I used to begin work each day by walking down a short trail to my office at Rancho Soñado. On the way down the hill, I’d pass fields of wildflowers where I encountered rabbits, deer, lizards, songbirds, an occasional snake, and even a tarantula. As I’d settle in my office for the day, I’d wait for chatter and laughter from the students who were spending a day on a field trip to a wilderness area they had no idea even existed when they boarded the school bus that morning. For more than 14 years, I felt incredibly lucky to have my office at Rancho Soñado, affectionately known as just “Rancho,” which served as the headquarters and a student field trip site for the Orange County Department of Education’s (OCDE) Inside the Outdoors (ITO) environmental education program.
When the pandemic shut down on-campus learning in March of 2020, the trails at Rancho were no longer filled with the sounds of students. I missed the exclamations of awe from students who seldom, if ever, had been outside of their neighborhoods. I looked at the empty picnic tables and waited, as the world waited, for life to become normal again. I was certain students would return to the site soon, and until they could we would do our best to bring Rancho to them. ITO’s dedicated team of environmental educators worked tirelessly to launch live-streamed field trips so students could still visit and experience the wonder of Rancho.
Everything changed on December 3, 2020. Rancho sits in the foothills of the Cleveland National Forest, and the site’s hilly landscapes were overtaken by the wind-driven Bond Fire that carved a destructive path through Silverado Canyon. In a year filled with loss, we lost even more that day. I still cry when I think about it. ITO staff, our OCDE colleagues, and the community we serve were deeply impacted by the fire. Our team’s story follows.
The Bond Fire was Different
Though Rancho and the surrounding canyons had burned before, most notably in 2007 when the fire burned up to the back doors, the Bond Fire was different. Holly Steele, the administrator of ITO , recounts: “Driven by our local Santa Ana winds, the Bond Fire overtook Rancho Soñado very quickly. Thankfully, our caretaker and her family were safely evacuated. Though the animal evacuation team was deployed and en route to the site, everyone was forced to turn back for their own safety. As a result, we tragically lost nearly all of our beloved program animals who were housed on-site. The fire completely destroyed the program’s main administrative office and the entire caretaker residence. Teaching stations that provided support for our trails were also lost. I would estimate that about 95% of the approximately 110 acres of Rancho Soñado were completely burned.”
“Because the program had already planned for potential power outages — due to planned power safety public shutoffs — the staff had already been prepared to teach remotely using previously recorded video footage,” Steele added. “A handful of programs were rescheduled because of a need to revise program content. Using even previously recorded video footage of our program animals that had been lost was, understandably, sensitive and emotionally charged for team members. There was a need to replace this with new footage and to, especially, reconsider the virtual field trip that focused on Rancho Soñado itself. The team took the first week of January following the winter holidays to focus deeply on these revisions. The teaching team was adamant that they wanted to work towards processing their grief through service to our students.”
Yarib Dheming, ITO outreach manager, was at the site just hours before the fire started. He reflects, “The evening of the fire we were hosting a virtual professional development opportunity with teachers, and the topic of wildfires came up. It definitely made me think of how much more education is needed around current environmental issues we are facing, including the increase of wildfires in California. It’s important for students to understand how wildfires affect our communities and open spaces here in Orange County and discuss what possible solutions can be implemented. I believe OCDE’s thinking is the same in wanting that education to be relevant while also supporting academic standards.”
Resiliency: Rebuilding Inside the Outdoors
ITO’s staff has an ongoing relationship with Rancho Soñado that has provided a metaphor for resilience.
Imagine you’re a coast live oak. When the Santiago Fire came through Rancho in 2007 you lucked out. You looked at burned charred ground and within days of the fire, there was green. You saw things happen that never would have happened had it not been for the fire. A death camas grows under your branches and you’re surrounded by hills full of fire poppies. You know that biologists hadn’t seen a death camas for 60 years in Orange County. Then there were all these seedlings, and it was an indication of a healthy ecosystem. You survived with some scars but you stood tall when the wildlife returned. Once again, you saw the rabbits, deer, lizards, songbirds, snakes, and tarantulas.
The 2020 fire was more intense so the resilience is harder to find — but it is there. The land will slowly recover. Anyone visiting the site likely will catch a glimpse of the two deer who have wandered the hills for a couple of years. Fields of fire-followers are back and when I can return I’m sure I will once again see the rabbits, deer, lizards, songbirds, snakes, and tarantulas.
ITO is resilient as well. The grief over the loss of the animal ambassadors remains but we look forward with hope. That comes in the form of two new team members, snakes Sam and Santos, who were ready for the 2021–22 school year.
ITO also is surrounded by a community of support that transforms loss into new opportunities for students. The most innovative partnerships pop up. A partnership with OCDE’s Tobacco Use Prevention Education (TUPE) team will allow students to explore the environmental impact of tobacco usage. A decades-long partnership with the Anaheim Elementary School District has never been stronger. Every student in the district experienced a virtual environmental education field trip last year and will again this year. A group of sixth-graders got to experience virtual science camp when they thought that opportunity was gone. And so right in the middle of loss that could’ve left us with nothing, it feels like there’s everything. Things that we never imagined were possible are possible because we’ve had to get outside of the box and be creative.
Wildfires and Climate Change: There’s more work to be done
Steele shared that this has been the hardest experience of her administrative career and shared her own perspective on the imperative for environmental literacy.
“While there are natural cycles for fires within chaparral ecosystems, the frequency and severity of fires are clearly abnormal,” she said. The increasing frequency of fires, primarily attributable to climate change, such as these is obviously a concerning phenomenon. As a science educator, this environmental work has long been important to me, and it is also incredibly personal now. Helping to ensure that our next generation understands the beautiful and sometimes difficult relationship between human society and our natural world is critical. We will certainly continue to champion this work as an ITO team, primarily through our work with an intentional focus on our California Environmental Principles and Concepts.”
Wildfires and the devastation they cause are only part of the story. As destructive fires burn throughout the Western United States, there are floods and other extreme weather events impacting communities globally. These events are overwhelming and can make all of us feel helpless.
So, how might we help the next generation develop a sense of agency and belief in their own resilience in the face of adversity? It starts with education that leads to environmental literacy. According to a 2019 EdSource article by Sydney Johnson, California students have asked for climate change to be included in the core curriculum. Let’s answer their request with a resounding, “yes.” Field experiences grounded in academic standards and connected to classroom lessons build the foundation for informed decision-making. As students understand what is happening in their communities, they can understand both the local and global impact of climate change.