‘Keep Paying Ahead’: Tubbs Fire Survivors Use Hard-Learned Reconstruction Skills to Build New Careers

“We produce electricity – solar and battery powered generators. Everything is designed to help people facing PSPS, ”said Rahmn, referring to the necessary but highly disruptive power cuts to public safety initiated by PG&E.

Firebrand was founded by Richard Kirby, a volunteer firefighter with a background in construction management. “I fell in love with his vision,” said Rahmn, “because of what I went through.”

Working for Coffey Strong, learning firsthand how the city’s authorization system works – “or how it’s supposed to work,” said Rahmn, who noted that the Santa Rosa Fire Department struggles to deal with timely permits – “helped me figure out how to navigate this process.

Among the challenges Firebrand faces: Supply chain issues have resulted in long delivery times for some generators. The young company will overcome these obstacles, Rahmn is sure of it. He and his colleagues are nothing if not resilient.

“It feels good to do something”

It gave Pamela Van Halsema a sense of control, immediately after losing her home in the Tubbs fire, to list after list of questions, “then look for answers to those questions,” she recalls.

“After having lost everything, where to start? “

Van Halsema is now answering this question for fellow fire survivors as director of community and digital programs for After the fire, formerly known as Rebuild NorthBay. After broadening its scope from northern California to the entire American West, the association changed its name to After The Fire.

Coffey Park has been rebuilt, but the wildfires haven’t gone anywhere. There is a lot of work to be done elsewhere, said Van Halsema, another former president of Coffey Strong, pointing to communities wiped out by more recent destructive fires in Paradise, Greenville and northwestern Oregon, for n ‘ to name a few.

The goal of After The Fire, she said, is to provide as many answers as possible to survivors. No one should have to “invent their own recovery,” she said, when such a wealth of resources is available from those who have experienced it before them.

Van Halsema spent 15 years working for the School of Education at Sonoma State University. One of his jobs there was webmaster. With Rebuild NorthBay turning into After The Fire, CEO Jennifer Gray Thompson hired her to overhaul the nonprofit organization’s website.

But its role quickly expanded. Van Halsema now travels to communities devastated by the fires, to meet and listen to survivors, ask questions and then offer to help.

The idea, she says, is to network with them “and give them access to tools they didn’t know existed.”

The people she ends up meeting, she said, are county supervisors, block captains, school principals – the kind of people “who come together and say,” I want to help shape how our community recovers. “”

In these emerging leaders, she recognizes herself as well as her fellow directors of Coffey Strong. All share his preference for proactivity.

“We can sit here and watch all these places burn or we can do something,” she said. “It feels good to do something.”

Take the plunge

At the same Luther Burbank Center rally where Anne Barbour mustered the courage to raise her hand, Jeff Okrepkie – a business insurance agent who also lost his home – stood on the stage with Supervisor Gore.

Wielding Sharpies at a giant map of Coffey Park, Gore and Okrepkie divided the neighborhood into five “zones,” then invited people to volunteer to become bouldering captains.

This impromptu definition of boundaries was “completely arbitrary,” recalled Okrepkie, who phoned his phone after the meeting to secure Coffey Strong’s Internet domain.

These first steps led to unqualified success: Coffey Strong became one of the most successful grassroots efforts Sonoma County has ever seen.

They also led Okrepkie to the dawn of a much more public career. On October 7, the day after Tom Schwedhelm, a member of the Santa Rosa City Council, announced that he would not be running for a third term, Okrepkie announced that he would be running for the seat in District 6 of Schwedhelm. .

“I never intended to run for office at any time,” he told The Press Democrat after announcing his candidacy. Since founding Coffey Strong and serving as its first president, then serving on the Santa Rosa Planning Commission, Okrepkie has gained “a wealth of experience in how to be a part, lead and to improve local government ”, according to his website.

Schwedhelm, his neighbor in Coffey Park, saw Okrepkie as a raw political talent, someone with the “skills and abilities” to serve on city council. Schwedhelm appointed him to the planning committee.

More importantly, he endorsed Okrepkie as his replacement, praising his “ability to organize and deliver for Coffey Park despite being a fire survivor himself.”

Running for city council and then serving, if he wins – while still maintaining his day job – will take a long time, Okrepkie agrees. But the timing is fortuitous, he believes. While the reconstruction of Coffey Park is largely complete, his house is completely finished.

“We are back in our house, we are stable,” he said.

“I am ready to take the plunge.

You can reach Austin Murphy, editor, at [email protected] or on Twitter @ ausmurph88.


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