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Online only: Lessons from the Santa Rosa Firestorm

How to prepare for the unthinkable

Frank Pugh

On Monday morning on Oct. 9, I found myself at a Safeway grocery store getting things for breakfast for our unexpected family members who had arrived just hours before. I had been lucky to find this store open. The parking lot was filled with fire evacuees, and inside the store, people were dazed. Our community was in the midst of a catastrophic firestorm.

As I loaded my groceries for check out, I couldn’t help but notice the woman behind me had only three items - a box of Kleenex and two bottles of champagne. As I looked up at her she said to me, “The Kleenex is for my tears, and the champagne is to celebrate that my husband and I made it out alive.”

I am a member of the board of education in Santa Rosa, California, and our city is reeling from firestorms that are being called the deadliest in our state’s history. As I write this, just three weeks after that horrific morning, 43 people have died and many are still missing.

Our wealthy, working class, and low-income neighborhoods were all subject to the same unbiased destruction. This firestorm, pushed by 50 mph winds, was for the most part unstoppable. More than 6,800 structures were lost, most of them homes. Within our Santa Rosa City Schools’ community, 79 out of our 1,600 employees lost their homes. Approximately 900 of our 16,400 students lived within the burn zone.

My school district is K-12, governed by a seven-member school board. Two of our board members lost their homes, three were evacuated, and two of us had our bags packed in the car waiting for the evacuation orders, which thankfully never came. There were six different fires burning at once, and it took weeks to reach full containment. I am certain we will not know the full impact on our students, parents, or employees for months and maybe even years to come.

Our school district was fortunate to lose only one campus, Hidden Valley Satellite School. All our remaining 24 campuses were intact, but all had fire-related impacts (ash, soot, and debris). We also lost some farming equipment, a new truck, and a farm house, which were all part of our agricultural program.

We opened two of our schools as shelters for evacuees and housed over 1,500 people for 10 days, with our district kitchen providing hot meals.

Our schools were closed for three weeks. Because the fires burned so many homes, the air, ash, and soot contained toxic chemicals. The schools were assessed for fire damage, professionally cleaned, and then reassessed to make sure they were safe for students. Two days before the students returned, we reopened to teachers and staff. We wanted to give them time to adjust and to get their classrooms back in order.

We had counselors available for teachers, and gave them advice on how to help their students work through trauma. When the students returned, a new normal began. As expected, our enrollment has slightly dropped.

In Santa Rosa, we prepare for earthquakes. None of us imagined that wildfires would wipe out so much of our city. However, just three weeks into this crisis, we have already learned a lot. Here are some questions that might help your board prepare for the worst:

  • Has your board created a disaster plan with all your administrative staff? Your board policy should recognize that all district staff and students must be prepared to respond quickly and responsibly to emergencies, disasters, and threats of disaster. You need to have a plan and review it annually.
  • Does your board know if your district has adequate insurance coverage? Who is the carrier and what are the limits?
  • Do you have pictures or panoramic videos of all your classrooms, office spaces, and general facilities? These can be very helpful when submitting a claim and working with insurance adjusters.
  • Do your employees know what to do at the very beginning of a disaster? In the case of a fire, shutting doors, closing windows, and turning off air conditioning helps limit the spread of smoke and toxins.
  • Does your school district know the addresses for all employees and students? We created district maps with this information to determine who may or may not be able to return to work or school.
  • Do you have a board policy that covers your succession plan? In a disaster, your superintendent or even a majority of your board could be displaced. What’s the plan if that should happen?
  • Are your district office data and documents safe? Do you have more than one place where you can store duplicate information such as student transcripts?
  • If a disaster strikes, do you have a plan for reopening your schools?
  • If your school funding mechanism is attendance-based, such as Average Daily Attendance, what is your plan for recouping lost funding?
  • At times of disaster, first responders deserve our greatest praise and honor. But, we also need to recognize, support and help our “second Responders” -- our teachers, classified employees, and administrative teams who will put the pieces back together for our children. Does your district have an Employee Assistance Plan? Can your district assist in finding homes for your displaced employees?
  • After a disaster, community support may overwhelm your district. What’s your plan to provide evacuation centers or hot meals? What is your plan to deal with donations?

Like the woman behind me in the grocery store that fateful day, our district has experienced both the sadness of loss and the joy of knowing our community survived. We are grateful for the lessons we’ve learned. While there’s no way to prevent a disaster from affecting your school district, I hope these thoughts provide some insight for your preparedness plans.


Frank Pugh (pugh.frank@gmail.com) is a member of the Santa Rosa City Schools Board of Education. He is on the board of directors for the California School Boards Association and is president-elect of the National School Boards Association.

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