NorCal Fires and Oasis Village: Lessons in Preparedness

When the NorCal fires swept through in the middle of the night on October 8, 2017, thousands of people fled for their lives in an attempt to get out in front of the quick moving fires fueled by hurricane force winds. With flames barreling down on them, many people took the time to knock on their neighbor’s doors and alert them of the impending danger. The situation was chaotic and confusing with emergency personnel completely overwhelmed. Once the smoke had cleared, 44 people lost their lives, 20,000 people were displaced with over 5,000 homes destroyed in Santa Rosa alone. Before the fires, the region had a 1% rental vacancy rate, which meant there was nowhere for the survivors to go.

Lee Merschon was watching the situation unfold from his home in Los Angeles and realized that the sleeping containers and kitchen container from his Burning Man theme camp (Camp Epic) had stored in Reno would be needed to help house 80 people and enable people to stay in the area. The containers arrived in Santa Rosa three weeks after the fires.

For the following four months, volunteers worked hundreds of hours to raise funds and acquire the building permits that would allow uninsured fire survivors to get out of their cars and have a safe space to live while they regrouped. Despite the desire of fire survivors and many city officials, Oasis Village was not able to open due to the lack of permitting regulations in place for temporary housing as well as a lack of funding from the $50 million community relief fund.

While we didn’t achieve our originally intended impact, like most projects, we learned a lot in the process and are reminded that projects like this are a prototype and while not all prototypes succeed, they provide essential learning opportunities. In the spirit of Burning Man and Burners Without Borders, we attempted something new and innovative. And while Oasis Village wasn’t able to open, we know that the adjacent successes, lessons learned and the inspiration that comes from the story lives on.

We would like to share what was learned while on the ground attempting this project. Our intention is to enable communities to be better prepared for future disasters.

  1. FEMA does not have the resources to make you whole again.
    This was true for survivors of Hurricane Katrina, and it is still true 13 years later. The NorCal Fires came on the heels of major hurricanes in Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico, and most Sonoma County residents did not receive the support they expected. Organize your community now and keep it active. In the event of a catastrophic disaster, knowing your neighbors may save your life and help with the rebuilding process. This New York Times article does a great job of illustrating how easy it can be to organize using existing organizations in your community. Practice makes perfect- and a great way to practice is to start a BWB project of your own.
  2. Get involved with your local government’s emergency and disaster relief planning.
    Communities must educate themselves in advance of a disaster and pressure local and state governments to update warning systems and subsequent relief operation systems. Sonoma County was ill prepared for this disaster though the residents live under the threat of earthquakes and have a history of fires in the same residential areas as the recent fires. Cell phone notification technologies were not up to date and the emergency systems could not meet the challenges. This lack of preparedness was present throughout the Santa Rosa departments-not just emergency services. KQED news conducted a five-month investigation and uncovered many systemic failings. However, communities pulled together in incredible ways and were able to fill in the gaps in the ongoing relief effort.
  3. Get to know the state laws and building codes in your city that pertain to temporary housing following a disaster, and advocate for common sense laws that serve disaster survivors.
    The containers we brought to Santa Rosa were converted under Nevada Residential code by a reputable company, but this wasn’t good enough for California’s state building regulations. We just wanted to quickly help with the dire housing need, but it would have cost in excess of $20,000 to bring the containers up to California code as well as comply with the American Disabilities Act. There were no provisions to address emergency temporary housing following a disaster at the state or local level and none were enacted following the fires. Sonoma County has since worked to change laws and codes, but these changes come much too late for those who were forced to leave the area in the months following the fires.
  4. Demand accountability and transparency from groups receiving disaster relief donations.
    Due to the lack of the federal government’s ability to address the increasing needs of disaster survivors, private donations made to community organizations are becoming prevalent post disaster. Millions of dollars were donated to the NorCal fire relief effort and yet many community organizations who received the money did not have prior experience with disaster relief before the fires. Though well intentioned, most lack the expertise to not only address the immediate needs but also the economic fall out that will continue for years to come. It is crucial that communities find ways to hold these organizations accountable and ask for tracking and transparency in how the funds are spent.
  5. Insurance: Make sure you have enough.
    If you are a homeowner, make sure you take out sufficient homeowners insurance that will be enough to rebuild your home. This will exceed the actual value of your home. Many homeowners found that they would have to pay 25% out of pocket to rebuild their homes in Sonoma County, which has forced people to leave the area since they are not able to afford the cost of rebuilding. If you are a renter, get renters insurance that will pay for your living expenses in the event of a disaster. For renters who had insurance in Sonoma County, many were provided a place to live for one year, which meant they did not have to leave the area.

If you’re interested in continuing to stay up to date with Burners Without Borders through our website, newsletter, and global volunteer group.

Photos courtesy of the Oasis Village Project

About the author: Carmen Mauk

Carmen Mauk

Carmen Mauk is passionate about creating platforms that encourage radical community participation. She is the co-founder and former director of Burners Without Borders, a program of Burning Man Project that creates participatory models for international disaster relief and community initiatives. She is also the founder of Burning Man Information Radio, BRC's community radio station. Carmen holds a Masters degree in Transformative Leadership from the California Institute for Integral Studies where she became an enthusiastic student of the art of creating community collaborations that bring about positive change.

6 Comments on “NorCal Fires and Oasis Village: Lessons in Preparedness

  • Save the Babies says:

    This is awesome. How many black babies did they save this time?

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  • Honey Bee says:

    So many of us think that we are prepared for emergencies – until they happen. Thank you for such an insightful reminder of ways we can protect ourselves. Though you were not able to accomplish what you set out to do for the victims of those fires, thank you for trying.

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  • Apple Jesus says:

    Carmen, you were an inspiration to me and everyone who worked on Oasis Village. A terrible missed opportunity for Sonoma County to show the rest of the nation how grassroots organizations can change rigid protocol through common sense permitting.

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  • Shelly says:

    Thank you for this informative article. We thought we’re prepared and it is easy to overcome such problem, but only then we realized it’s not that easy.

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  • Carmen, you rock. Having tried my darnedest to make work after the 2015 and the 2017 fires (and much inspired by BWB), I was forced to conclude that despite local law changes after 2015 to make temporary shelter easier, nothing really changed. Government bureaucrats from FEMA to local building inspectors insist on control but do very little except make it impossible for grass roots problem solving. In one case we handled, FEMA declared that their trailers were unsuitable for a family of 5 so they went on a wait list for an apartment, but then when we gave the family a 24 year-old RV, FEMA determined their needs were met and gave them no support. WTF? I could write a book, and you should write one…

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