The Fire Within: Jennifer Gray Thompson Has a Passion for Community Recovery

You might say that Jennifer Gray Thompson, a Sonoma resident helping communities rebuild after life-changing wildfires and megafires, was destined for this line of work. But with her mission rooted in community disaster, she continues to suffer an inherent degree of unease. “I still get afraid, and I’ve learned to live with a certain degree of anxiety,” she says.

Looking back on October 2017, day five of the Sonoma County fires was the worst for her, as the skies all around the city of Sonoma were smoky and glowing. “We were surrounded, and authorities were pretty certain Sonoma was going to burn down that night,” she says. “I didn’t lose my house––I might have been able to handle that––but Sonoma is my home, and all those memories would have been gone.”

Some of those memories may be bittersweet, but a testament to Gray Thompson’s strong character. She dropped out of high school in Sonoma and was homeless for a time, couch-surfing and working in a local restaurant. “Trying to navigate being a teenager in the 1980s was difficult,” recalls Gray Thompson, 53. “Those years were dark, but I had some good friendships, and some I still have to this day, and that’s what sustained me. I had a small tribe of friends I could lean on, so I didn’t feel entirely alone. But I don’t like to romanticize those years.”

It’s also fortunate she avoided addiction issues during that time, she adds. “Because I dabbled in all of it, but didn’t develop a problem with it. I wasn’t smarter than anyone else, but there was just no room for error during that time. Nobody else was going to take care of me. I was afraid of falling all the way into the abyss, so knew I had to make good choices.”

Learning to listen

Despite those lost years in limbo, Gray Thompson went on to graduate from Dominican University and become an educator. She later earned a Master’s of Public Administration from the University of Southern California’s Price School of Public Policy. In Sonoma County, she was working as an aide to 1st District Supervisor Susan Gorin when the Tubbs Fire roared through Santa Rosa on Oct. 9, 2017, followed quickly by the Sonoma Valley fires.

The county was ill-prepared for the firestorms and, once the flames were brought under control after more than a week of devastation, Gray Thompson was motivated to collaborate with others to establish a nonprofit that would look at those deficiencies and help fire victims rebound. From the ashes, the Rebuild NorthBay Foundation was created, and she became its executive director. “Rebuild was dedicated to helping the region rebuild better, greener, safer and faster,” she says. In 2021, following additional devastating wildfires in other parts of California and elsewhere, her team launched After the Fire USA, with her as CEO, in response to the new “era of the megafire,” a relatively recent chronic climate-based disaster scenario, she adds.

During Rebuild’s first year, Gray Thompson said she was trying to follow someone else’s vision for the nonprofit. “Not that that person was wrong, but from the first day I took the job I discovered my strength was to listen. I learned so much about wildfire and being in trauma at the same time.”

Her memories of that terrible week around Sonoma five-and-a-half years ago showed her how to respect and empathize with fire victims moving forward. “At one point that week I was interviewed by a local TV station, and when they turned off their gear and walked away, I burst into tears. I felt I’d just let myself be exploited for their gain. From that experience I vowed not to exploit others experiencing trauma.”

Working with victims of the fires in Lake County, she says, also taught her how to be more respectful. “I saw the inequity between affluent counties such as Napa and Sonoma, compared to Lake and Mendocino counties, which are more rural and less affluent.”

Gray Thompson is now considered one of the nation’s leading experts in community recovery from wildfire, working at the federal level and dispatching delegations of fire survivors into other hard-hit communities such as Boulder County, Colorado [the Marshall Fire in December 2021], and Oregon [the Santiam Fire in August-December 2020]. She has made presentations at several national conferences on the subject, and is a cofounder of CANVAS, an association of disaster professionals who “listen locally, act regionally and reform nationally,” she says.

Forbes takes notice

She has now moved beyond wildfires and even the boundaries of America. Earlier this year she assisted a man in Turkey who lost 18 family members in the massive earthquake that shook that nation in late February. “I’ve been coaching him over the phone about putting together rebuilding and resiliency groups for his community,” says Gray Thompson. “He told me I’m the only disaster professional who didn’t try to dissuade him from doing so, and he wants me to verify and confirm his instincts.

“I won’t turn down anyone who wants to help their community following a disaster, even if it’s in another country.”

Her expertise and accomplishments of the past few years have not gone unnoticed. Last fall, Forbes named her to its list of impactful “50 Women Over 50.” She is in good company: other recipients of the 2022 award included Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown-Jackson, tennis legend Billie Jean King, and labor leader and civil rights activist Dolores Huerta. The awards event was held in New York City, and when Gray Thompson walked into the lobby of the venue she spotted Huerta, now 93 years old. “I just about melted, it was so thrilling to meet her.”

She doesn’t know who nominated her for the award or how she came to the attention of Forbes. “I received an email from them last August that read, ‘Dear Jennifer, you have been nominated for this award,’ along with an application form. It didn’t cost anything to enter, and I spent maybe a half-hour filling out the form. Some weeks later I got a text from a friend congratulating me. My husband and I couldn’t figure it out. I was stunned and amazed. Forbes never formally notified me, but eventually they sent me a congratulations email.”

The Forbes honor, she says, “was a big deal for a girl like me who came from nothing.” People have doubted her and at times worked against her, she adds, because there are always a few bad actors. “But I list

en to my gut and my sense of integrity. In those early weeks of Rebuild NorthBay, I didn’t have anyone I could call for advice. I knew nothing about wildfire and megafires, and we were all kind of figuring our way through it. You don’t realize how much you’ve learned until you have to coach a lot of other disaster victims.”

Gray Thompson’s achievements also landed her an invitation to the State of the Union address at the U.S. Capitol in February, as a guest of Rep. Mike Thompson (no relation), of the 4th congressional district. “He’s been in my universe journey for a very long time, and I was excited to be there as part of such an important tradition,” she says. “I love the District ofColumbia––it’s my favorite place other than Sonoma.”

Leading delegations

“Jennifer was boots on the ground supporting fire services during the Nuns and Partrick fires in 2017, because she was working for Supervisor Gorin at that time,” explains Steve Akre, fire chief in Sonoma Valley. “She was instrumental as the point of connection and support from the county during and after the fires, and that meant so much to us as first responders.”

Akre’s fire district covers a large part of the unincorporated area around Sonoma, so his team worked closely with Gorin and Gray Thompson. “Jennifer was the lead on that for the valley at the time. Then at Rebuild NorthBay she was able to leverage resources and bring them to the community, including FEMA disaster relief and the whole process. It just blossomed from there in terms of her efforts, which have grown exponentially.”

Gray Thompson, he says, is the first person he thinks of when talking about recovery and rebuilding. “She led delegations into other fire disaster areas and also helped organize a resiliency conference last summer at Hanna Center that brought in wildfire survivors from other states,” says Akre. “So you truly see what Jennifer and her delegation teams mean to those people who attended the conference and shared their stories. It’s always a long and arduous process to rebuild a community, but compared to where they might have been without her help is difficult to imagine. She has devoted so much time and emotional energy to her work.”

A woman who lived through the Marshall Fire in Colorado 18 months ago was first connected to Gray Thompson via social media. “Literally, two or three days after our fire I was put in touch with Jennifer,” says Jenn Kaaoush, who lives in Superior, Colorado, and is a co-director of Superior Rising, a team of neighbors working toward rebuilding the community there, much as Coffey Strong has in Santa Rosa.

“I didn’t lose my home, the fire was finally put out directly in front of my house, but many of my neighbors were suddenly homeless,” says Kaaoush. “So I jumped in to determine how I could help them, my community and my state, while also working on climate issues and moving on from there. When Jennifer came to meet us as the leader of After the Fire, she made me feel so safe at a time when everything felt unsafe. I went from not knowing which direction to turn to having a road map with her guidance. She was so compassionate.”

Gray Thompson returned to Colorado a second time, in May 2022, to assist those Marshall Fire victims, which included bringing in a third-party company to expedite building permits. “I saw her as a woman in charge who had the information I needed, and she had her s–t together and I didn’t,” says Kaaoush. “She impressed upon us that ‘there’s work to do, so let’s get to work.’ She was purposeful about reminding us that this was our fire and our community, and we should do what we think is the right thing to do. She would lead from behind, pushing us to the front to let us steer. She said that all she wanted in return was for us to someday help someone else who might be in our position and step up to guide them.”

From leading the delegations to Boulder County, it became clear there was a need for After the Fire, says Gray Thompson. “We were uniquely positioned to coach communities as survivors of megafires ourselves and as leaders in disaster recovery. Because we are survivors, we gain people’s trust.”


Risk taker who found a niche

Judy Coffey, board chair of After the Fire, first worked with Gray Thompson when she was a board chair at Rebuild NorthBay. “Rebuild was up and running within three months of the Tubbs Fire, and I joined its board several months later. It’s been like muscle memory for us, with one fire after another in our local community and also the many regional fires over the past few years.” [Coffey lost her home in the Tubbs Fire.]

Gray Thompson, says Coffey, is like the Energizer Bunny. “She’s a risk taker and likes to be involved. She’s become an expert at fire mitigation and fire prevention, and she’s tenacious––she just goes and goes. She’s matured and found a niche.”

Three years ago in the early days of COVID-19 lockdowns, Gray Thompson and her board decided to memorialize the work they had done in disaster relief and rebuilding. “So I started hosting a podcast that anybody could access,” she says. “It was uncomfortable for me to do at first. I was so nervous I had sweat dripping down my face. But then I relaxed and it became more fun.”

Called “How to Disaster,” the podcast is available via Audible. “We hear that even the employees of FEMA listen to it––they pass it around,” she says. “It’s not just me talking on the series. Many notable people tell their stories of wildfire resiliency and recovery.”

Becoming an ally for people experiencing the destruction of wildfires in their communities has changed Gray Thompson’s perspective in countless ways. For example, a couple of years ago she traded in her Volvo for a big Ram truck. “That’s what works best in rural America, like in Plumas County, site of the Dixie Fire in 2021,” she says.

Funding needed

Gray Thompson’s work in disaster recovery has evolved, and she is in the process of moving away from a leadership role at After the Fire to become a private disaster consultant. At press time, she hoped to have her new consulting practice up and running this month, while continuing to collaborate with the After the Fire team for the next several months.

“It seems the need for our services is increasing, not decreasing, so we are trying to figure out how to self-fund After the Fire and keep it alive. Long-term disaster recovery is not something that is funded by philanthropy. We have some corporate funders, but we need a budget of $750,000 a year to make it work.”

We all have the capacity to overcome disasters, she states, but admits she is not immune to any bad stuff happening to her. “I’m a tragic optimist. My general love of humanity is what gets me through this job and this line of work. I’ve met the most amazing people, and it’s what keeps me sane”