A foggy day and the scent of smoke still have the power to trigger panic for Halea Waters. After volunteering at overflowing evacuation centers and watching so many of her students lose everything in the Tubbs fire, the UCLA alumna still has nightmares about also having to leave her home behind, almost eight months after the fire stopped burning.
Waters works for 10,000 Degrees, a nonprofit organization that provides students from low-income backgrounds with advising and financial aid management services to help them get into and through college. But in October, Waters and her coworkers refocused their efforts to aid Sonoma County community members affected by the Tubbs fire that struck that month, later recorded as the most destructive wildfire in California’s history. Despite a lack of communication and organization surrounding response and relief efforts, the 10,000 Degrees team witnessed responders and victims alike contributing whatever they could to the cause.
Gracie Francisco, a fellow at 10,000 Degrees, woke up in the early morning of Oct. 8 to her dogs’ barks and a smoky scent. She got out of bed and went outside to investigate – that was when she saw the smoke rising from a nearby raceway.
Saga Apostol Guedez, a college access advisor at 10,000 Degrees, was cat-sitting in a home surrounded by trees when she fell asleep for the night. She woke up to smoke and ash, wondering how she could get herself and the cats out of the house safely.
Flashes of flames, the crackling of burning shrubs and the haze of smoke overtook the nights of the 10,000 Degrees members. They were in the middle of the fire zone. They received no notification via phone or internet of possible evacuation measures; they were entirely unprepared. As far as Francisco knows, the only way in which information was distributed to the community was through a little-known alert app called Nixle, which sent messages updating users on the situation.
“It’s a situation where you never think it’s going to happen to you until it does, and so people aren’t prepared,” Francisco said. “But there was no system of communication. A lot of people were getting Nixle for the first time during the fire because they heard that there was something that was giving out information.”
Gracie Francisco, Hugo Que, Halea Waters and Saga Apostol Guedez work for a nonprofit organization called 10,000 Degrees, which provides college counseling and financial aid services to students from low-income backgrounds. But in October, the coworkers redirected their efforts to volunteer at evacuation sites responding to the Tubbs fire, which was later recorded as the most destructive wildfire in California’s history.
Despite the heavy vegetation in Sonoma County, Waters said she thinks more priority is placed on earthquake preparedness than fire-response plans in the Sonoma education system. Any fire training residents do receive pertains more to short-term survival rather than long-term planning, Francisco added.
“You don’t think about what are you going to do if you’re out of your house for two weeks in an evacuation center,” Francisco said. “What are you going to do if your entire house burns down?”
Several Sonoma residents faced these questions in early October, while others found themselves in another situation they hadn’t anticipated: providing refuge for fire victims. Some school gymnasiums, churches and other public spaces were ready to receive evacuees, while others, such as some local schools, scrambled because they had no idea they were on an evacuation center list to begin with, said Hugo Que, a college access advisor at 10,000 Degrees.
“People just had to learn how to open their doors and help out,” Que said.
Starting Oct. 9, Waters, Francisco, Apostol Guedez and Que drove across the county to various evacuation and relief sites providing aid to masses from as little as 50 to as many as 200 and asked those in charge how they could help. In some cases, the group arrived with bulk items, such as diapers and water, only to find the centers were already equipped with the essentials. Relief workers instead sent them out to retrieve less practical but still crucial items, such as crossword puzzles to take the victims’ minds off the trauma.
While volunteering at a middle school, Francisco said a woman pulled them aside and motioned toward a pacing man who appeared to be lost in his thoughts. He had just lost his entire home, and he needed a distraction, something to relieve his mind of the pain, she told them. The team returned with crossword puzzles, word searches and coloring books.
“We didn’t ask about it or try to get into his business, but you could tell he was grateful,” Francisco said.
The group said many of the evacuation centers they visited were generally disorganized, with multiple people in charge communicating differing needs. However, the genuine willingness to help in any way possible, both on behalf of the victims and the responders, inspired them to contribute more.
“It helped me cope with what was going on in the community,” Waters said. “I was like, ‘I have to get out there.’”
Small acts of unexpected kindness surfaced at relief centers. In one instance, the community worked to accommodate a young fire victim with special needs who would only eat food if it came in a white wrapper. Others at the center took to wrapping available food in white. Small incidences of humanity like these colored the group’s experience in the relief effort, Francisco said.
While the college access advisors are no longer volunteering at evacuation centers, they still see the effects of the fires through their work with their students. During the fire, many of their mentees lost their homes, making it difficult to focus on upcoming college applications. Untrained in social work, the colleagues found themselves trying to strike a complex balance between providing emotional support and helping their students continue to work toward their academic aspirations.
“It was a process for us to learn how to really work with our students to get our goals done yet at the same time, acknowledge that there’s so much more going on,” Que said. “And then those evenings, we would go out and volunteer, and I would see some of our students at the shelters, and it hits home.”
Though some schools, such as those in the University of California system, extended their fall 2017 application deadlines for fire victims, students still found it hard to think about anything other than their personal situations, Waters said. The prolonged absences of student fire victims began to affect their classmates who weren’t directly impacted by the disaster by lowering morale in classrooms. Some students dropped out after losing motivation to attend school altogether, Waters said.
“It’s hard to focus in your class when you’re sitting in empty rows,” she said.
For others, the emergency was a catalyst for positive change. One of Waters’ students, who had dropped his entire class schedule in the fall, joined the first responders in Sonoma County. His experience volunteering in relief efforts made him realize he wanted to pursue humanitarian work, and he now has plans to transfer to San Francisco State University, where he wants to pursue a communication studies degree, Waters said.
Some of the local students had more to lose than their homes. Many of the families enrolled in 10,000 Degrees are undocumented, contributing added anxiety to an already-stressful scenario, Francisco said. And yet, again and again, the colleagues saw widespread healing and resilience.
“I see people like my students and the people I work with ... they have all the reason to worry about themselves, but they stay there and work without question,” Que said. “And I tell my seniors, ‘Now you have something to write about in college essays.’”