As we move into the holiday season and the new year, we are reminded and inspired by those involved in the California wildfire aid and recovery.
As the Sonoma County begins to rebuild after the wildfires in October and Southern California continues to fight the aggressive wildfires in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, we are reminded that, it will be a long and arduous road to recovery. We are heartened and inspired by dedication, generosity, and courage of first responders. As well as elected officials, County staff, and the tremendous mobilization of resources within our greater community by local businesses, non-profits, and countless volunteers.
As these counties begin to rebuild we are reminded of volunteer efforts, particularly the personal account of one of our own.
Mark Bello, one of ATI’s Managing Principals and Registered Architect, has been a volunteer for the California Office of Emergency Services, Safety Assessment Program for years. The goal of this program is for Cal OES to call at a moment’s notice on certified professionals to provide mutual aid to local agencies in need, however and wherever that may be. These include earthquakes, hurricanes, floods, and fires. Support comes from civil and structural engineers, construction management professionals, inspectors, and architects from all over California.
Cal OES provides training and materials to certify individuals with the hopes that in a crisis they can make the call to professional organizations and immediately develop a list of people to deploy quickly. The Purpose of the Safety Assessment Program is to evaluate and quickly determine the safety of properties in order to give the local agencies a snapshot of the damage results with the intention of getting people back into their homes quickly and safely.
A CALL TO ACTION
On Friday evening, October 13th, just two days after the wildfires started, Mark received a mass email from Cal OES’s Government Affairs Program Coordinator for the A.I.A. California Council, putting out the call for volunteers. On Sunday, Mark and thirteen other architects answered the call and placed their lives on hold to be deployed to either Napa or Santa Rosa.
Mark was assigned to the Napa Territory and when he arrived, he was given a grid map of the Atlas, Nuns, Tubbs, and Patrick Fire zones. From there, his group was broken into teams of two, one local agency personnel and one volunteer professional.
“We left with maps, a spreadsheet with addresses, assessor parcel numbers, red and yellow tags, detailed report documents and a packet of information for homeowners containing resources and instructions on support available and FEMA requirements for cleanup of toxic waste,” said Mark. “In addition, we carried masks, plenty of water, food, hard hats, stakes for posting red and yellow tags, and all sorts of other things that may be needed out in the field. All of this prepared me for the difficult task at hand.”
But Mark could not have imagined the sadness and devastation he was about to encounter.
Alongside a code compliance officer and past Cal Fire investigator, Mark surveyed the Atlas Peak Road zones. The pair assessed the fire damage and provided a detailed report in order to give officials sufficient information to determine action with the homeowners.
“From time to time, we found homes destroyed with a car loaded with belongings sitting in the driveway untouched with the doors open. We found cows, horses, goats, and chickens who had been left behind in the rush of only minutes people had to make it to safety. We watered and fed those that we could and called animal control that had a massive operation to help stranded animals including wild animals,” Mark recounts.
Occasionally he would run into a homeowner that had stood their ground to fight for their property and their life. He found that some were able to do this, but ultimately others were not. All were in shock at what they went through and the loss that they, their friends, and neighbors experienced.
“We shared what food and water we had but mostly people needed to be heard and shown compassion. Everyone had an unbelievable story that shook me to the core,” said Mark.
By Wednesday, they had all completed assessing the Napa area.
“When we were done, we gathered together in an embrace as we collectively felt the emotional shock that we had completed a seemingly impossible endeavor.”
Shortly after the grounds team wrapped up, the AIA communicated that Cal OES needed 10 more volunteers in Sonoma County.
WORK CONTINUES AS DEVASTATION GROWS
That same day, Mark went directly to the Sonoma County Building department and by 7:30 PM had his 2nd deployment packet in hand along with directions to the Windsor Holiday Inn.
Mark reflects that the entire operation in Santa Rosa was different than Napa. The magnitude of operations were evident on the faces of everyone he met from the Sonoma county and Santa Rosa staff, Military, Fire Departments, and Law Enforcement from all over California and neighboring states, such as Nevada, Arizona, and Oregon.
“The emergency operations center was controlled chaos 24/7,” said Mark.
It took Mark and his new assigned partner almost an hour to get to Geysers Road high above Geyserville between distance, closed roads, and PGE. PGE had several base camps that were huge, fully equipped with tents, food service, trucks, crews. From Geysers Road, the devastation was a smoking ruins of every hillside, valley, and homes as far as we could see as we drove down long dirt roads to locate homes. Smoke so thick that often we couldn’t see the hills across from us and we would walk in deep ash to get to structures that were leveled and smoldering.
On Saturday, Mark and his team were still working their way through the ash. At this point, people were tired, desperate, and wanted to know more about their homes. They stopped whenever they could to talk to folks standing at the blockages. People just wanted to know something. Anything.
“I had looked at over two hundred destroyed homes. The level of destruction was so severe, that I found the aluminum wheels of many vehicles had melted and run down the driveways,” said Mark. “I was heartbroken for those many families that will suffer for a long time.”
MAKING SENSE OF IT ALL
The hometown of all of our offices: Pleasanton is 24 Sq. Miles, Costa Mesa is 16 Sq. Miles and Roseville is 42 Sq. Miles. That is a total of 82 Sq. Miles. The estimated fire areas of the combined Tubbs, Atlas, Nuns and Patrick fires are around 281 Sq. Miles. These fires represent almost three times the size of our collective three towns.
When Mark got home, he reflected on the events he experienced over the last week and looked out over the valley to try to imagine a fire fourteen times the size of Castro Valley, his hometown.
“It’s a thought I couldn’t quite grasp,” said Mark.
In the end, the collaboration and commitment that Mark witnessed from the other volunteers was moving. It reminded him of what can be accomplished when people come together and give back in response to such tragedy. Anyone who fled for their life said that it hurts to lose everything, but to survive to see another day is the only thing that matters.
With that said, Mark reminds us that it is not too late and that there is still an on-going need to continue to come together to give back to those that lost everything.
HOW YOU CAN HELP THIS HOLIDAY SEASON
There are several organizations that are working to provide immediate and long term relief in both Northern and Southern California areas:
We also urge you to check your community newspapers and local listings for special fundraiser for North Bay and Southern California Fires, such as toy drives and mixers that are being held in your surrounding neighborhood this holiday season.
Once again, a special thank you to all the firefighters, EMTs, police officers, neighbors, and locals offering their services and risking their lives to help others.