Organize your community after a wildfire

Experiencing loss from wildfire is devastating. From the personal trauma, and material loss, to the unknowns that lie ahead, it is easy to feel overwhelmed. This is why it is so valuable to connect with others and build community. Nobody can or should shoulder all of this alone. By working together and sharing your problems, you can also work together to find information and form solutions. Here are a few things to consider as you bring your community together and start to get back on your feet.

Find people so you can establish a common need and community identity. Rally around that common need. Define the purpose for the group- make it clear that it is an opportunity where neighbors can help one another.

Give yourself a name. Create an identity. Build team spirit. Make t-shirts with your logo, use a hashtag, build people's spirits. It's so interesting how these things that may seem trivial are so helpful in creating a 'survivor strong' spirit. #coffeystrong #sonomastrong #survivors

Gather together
  • Put out a call to attend an in-person meeting: Coffey Strong's beginnings grew from two local information sessions that were pulled together by Jeff Okrepkie, a Coffey Park resident (and founder of Coffey Strong) who had people in his network with vital information: local elected leaders, insurance professionals and builders. Coffey Strong's beginnings were in organizing these two local in-person meetings where people could listen and participate in Q and A sessions.  
  • Organize an online meeting and ask participants to register with an email address at minimum.  During the pandemic, in person gatherings are not possible. So during these times, information meetings have moved online. Even during 'normal' times, displaced people can find it very hard to attend in person meetings. Offering gatherings remotely may be a way to reach a broader audience. Coffey Strong used Zoom Meetings and Facebook Live the most. We record and share the video afterwards. It is very important to gain consent of participants in advance if you plan to record the meeting.  
  • Topics for gatherings, whether in person or online, will evolve as the situation unfolds. At first, most will begin at the same point, but each household will enter recovery at different times and follow that journey at different rates of speed. Be sure to keep in mind the range of needs as you field questions and provide information.
Conduct surveys to learn basic information about the people and their situation. 

Always share with respondents who will have access to the data you collect and how it may be used. Have a privacy policy and follow it so people know you will not misuse these personal details. Here are a few things you might include on the survey:

  • Name, address impacted by fire, email and phone number, number in household, ages of people in household, owner vs renter, who is the owner and their contact info (if renter), insurance provider (if insured), describe damage caused by fire (how many structures, describe), property size, is there a pool on the property, are you willing to volunteer to help organize and support neighbors in this recovery, if so, what are some skills or experience you have that would be useful?  Consider leaving an open ended query for the respondent to offer comments and questions.
Organize your community by categories.
  • In Sonoma County, including in Coffey Park, we organized ourselves geographically. In our neighborhood, we divided into five specific 'areas', and put out a call for volunteer 'block captains' who networked with neighbors in their respective areas. Sonoma County had block captains in other parts of the county too. The block captains met frequently, and still do. 
  • There are other ways to organize too. Renters vs. Homeowners, by Insurance Company, by property type, by total loss vs. damaged property, and by language spoken are other ways you might organize. You don't need to pick just one--our community rebuilt by offering opportunities to gather 'Standing Homes' meetings, area-specific meetings, and email subscription group listserves were set up for people with the same insurance provider.
Decide what communications platforms you will use. Don't just pick one.
  • It would be great if everyone in the community used the same method of networking and communication but it just never works out that way. Be prepared to offer the same information in more than one format. 
  • Have a virtual or in person meeting, and then share a recording or the notes after via email or in a newsletter.
  • Establish a website with basic information and have it serve as a hub, including 'about', 'contact us', and local information. Keeping it up to date can be a challenge over the long haul, so make sure when you pick the platform, editing is not difficult so different volunteers can help, even if they don't have much experience with website development.
  • There are free or low cost e-newletter platforms you can use to develop your email communications. We use MailChimp, but Constant Contact is another option. Sometimes the web platform you use has an email application that integrates, so find out if that is true for your website. 
  • Share resources on social media. Coffey Strong has a Facebook page, and neighbors share content from there to several local Facebook Groups. Post to Next Door, Twitter, and whatever makes sense in your area.
  • Have a good way to organize communications with block captains and local leaders. Slack became an essential communications channel for Coffey Strong block captains. 
Make connections with influential people and organizations.
  • Stay in touch with local and regional elected officials. Our elected officials need to advocate for resources and even propose laws to aid the recovery. Be sure to make connections to elected leaders from city, to county, to state, to national leaders. Invite them to participate in panel discussions or seminars with your community.
  • Keep communications flowing between essential civic agencies or departments related to your recovery. For Coffey Strong, this included our local permitting department, the city counsel/mayor, our county supervisor, the water department, parks department, first responders, and utilities companies and many nonprofits and more. With Coffey Strong, we invited these people to our meetings and reserved the first hour for Q and A with these organizations and representatives. We regularly collected questions from neighbors and block captains and submitted them in advance to the appropriate agencies to then get solid, researched and current answers at our meetings. (Keep in mind that in recovery, the answers to essential questions can change since the situation can be fluid. Continue to inquire!  Share what you have learned!)
  • Make connections with local news media. Invite the news to the neighborhood, keep them informed about your progress and your challenges throughout the recovery process. When media request an interview, say yes and speak out about the needs in your community. We talked to local, national and even international media about the Tubbs Fire, and many of us continue to be called about other fires and the impact of climate change on our community. After the smoke has cleared, it's too easy for people to forget unless you share your story broadly-so keep your story alive. At times you may send in letters to the editor too.
Capacity Building and Norms of Engagement
  • Build your leadership group, and plan from the beginning to treat one another respectfully and give each other grace. There are highs and lows to this journey, and it can be stressful. Establish norms for how you will conduct meetings and interact with one another. Establish an agenda in advance for your meetings. Take meeting minutes. You may find that some of your volunteer organizers have lots of energy for a while, but then need to rest. Resiliency requires the capacity to reflect and keep yourself healthy. Share the load, and have a collaborative, team approach so when someone needs a break, another person can step in and assist. 

The first gathering of Coffey Park neighbors gathered to begin organizing after the Tubbs Fire destroyed over 1300 homes in their neighborhood in October 2017

The first gathering of Coffey Park neighbors gathered to begin organizing after the Tubbs Fire destroyed over 1300 homes in their neighborhood in October 2017

Coffey Strong block captain meeting

Coffey Strong block captains gathered for a group photo in 2018

Essential Tips for Organizing

  • Find people (that alone is a challenge!) and invite them to join with you and get organized to navigate recovery together.
  • Define who you are organizing and what challenge or problems you have in common
  • Invite people to meetings/events (in person, virtual or both) both to share and to gather information
  • Create consistent communications channels to reach people effectively
  • Recruit volunteer block captains and have a dedicated communications plan for these leaders to share information
  • Survey people and use the results to make informed actions for where to focus your work
  • Work collaboratively with knowledge, caring, respect
  • Leverage the unique talents and abilities of volunteers to their unique, best potential. Everyone has something to contribute.
  • Preserve privacy and earn trust
  • Develop avenues for advocacy to those in leadership
  • Remember that the situation is complex and fluid and things change and evolve. It is a marathon, not a sprint. Adaptability is a key component of resilience

view of coffey park destroyed home after the tubbs fire

One of the Coffey Park destroyed homes, after the Tubbs Fire