Our Environmental Education Community Rises to Support Sonoma County During Recent Fires

By Laura Powell|February 8, 2018

I have been a CREEC Coordinator for 21 years, and have dedicated some of my time to either building or supporting nonformal environmental education networks. Currently, in my role as North Coast Region 1 CREEC Co-coordinator, I work with the Sonoma Environmental Education Collaborative (SEEC). It is wonderful to see all the efforts to develop collaborations across the state between nonformal environmental education providers that support bringing outdoor learning experiences to California students. Because of the long history and relationships among the providers in our collaborative, and the prompt coordination of the Sonoma Ecology Center, during the recent fires we mobilized our educators to offer support to fire victims and evacuees. Our schools were closed, with many families in shelters. Kids needed some normalcy, routine, and grounding after this tragic event, and SEEC partners were ready to step up, offering their amazing outdoor education activities that they do regularly as part of children’s school programming.  

The number of emails coming in from the SEEC community as I sat and tried to work (I myself was on fire alert) was amazing, as many mobilized to go to shelters to assist the Sonoma County community. It was incredible to see the efforts of many organizations to help our community during a crisis, including Sonoma County Regional Parks who also suffered great losses, as the wildfire involved several open spaces. Also, many SEEC organizations attended or viewed The Schoolbox Project workshop that we were able to host during our monthly meetings to prepare educators to work with students who had experienced trauma.

Being a native Californian, I’ve had several fire experiences. When I lived in the Oakland flatlands, I remember driving through the Caldecott Tunnel experiencing the phenomena of the heat and winds. I now recognize this as an extreme weather event that ultimately fanned the Oakland Hills fire. And very recently I saw what looked like a war zone viewing the remains of Coffey Park in Santa Rosa. About ten years ago, our newly built home, including the garage and cars, burned down during the night while most of my family was sleeping—we woke up and got out just in time. It took us two years to rebuild and move back in, and we are grateful for the support of our amazing community.

My daughter’s representation of the story of our house fire: Artwork by Emma Molloy.

Our hearts go out to the communities that suffered so much loss, but as you can see Coffey Park is strong!

During the Nuns Fire we were 2 miles away from the Pressley Fire, and could see the plumes of three other fires. Being on the urban–wildland interface, we spent an anxious 10 days watching and waiting for the winds to pick-up or shift, for the fire to come closer, for the fire to recede, or for new fires to start. The personal trauma and loss of our previous house to fire intensified our feelings of anxiety. When the Thomas Fire broke out, I took what I had learned about fire disaster and reached out to my family in Ventura County to ensure they were safe. This is the type of education that will be important for California students, as it is very likely that we will experience more extreme weather events in the state. It is fortuitous that climate change and natural hazards are included in the new California Science Standards.

Most of the state experienced fire sometime between June and December, as you can see on this Cal Fire archived map. It is possible that we will have a 6-month fire season given certain weather conditions, so education is an important element for California students. Because of the magnitude of these fires and the rainy season’s mudslides, many people are touched in some way by these events. The extent of loss of lives, homes, and businesses is greater than at any other time in the state’s history.

These fires were fueled by many environmental factors such as drought, Sudden Oak Death, bark beetles, last winter’s phenomenal rainy season building up fuel loads, the Diablo Winds that reached 75 mph, and the increasing number of homes, businesses, schools, and other man-made structures encroaching upon urban–wildland interface zones. The environmental impacts of toxic pollution have been tremendous, including the fire clean-up where the amount of fire debris has already surpassed the amount of solid waste that Sonoma County normally generates in one year.  

With climate change, and the resulting severe weather events, disasters such as this will become more prevalent and it will be more important than ever to increase environmental literacy—including topics such as fire science, ecology in open spaces, living near wildlands, and preparing for disasters. Many of the SEEC partner organizations are doing just this; our educational community came together and continues to offer support. The North Bay International Studies Project, a SEEC partner, inspired our collaborative to compile a list of post-fire teaching resources, including trauma support materials as well as fire curriculum resources like Project Learning Tree to support our educational community. Here is a link to a google doc of these resources that community members can access and add to. The California History–Social Science Project publication Current Context has a wonderful resource, Our Complicated Relationship With Fire, that includes a list of Education and the Environment Initiative lessons for teachers grades K–12 to use in their classrooms. A Project Learning Tree workshop focused on fire will be held in May for local teachers. Pepperwood Preserve, the backbone organization behind SEEC, suffered tremendous loss during the fire. Now they are embarking on post-fire recovery and research on how the preserve recovers naturally. They are developing an educational blog on fire ecology, as well as lectures and technical workshops.

Penngrove Area recovering from fire.

I am so proud to work with this environmental education community that has really shown up in support of communities impacted by these fires! For more information please feel free to email me.


Laura Powell
This article was written by Laura Powell

Laura Powell has 27 years of experience in education, first as a secondary teacher and later as an environmental education (EE) consultant. Laura holds a Masters in Curriculum, Teaching, and Learning with an emphasis in Environmental Education. She has been recognized for her 20 years of service to the CREEC Network and currently serves as Region One Co-coordinator and as the Sonoma EE Collaboration Professional Development Chair. Laura has worked at the state level to help build the CREEC Network’s online resource directory. As a teacher, she worked on various curricula projects in world history, global climate change, marine science, watershed studies, and sustainable agriculture, and continues this work as a consultant. Laura has experience in professional development planning, coordination, and facilitation for both formal and nonformal educators and for countywide EE collaborations. Laura’s other work includes Education and Environment Initiative teacher trainings and nonformal workshops in standards correlations.