, what can we do? And said, I need a place to put 20,000 people. And he said, okay, we’ll be ready. What else do you need? It was my 92nd conversation. There was no histrionics. It was just about, what did we do to help the community? And that just galvanized things for our team. And up until 10 minutes of the execution point, we had a plan in place. It was being implemented. Transportation was coming in logistics. We’re already setting up at the Raceway. And that’s when the incident commander called and said, we think we can hold the fire.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Wow, that’s interesting. Because you and I have had a lot of conversations about this fire and a lot of experience together, and I knew that you had called Steve Page. And for our listeners who don’t know who Steve Page is, he just retired as the longtime manager of Sonoma Raceway, which is a very large prominent Raceway in town. He’s one of the most steady, competent, kind and admirable leaders that I’ve ever worked with. I know that I’ve benefited from your phone call because I evacuated my sister, my entire family, my mother, my niece, my husband, and that we went to go to the Sonoma Raceway. And that’s where we evacuated too. I slept in my car with my dogs because I still had to work. And immediately when we pulled up, I remember finally rounding that corner. It was at night because it took a long time and all the lights were blaring, and there were people waiting for us with whatever we needed, and then coming around and checking on us. So it really was one of the most moving experiences especially as somebody who’s a helper. And I don’t accept a lot of help, which is something we will talk about in this podcast, to feel safe and to feel rescued in that moment. So I applaud that decision. And it’s also the value of relationships. You knew exactly who you were dealing with ahead of time. And there’s just so much to be said about leaning on those relationships in a time of great crisis.
Tennis Wick: We fortunately haven’t let go up to this day aside from my office phone annoyingly going off with a spam call just now. I know this among all my peers and professional life that people I deal with are on cell phones now. We don’t use our office phones anymore so it has quickened the relationships and deepened the relationships that we have with people after this disaster. So it’s a good thing.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: It’s very important. Because then at some point, you realize, especially working 20 hours a day, I would feel guilty for the four hours I was sleeping. But you do get to the other side, and the fire becomes contained. It actually burned in our area for 24 days. But it was contained pretty well after about 10 to 12 days, the danger was lessened. And then for you in addition to doing that, you then had to make decisions with the county leadership about how is it do we even begin to approach rebuilding 6000 units of housing, and we’re going to do this with people who are traumatized and have had a lot of things done to them that were not their choice. And all of a sudden, you have at least 5000 people who have never wanted to build a house ever, have to become independent contractors. So that’s what that was like.
Tennis Wick: So it was an adrenaline drop where you’re just constantly going, I think I lost 10 pounds over the course of about two weeks just being on adrenaline the entire time. So we had to transition out of disaster response and into recovery. So what it meant for our organization is inspectors moved out into the field with CalFire peers and started doing the important code determinations on each of the properties. So red tag, yellow tag, green tag, along with a damage assessment that’s done for emergency management purposes on thousands of properties. So that was going on in one arm of our organization. The other arm of the organization was working with some colleagues in the county on a joint local assistance center with the city taking over the old newspaper or building in the downtown of Santa Rosa while the fire was still going, and setting up a system where people could come in and start rebuilding their lives. And that wasn’t just the bureaucracy of getting your house re-permitted, it was really helping people recreate their identities.
And what I mean by that is most people in these fires, they lost all their credentials. So they lost birth certificates, passports, driver’s license, all the things that those of us who haven’t been through disaster just take for granted. And all of the benefits that accrue from those documents, they lost all that. So we have people in the local assistance center from the Department of Motor Vehicles, from Social Security Administration, from the State Department for both the United States and Mexico, so that people could get that part done. They could then move into working with insurance advocates, with people from the construction industry, from the licensing contractors board, things they could learn about what to look for when they’re hiring and not hiring a builder. So in addition to getting records on their property, it took sometimes three hours to work through all that. But they came out the door really thankful because they walked out with a provisional driver’s license, passport, their birth certificates, which of course come from many states or different countries, and are starting to get their life back together. And then we had to re-open our doors here at Permit Sonoma where we normally serve about 150 people a day in our permit center. First day that we opened, I believe it was 425. So an extraordinary number of people came through who were with raw nerves, some with anger, some in tears, some both.
The moment I will always remember was this couple who would be about my parents age. So they’re approaching 90’s, they’ve lost their house. And the IRS is a very proud man who was just exhausted. His wife was asking the right questions and getting records for their property, and you could just see that he was about to break down and lose it. And our county surveyor Gabriel saw this and just quietly went out, kind of took him to the back of the office where he could have his cry, compose himself and come back and join his spouse. And I thought that’s the moment things started building back for us.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: It’s amazing. I think he’s a great surveyor, by the way. It’s amazing though how being human to each other, like in our best, that’s the thing. I actually love that disaster is a terrible thing that happened, and I don’t love that it didn’t happen at all. but I do appreciate the opportunities for the very best of humankind to show up. We’re going to make mistakes. We’re going to sometimes grouch even at each other or make decisions from a place of drama. Oh, yeah, you know me. Yeah, yeah. Tennis and I are friends. So, yeah, he knows. It’s fine.
Tennis Wick: I still fear you to this day even when we’re on camera.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: You don’t fear me at all. I tried to work so funny. Here’s my interjection. As I’m driving back to the county after two weeks of serving in the Valley, I am going back to my cubicle with the window view, a small cubicle in the county. And I look up in the hills of Glen Ellen and I say, what I want is to have dedicated my life to rebuilding this place to help these people pick it. I want to put all my whatever I can do. And I don’t know what I can do, really. So the first person I tried to go work for was you. I wanted to be your ombudsman because I really respect you. And I like working with you. And so that is a compliment, except you didn’t hire me. So I’m okay with that because I think I’ve landed on my feet. It’s all good.
Tennis Wick: Thank you for that. Well, much better for you.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: It’s actually a great fit for me, but also still allows me to work with people like you. And you specifically. I do choose the people I admire to be on this podcast, and this is why we’re here. But it was such an extraordinary thing to work for the public sector because so much anger, trauma and grief. It was in the community, really. For someone who’s never experienced a wildfire disaster, it is very much a run for your life situation that gets progressively often way worse than you think it can possibly be. This is I think is really bad and somehow worse because the fire monster is still coming for you. And people lose NYC, you said that unlike wind and rain, sometimes they lose everything. But often, they don’t. Or they can find their identity. And so it was like people do evacuate in their skivvies or naked, they run for their lives. And so you are now having to serve a population who needed to rebuild their lives, and to do it in a way that reduces the trauma. And one of the things that I really like about how we approach this in Sonoma County has to do with the block captain system.
Tennis Wick: I’m glad you brought it up.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I’d love it. If you could talk about how that actually served both the public and the public sector servants because we try to talk, we try to talk communities into that. We highly recommend it, put it that way. And it’s often met from the public sector side with a lot of concern that now it’s going to be organized and weaponized against them. And I always try to help them understand that it’s actually us doing our part. So can you talk about the impact here?
Tennis Wick: I think the block captain’s idea, at least in my experience, really emanated with Supervisor Gore. It was really great because he made sure that the bureaucracy didn’t do its control psychology thing, which it typically does. It says, we’re going to have a meeting in this location at this time. We’re going to give you this information, you’re going to assimilate it and leave. That’s the convention of how the government works. And he turned it on its head and said, fire survivors, look at Santa Rosa as a community or Sonoma as a community, not whether they’re in the incorporated or unincorporated area. So we’re going to let these communities who already figure out who already know who they are, and they’re going to come to us with their leaders. We’re going to go out into their community, which obviously had been decimated in the case of Larkfield and Coffee Park. We’re gonna let them tell us where it’s convenient for them to meet, at what time and place, and we’re going to be there whether we’re in the water utility, the county government of the city government, and we’re going to be there with people from the trades and nonprofits, whoever these people need. And your job is to just be available. That was great. It set a tone that said from the leadership down that these people are our first priority, listen to them. And from that, you’ll figure out what you need to do. That was fabulous.
And fortunately, people like David Gulen, who was my counterpart in the city at the time, were already friends outside work. It really helped reinforce with us what we were already informally talking about was that we were taking a common approach to the rebuilding portion of it. Both organisations were already looking at record business before the disaster. And having fire survivors have to wait in the same line, we let our people just not be realistic. We realized the local assistance center was a common success. We needed to build on that in a little bit different way so we could provide the oversight we needed to. But we brought in consultant teams at each city, at each government center and committed to a five day turnaround on permits. And maybe that would have happened without the block captain process. But certainly after going to the first couple of meetings with block captains, there was no way we could do things the way we used to. We had to come up with something that was different. And yeah, it worked. In fact, the trailers in which the rebuilding happened here at the resiliency permit center, we still have it in the old Planning Commission Chambers. But it used to be in trailers out here for years, those trailers are finally leaving today.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Oh, really? Wow. I remember when they went up, they were up within like two weeks post disaster. And also, I think really what you’re touching upon is the dedication to that sort of creative problem solving that you mentioned at the very beginning there too. And also a commitment to meet people where they’re at, that’s a heart that is critical in disaster. Our first question we always ask sits at the center of our organization. As we say, what do you need, and how can we help, which is very different from, we know you have knees, here’s what we’re willing to do.
Tennis Wick: Started to impact our practice after a disaster in our regular work.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: You didn’t mean it this way, but it ended up being great. It’s very much part of our work. You know the consultant team that you brought in, and we don’t need to name them necessarily because we can’t endorse. But they have been in so many other areas. We work in Santa Cruz, and now they’re there. And we work in Jackson County, southern Oregon. I believe they’re coming on there as well. They’ve done a great job with Paradise. You accidentally gave him this specialty, and it reduces the trauma significantly for the people who are having to undergo it. It’s not just the trauma of running for your life, and then it’s the trauma of losing your house, and the journey of actually rebuilding your house. And for some people, despite best efforts, they were still victims of contractor fraud. Can you address that?
Tennis Wick: The contractor fraud part or the whole–
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Either all or all of the above, but contractor fraud is just always a major concern. And no, I don’t think any disaster community ever escaped it.
Tennis Wick: No, I don’t think so either. You can read books by Carl Hiaasen that actually find a way of making it humorous. But it is something that unfortunately happens in every disaster. Looting and fraud is part of human nature. Unfortunately, in fact, we are just talking about the distress that the entire state is under with all the multiple disasters not having enough professionally licensed contractors to do the work that needs to be done, the strain on labor and materials. So what our contractors both in Permit Sonoma in the rebuild division are facing and the resiliency permit center is that they inspect homes for code compliance, but not all quality assurance that the homeowner is contracted for. So if you’re building a stout and meets code requirements, it passes inspection. But there might be really horrible installation of cabinets and countertops. And if you’re the homeowner, all that’s important to you because you’re pulling every financial string possible to make it all work. And people are under constant strain. If they don’t have a good reputable contractor, you know that stress probably starts way back in insurance. If you’re underinsured, you’re already coming in with less money than you need to build back what you had. So unless you’re going to build a smaller place, you’re constantly going to be under pressure. So that’s one of the things we really guard against. And fortunately, we have a district attorney that works. People in her office are assigned to work with us at a local level on contractor fraud, and also with local investigators from the licensing board that are based here in Santa Rosa.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I think that for some people who’ve never experienced a disaster, one of the common things that happens is everyone wants to get back to normal right away. And even though that day is gone, that you can’t get your seven back, it’s not happening, and also deserves its own level of grief. But part of that means that people who are in this survivor position, they make a lot of decisions trying to get everything right back to where it needed to be. It’s a trauma response. When we do a lot of work with Fannie Mae, and if they underwrite your mortgage, you can actually push your, if you have a 30 year fix, you’re near seven, you can actually push your seven to your 31. I think that the more people understand that there are mechanisms to help you. You need a minute, a lot has changed since 2017. Now in the world of rebuilding, rebuilding takes many, many years. Sonoma County is really far, far ahead of the curve for us. Ahead of predictions by far. And there’s many reasons for this. And the first reason is our land values are very high, and we are incentivized.
Tennis Wick: And because of that, people are usually indebted. And that came along with an insurance requirement that valuation and insurance didn’t necessarily carry through to our more rural counties where it’s really been hard to rebuild.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Actually, we transitioned into our evolution in our rebranding, which is After The Fire. Our major concern is rural counties. It’s very, very difficult to recover or rebuild if you’re not a well resourced County. You can be rural. We are rural and well resourced, but most rural counties are not well resourced so we can talk about that a lot. But I would like you to talk about in the last four years, you’ve navigated four mega fires and one flood. So talk to us between 2017 and today, what have you learned? What has surprised you the most? You’ve learned a lot, but what would you want somebody who’s listening to this podcast to know who is a public sector leader? And then what would you want a fire survivor to know on how to navigate this?
Tennis Wick: Well, that’s quite a question. Well, maybe I can relate it to something that happened most recently. Because you’re right, I feel like we have been on average in emergency operations 60% of the year since 2017, either responding to flood, fire, power shutdown, or pandemic. We’ve been involved in all of them. It has created a level of readiness that makes me incredibly proud of being part of the county family. It’s exhausting especially to do that and then fall back into your regular civilian life. And then at a moment’s notice, back into disaster. But what that constant back and forth has taught me is we can’t live this way anymore. We have to stop responding to disasters and get in front of it once and for all. So yesterday, there’s a press release informing the public that we’ve released our draft hazard mitigation plan. This is a plan that people use to take as an obligation, not the first priority. And this is basically how we respond to different types of hazards, and it’s necessary to have it in place and have it certified in order to get federal funding. Well, now we understand existentially why it’s important. And that disaster doesn’t care about bureaucratic borders. So we get it in concert with a number of other local governments, cities, fire districts all together. So I think it prepares us better as an overall community for disaster, and will have us ready for the kind of funding we need to respond. But it’s still a response document. However, it will help us as we overhaul the general plan to start addressing some of the climate action needs that are obviously here, because sea level rise is accelerated, fires have accelerated, flooding has accelerated, drought has accelerated. You can either be overwhelmed by it, or you can start planning for it and being smart about it.
So one of the things that happened in this last fire was, as I related to people, we have a really great relationship with Ben Nichols who’s the CalFire Chief, born and raised here. The man knows every contour in this county. And he came in for a midnight burrito dinner in the bunker. It was a rare moment because many of the staff from our natural resource and fire and planning staff are also in emergency operations. So we took an opportunity to talk to our fire specialists about how we get in front of this, how do we stop responding to fire and learn to manage it and live with it. And you start by interviewing your fire specialists, your fire expert, and he said that fire is always looking for its next meal. And with the warm app that we have up here over with the whole county show, he took us through. So what are the three areas we need to be focusing on? And he pointed to the lower Russian River. The Walbridge fire was just coming through there. We’re trying to Mark West, which is just topographically meteorologically ideal for fire over and over again as we’ve learned.
And then as you mentioned, fire has tried but failed so far, thankfully, to get through Glen Ellen, Kenwood and over Sonoma mountain dependent on the Valley. So with that charge, we started applying for the bridge grant to build resilient infrastructure and community applications. We, especially our fire and natural resource people took all of their experience from all these disasters and their story professions and put that energy into this proposal. And what we told the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the governor’s office for emergency services is that Sonoma County is a different kind of place. It’s a very representative County in some ways, but also has this unique experience to constantly respond to disasters in a relatively short period of time. And well, we think with a population of half a million and a million acres with so much of this wildland, it’s at risk of fire in private hands. We can create a management with all different tools that starts with the building and works out from the wildland to focus on structural hardening defensive space and vegetation management with all measure of tribal partners and learning how to do prescribed burns, fire experts and prescribed burns, taking care of fire breaks that we’ve already built it with all these fires. Agricultural partners who can show us how to use livestock and crop planting as firebreaks. Mechanical fuels management, hand fuels management, all of these measures in these three geographic areas, and then we can scale it up for a whole county. And then we can become an example for how that can apply in the state and the federal government.
So it was with great pleasure and surprise during a fire division staff meeting when this little email came up on the right hand corner of my computer screen during the Zoom that said, White House press conference, please click here. At first, I thought it was spam and thought, what the heck. So I clicked on it. And it was the White House that was the president along with Governor Newsom, Vice President Harris, and Governor Brown from Oregon announcing that Sonoma County would be the first recipient of a bridge grant application in the country. So out of a $400 million program, 37 million of that is dedicated to us. So we’ve found the money to match the Grant, thank you Board of Supervisors for giving us the opportunity to innovate and spend the time on this application that we need. Now’s the fun part, Mark Geller who heads OES wanted to (inaudible) on our promise that we would live up to our end of the bargain. And here we go.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: And I think it was a moment of pride for every person in Sonoma County to see all of the hard work that has been put into actually applying for that grant and the work, everything we’ve been through for the past almost nearly four years, and that we collectively lean into learning and how to do better. And then also how to pay it forward. I love that he keeps that, don’t tell him that. He’ll never listen to this podcast, probably. So it’s fine. He’s the head of Cal OES. And he basically said, do this right, and do this well. And what we know is that you’re going to do this right while you’re going to make mistakes. But also, you’re going to pay it forward to other communities so that they too can start a little bit ahead of me. I feel like in Sonoma County, we are innovating our way through this, which is great. But I’m always shocked by the lack of systems that were created. I feel like they should have been created 40 years ago, but we didn’t know. And now our big job is to mitigate the risk. I am an ardent supporter of vegetation management and aggressive investments there because we have historically mismanaged our wild lands or neglected them. We’ve made it political as opposed to, it is a public health issue. It’s an infrastructure issue. So can you talk about the shift in the paradigm that is in the process of happening and is imperfect? I personally would like to see about 100 million in the hopper for vegetation management on private lands. I recently got a question from a reporter though who said, why should our federal dollars go to help people on private land mitigate their risk? So I know how I answered, but I want to hear how you’re going to as well.
Tennis Wick: It’s a fair question to ask. As a community, we’ve allowed people to move into the wildland urban interface. So collectively, we all own that whether we think it was the right thing to do or not. That’s the environmental setting we have. We’re all at risk. Tell and ask people in Coffee Park where the wildland urban interface is, we’re all in it. I think with climate change coming at us in multiple ways, folks, we’re all at risk. So unless we want to suffer the tragedy of the commons, most of us suffer because one person doesn’t act. We’ve got to respond collectively to this. If there are political, social equities and economic equities that have to be worked out in the meantime, so be it. But now, we’re spending billions of dollars of tax money in disaster response. That’s certainly not the best way to be using our funding. I think we’re going to end up spending less money working on smart disaster intelligence and proper management of natural resources.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: It costs about six times the amount to actually respond to a disaster than it does actually mitigate the risk of the disaster. So the public pays for it regardless. I’m hoping that we can integrate the question and the very important mission of equity into wildland fuel mitigation. Because every time we have one of these mega fires, it exacerbates in the neck, our already existing inequities that are most at risk of actually for their health being affected by the smoke alone is definitely a question of equity. And so they don’t work. If you are a marginalized community, your ability to recover at the same rate is just not completely unequal.
Tennis Wick: There’s an element of the brick grant that will focus on that, because it’s something that we didn’t do our best of in 2017. And I think we all have had to acknowledge that. And things have improved. Are they optimal? Nope. We’ve got to do a lot better.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: We do, but I have confidence. And I think one of the main things is we have to continue to call each other in and really resist the opportunity to call each other out. So often, there’s a lot of anxiety that’s played out on social media about a lot of armchair experts on wind, rain, fire, energy, COVID and health. And I think there’s a lot to be said for having a push back to the return of some respect for expertise. I don’t tell you how to build a building because you went to school for that. Things during a disaster, I would like us to invest in Alicia Sanchez, at KBBF. And to make sure that all these PSAs go out verbally on the radio in Spanish and indigenous languages. For example, they will not be at our emergency shelters because of those sorts of things, but I think that we are definitely getting there. So what’s your advice? So you say that this is a person who’s in Montana. And for some reason, they’ve picked up this podcast and all they want to know, how do I navigate this? How do I navigate the trauma in my community? And at the same time, as a helper, how do I take care of myself?
Tennis Wick: I could say, as a local government official, you’re in that place where disaster hasn’t hit you, but you kind of know it’s coming. Start training now. And you know this from your time in county service, it was treated in Sonoma County as an afterthought. It was this grudging obligation we had to fulfill, and that culture has completely changed. We now use it as a placement on a team, and we’re about 40 out of 150 people, 40 active in emergency operations. And frankly, probably another 50 who are in field response. You have to perform well in your civilian role in order to be considered. So it is almost in some ways an excellence academy for public service. Unfortunately, it also feeds back on itself by creating, I think, a better public servant that comes out of that back into civilian work. But what I would say with that in mind to my colleagues who haven’t been through this yet, you will. I don’t know what form it’s going to take, but it’s going to happen to you. So start training now. Reach out to your local FEMA reps, feel free to reach out to me. I talk with people all over North America, Canada and the United States. I’ve been up to British Columbia and spoken there, my home province away from California. And it’s all of us sharing. I’ve learned a whole lot in British Columbia, especially from how they worked with First Nations people who are way more involved in disaster response and planning. So you also bring back something in that experience you gain, it comes back to the community manifold. And you can give back yourself through mutual aid. But I would much rather be talking with people in this forum and directly off camera about it before their disaster hits. So yeah, I’d say start preparing now. It’s coming your way.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: And it’s very hard because we’re human and we engage in magical thinking that it won’t happen to us and we see it on the news. And I think until I saw our media, my hometown on CNN, I had no clue that we’ve been through earthquakes. We’ve been through other things. But there’s something about being the object of the story that made it more heartbreaking, even though it was good. The intentions were fine, but it was a surreal experience in that sense for sure. So Tennis, how do you take care of yourself as a public leader? Because one of the things that we talk about is how to help the helpers. I would love it if you don’t mind being a little bit personal for you.
Tennis Wick: It came home to me in a number of ways. I was actually up in the state capitol at a conference four years ago. And of all the risks that I’ve had, I’ve had to say goodbye to my family twice during natural disasters because I wasn’t sure if I was going to see him again. So I make it through all of this stuff. I’m in a crosswalk near Governor Brown’s flat, and I’m run over by a car. So I had to recover from that during disasters, something I still live with. And so now I just make my own personal health. Number one priority, physical and mental health. I get lots of sleep. I don’t drink any more. Caffeine is my only sin. I make sure that I spend a lot more time with my family, and really focus on those core parts of my personal life that are really important to me. So that’s my own approach.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I want to make sure that people really, really hear that you have to be a helper, you have to prioritize your own physical and mental well being. We’ve seen a lot of people, our colleagues and friends who have prioritized the community. So it’s good to give a lot, but you’re not supposed to give everything. I think that’s really what I’m hoping for.
Tennis Wick: Make time for yourself.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: So we’re gonna close out here, and I guess I would like to know is, do you have anything to add that I haven’t asked or anything you’d like the public to know. And including, that’s very nice of you to say that they can reach out to you directly. And to be clear, it is Permit Sonoma. And it’s quick, you can find him online. Or you can look at the first slide in this podcast, and it will give you contact information.
Tennis Wick: Please reach out. And I would say to people what I see happening. And it’s not just in the public sector, but I see it throughout the community. Turn off the media for a while and just experience what’s happening. Because I think actually, there’s a lot more good news out there than bad that we are finding a way to respond. You turn on the 6:00 o’clock news, and you think the entire state is burning, and damnation is tomorrow. It’s not. We’re actually finding ways to get in front of the problem and start solving it. And as long as we all stay focused, it’s easy to find in this environment the worst case. I am focusing on people who will work with me to find the best case and make it better. And I see it out there every day, and that’s what gives me hope. I have every expectation that we’re going to successfully deal with climate change and disaster.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: And I’m positive that the only way we’re going to do it is together. Thank you so much. Tennis Wick, Director of Permit Sonoma at the County of Sonoma. I appreciate your time and your friendship, and all of your work and service to the community.
Tennis Wick: Likewise, my friend, I look forward to seeing you in person. Take care.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: You too.