California Wildfires: How Makers Can Respond When Disaster Strikes

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California Wildfires: How Makers Can Respond When Disaster Strikes

Hitting Home

The sudden wildfires in Sonoma and Napa counties this week led to people saying that the areas that were hit hardest looked like “a war zone.” The raging fires summoned Biblical images of the Apocalypse, reminding us that we don’t have new words to describe this kind of terrible event. The devastation was unbelievable. We really don’t have words to describe it. Look at this drone footage of the areas by Douglas Thron:

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A radio reporter calculated that the fire was moving the length of a football field every three seconds. Landmarks such as the red Round Barn built in 1899 were reduced to rubble. Nearby a Hilton hotel, Willi’s, a popular wine bar, several fast food restaurants, the Cloverleaf horse ranch, a Catholic high school and a K-mart burned down. Over 2,800 structures and counting were lost. The most significant number, however, was the number of homes lost. A thousand homes were lost in a middle class neighborhood, Coffey Park. 500 homes were lost in an upper class neighborhood, Fountaingrove, which had a country club and golf course that also burned. Add to that a trailer home park called, sadly, “Journey’s End.”

Many who evacuated in the middle of the night have gone to the home of family or friends. Some are in shelters in community centers, churches, and Veterans Halls. In this morning’s Santa Rosa paper, an article described families as “refugees” who were fleeing the fire and camping out on local beaches. Those who were able to return found almost nothing left of their home and its possessions. They were unexpectedly dispossessed. Yvette Lopez, a 19 year old in the Army Reserve whose home was in Coffey Park, tells her story to the Press Democrat in this video:

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Hospitals that were evacuated just before the fire remain empty, but doctors and nurses have lost their homes. Schools are closed with a few of them damaged, but teachers and students have lost homes. Businesses are closed, some because of the fire and others because of the loss of power. Employees are missing work or suddenly unemployed. Many who were evacuated still don’t know what happened to their homes.

The efforts of first-responders, firefighters, PG&E workers, police, and medical teams are remarkable. It really matters that we have trained professionals who do their job well and often go beyond the job to care even more for everyone’s health and safety. When people tell you they don’t want government in their lives, I think of these people and I am glad they are there. Sometimes, however, even their best efforts are not enough. In Sonoma county, there were not enough people to fight the many fires that broke out simultaneously in so many places. Nature can overwhelm us and our best plans are not good enough.

At times like these, you really do value local news. The Santa Rosa Press Democrat is our local source for news, and I am glad they are in business. (We don’t really have local TV or radio, except for PBS.) The photojournalists at the Press Democrat are noteworthy, some with the experience of several firestorms over the years. Even though you might live nearby, you aren’t up close to what’s happening and these photojournalists are. The photos they captured are breathtaking. Here are some of the photosets: Before and After photos of Santa Rosa; Fire in Sonoma, Bennett Valley)

SANTA ROSA, CA, Oct. 11, 2017 — Law enforcement surround the areas of Coffey Park in Santa Rosa, California, where wildfires completely destroyed a neighborhood.
Photo by Dominick Del Vecchio – Oct 11, 2017

Dana Woodman at the Chimera Makerspace in Sebastopol rallied a team to produce the Sonoma Fire Info website, with resources for people affected by the fires as well as people who want to volunteer.

Now, thousands of people must figure out where they will be staying once they leave shelters. In Santa Rosa, the vacancy rate is 1% and in all of Sonoma County it’s 34%. One source attributes the lack of new housing units to the 2008 financial crisis — a disaster of a different kind that continues to impact us.

The wildfire will cause a minor diaspora, not unlike in Puerto Rico, the Florida Keys, Houston, and even Syria. People who have lost their homes will have to leave for new homes and new jobs.

Firecamp has already organized 600 acres near Bodega Bay. An organizer, Dave Morin, says “FireCamps is an open project working to build small communities of yurts with food, water, and bathrooms on donated private land to help evacuees who lost their homes in the Northern California fires.”

Spc. Jasmine Tirado, left, and Pfc. Jennifer Preciado, of the 870th Military Police Company, California Army National Guard, prepare to assist evacuees at the Cavanagh Recreation Center in Petaluma, California, Oct. 12, 2017 during the Northern California wildfires. (Army National Guard photo by Staff Sgt Eddie Siguenza)

My Home

I was fortunate that the path of the fires was not near my own home in Sebastopol. Yet this disaster is different for me because here is home. I feel it; I live it; it’s more than the place; it’s the people.

On Monday morning, my son called us and let us know about the fires and that they were throughout the county. When we looked outside, it was eerily dark — later, someone would say that it looked like the eclipse, with so much ash blocking the sun. As I walked around our home, there were burned leaves on the ground, which were blistered and charred but intact. They had blown for miles in the wind, which had caused the fires to spread so quickly. I found a singed page from a car repair manual. Another piece of debris was a large chunk of burnt foam insulation.

Photo by Dale Dougherty

The people I work with at Maker Media did not lose their homes but they were affected. Sherry Huss, our Maker-in-Chief, went to Santa Rosa at 2am early Monday morning to get her mother. Kelly Marshall, our Accounts Payable manager, and her kids evacuated and stayed in a trailer in a department store parking lot. Our Operations, Production, and Logistics Manager Rob Bullington was evacuated. Just last night, Senior Sales Manager Cecily Benzon was evacuated from Sonoma and is still not home. We weren’t certain what happened to our Email Marketing Coordinate Sean Kincaid — we thought he had lost his house but it was one of a few remaining in Coffey Park. Everyone has friends, co-workers, who lost homes. As I read Facebook updates, I learned about how others were directly affected.

SANTA ROSA, CA, Oct. 11, 2017 — This terra cotta statue is all that remains in the former garden of this home in Coffey Park in Santa Rosa, California, where wildfires completely destroyed a neighborhood.
Photo by Dominick Del Vecchio – Oct 11, 2017

Coming Together

A disaster strikes in almost everyone, a gripping fear of losing your home, losing your belongings, and most horrible, losing loved ones. This has happened in many places this year, as it seems one disaster follows another. Yet, I think we can also see these events in a different light — our vulnerability is why we must come together to help each other. We can feel a common kinship among others more easily, even others who live far away from us. Given how the divisions of politics, race, and religion dominate the news, it is a shock to feel so connected to each other, so in need of each other.

Nathan Koman was fighting the fires in Sonoma. He is the son of Richard Koman, a former colleague. As he finished his duty today, he wrote in gratitude for the work of so many people:

The local fire crews who have been on duty since this started on Sunday, they’ve been working crazy hard and saw some serious shit. The crews that have come over from all over the country to help. This couldn’t happen without them. The amazing Paramedic, EMTs, and RNs who are running calls and evacuating people from all over the area. The hospital staff and clinical personnel (MDs, RNs, MAs, CNAs, RTs, etc.) who came back to the hospitals, medical clinics, and shelters. The awesome citizens who are volunteering their time and energy to care for the evacuees. The law enforcement personnel keeping houses (and us on the fire) safe. The people who donated a huge amount of food and supplies to firefighters and people in need. The people who are finding and caring for all the lost animals who are out there.

As tragic as this has been. I’ve been so impressed with my community in the fire department, in EMS, and my home county. I’ve seen a lot of people coming together and being supportive. Everyone appreciates it. I love Sonoma County, and this has just proven that Sonoma County is strong, resilient, and will persevere. End sappy moment.

What Makers Can Do To Help

Monday morning in Sebastopol. Photo by Dale Dougherty

I wish we had a way to organize makers to respond to disasters such as these. We don’t have the infrastructure to do it easily, but it is starting to happen. Just like firefighters and EMTs, makers with proper training could help not as first responders but in the aftermath of a disaster. They could be organized to rebuild and repair.

The maker movement can bring tools, ideas, and expertise to bear on these problems. I would bet that few of the humanitarian or government agencies are thinking how digital fabrication can accelerate the rebuilding process. Makers can bring this knowledge and experience, and they can share it with others and train them in new ways to build. There are already reports that places like Houston cannot find enough workers.

I began talking about these ideas several weeks ago at World Maker Faire in New York. I met with our Maker Faire producers Ric Herrera of Miami and David and Lisa Brunet of Houston about how makers could be involved in the long-term rebuilding efforts. Lisa mentioned that some of the makerspaces in Houston were lost because of the flood. I reached out to Bill Young of Shopbot who also wanted to talk about an idea he proposed in an article on Medium. We could look for ways to upcycle the debris from a hurricane as materials out of which you could make new things.

I had a talk with Brad Halsey of Building Momentum who has been training Marines in the basics of making. He was heading down the Virgin Islands to join a start-up humanitarian group, Field Ready, and see what the problems were and see what we can do. You can follow Brad on Twitter or Facebook.

Field Ready has done work previously in disaster areas such as Haiti and Nepal.

I spoke to the Nation of Makers group at Maker Faire about ways that makers could help. Executive Director Dorothy Jones-Davis has followed up by organizing a phone call and a mailing list. Last week, we had our first call. Brad talked about how having a workshop on the island and people who knew how to use it was very important. So many of the generators that were brought to the island needed repairs, and the people from the workshop were busy fixing them.

Joey Ficklin of Maker Faire Austin was working with Burners Beyond Borders to address needs in Texas. Already there were small groups of people working on relief projects. Joey was thinking of ways that makerspaces around the country could pitch in. One need he found was replacement signage. If there were a way to list all the signs needed, and the dimensions, then makerspaces could accept assignments from the list, do the work, and send the sign to Texas. Joey is experimenting right now with small groups of people but hopes to identify a more general solution.

Yabucoa, Puerto Rico, October 11, 2017 — Music celebrity Pirulo partnered with the National Guard, Federal Agencies and private sector to deliver food and water to the Yabucoa municipality. The convoy distributed to one of the most impacted areas in Yabucoa. After Hurricane Maria, many homes, businesses, roads, bridges and government buildings suffered major damage due to strong winds and heavy rain.

Jon Scherer is creating screens to allow people to sift through the ashes.

There are at least three major ways that makers might contribute in disaster relief:

  1. Makers go to the sites for a week or more to set up a makerspace, organize work, and train others to do the work.
  2. Develop projects that can be deployed in disaster relief areas. This might be done by developing project instructions or designs that can be shared. It might also involve building the projects and sending them to the relief areas.
  3. As Joey Ficklin is doing, use existing makerspaces to fabricate physical things that cannot be easily made on site but can be shipped there.

We will be putting eight possible projects as a Disaster Relief Mission on Maker Share. If you are engaged in this work already — and many have been— please let us know and we can help share your story, your project, and learn more about what needs doing. Remember, long after the disaster is no longer a story on the national news, people will still need help in rebuilding homes, re-establishing a local economy, and just getting back to normal.

Discuss this article with the rest of the community on our Discord server!

DALE DOUGHERTY is the leading advocate of the Maker Movement. He founded Make: Magazine 2005, which first used the term “makers” to describe people who enjoyed “hands-on” work and play. He started Maker Faire in the San Francisco Bay Area in 2006, and this event has spread to nearly 200 locations in 40 countries, with over 1.5M attendees annually. He is President of Make:Community, which produces Make: and Maker Faire.

In 2011 Dougherty was honored at the White House as a “Champion of Change” through an initiative that honors Americans who are “doing extraordinary things in their communities to out-innovate, out-educate and out-build the rest of the world.” At the 2014 White House Maker Faire he was introduced by President Obama as an American innovator making significant contributions to the fields of education and business. He believes that the Maker Movement has the potential to transform the educational experience of students and introduce them to the practice of innovation through play and tinkering.

Dougherty is the author of “Free to Make: How the Maker Movement Is Changing our Jobs, Schools and Minds” with Adriane Conrad. He is co-author of "Maker City: A Practical Guide for Reinventing American Cities" with Peter Hirshberg and Marcia Kadanoff.

View more articles by Dale Dougherty


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