From chaos to community
Southern California experienced several devastating wildfires in October of 2003. More than 20 lives were lost, 3,000 homes destroyed, and thousands of people displaced from their communities, schools and workplaces. The life of more than 22 distinct communities and many more neighborhoods was completely disrupted.
Those not affected watched the apocalyptic visions on the nightly news. In times of disaster, people respond generously. Yet as Paul Reinhard, pastor of a local church, noted, “As the fires stopped burning, the fires were out of people’s minds, and they got on with their daily lives.”
Many survivors found themselves waiting for aid and guidance that would never come. Lake Arrowhead resident Dave Stuart says, “The thing we’ve learned in all of this is there is no cavalry.” Thus, the work of long-term community recovery and rebuilding ultimately falls to the people who plan to go on living in the place where the disaster struck. “…these things…happen naturally. People who care usually come forward to help,” says George Kehrer, who heads up Communities Assisting Recovery (CARe), a group knowledgeable about fairly resolving insurance issues.
They did not wait around hoping for rescue, certainly not for long. They acted. They created survivor-focused, citizen-led recovery and rebuilding groups that have acted as hubs of caring and concern coupled with concrete action. Some of the complex problems they wrestled with included insurance settlements, communication, government permit streamlining, rebuilding, resources and finance and future disaster prevention.
Development of an ad hoc fire recovery network in the San Bernardino Mountains began immediately after the evacuation of residents and was helped by local Rotary and Soroptimist organizations.
Shortly after the 2003 fires Community Partners, in partnership with 1993 Altadena fire survivors and with enormous pro bono assistance and leadership from the law firm of Latham & Watkins, held eight information sessions, from which grew the 2003 Fire Recovery Initiative. The 1993 survivors shared their experience of organizing a survivor-focused, community-driven long-term effort, the Eaton Canyon Recovery Alliance. The sessions helped several local groups gain their footing in a difficult time.
In Lake Arrowhead, the immediate aid offered to survivors eventually merged into a newly developed nonprofit called Rebuilding Mountain Hearts & Lives, which assumed responsibility for urging along the long term community rebuilding process. They successfully applied for a grant from a special fire recovery fund, allowing them to hire staff to help residents.
In San Diego County, people from the various areas devastated by the fires in 2003 banded together in a coalition to share resources, information, and emotional support as they rebuilt their communities. They call themselves the San Diego Firestorm Community Recovery Team; team members include representatives from the local community groups along with partner agencies and faith-based organizations.
After the so-called “Old Fire” in San Bernardino, things took a different path. This group eventually named themselves San Bernardino Old Fire Recovery Group. Instead of forming a separate nonprofit entity, they became a sponsored project within Community Partners’ incubator program. This allowed them to continue their volunteer-run activities without the hassle of administration.
No matter what structure groups choose, it’s a long haul. People involved in disaster recovery efforts agree that local officials, residents and survivors themselves routinely underestimate the time it takes to recover and rebuild in the wake of massive devastation and dislocation. Most survivors think they’ll be back on their feet after a year, while actual recovery can take three to five years, or longer.
Thank goodness these people have each other, dedicated local leaders to make the journey smoother and Community Partners to provide key training and assistance.
As one of our Strategic Initiatives, Community Partners staffs the 2003 Fire Recovery Initiative – funded by The California Community Foundation, The California Endowment, The California Wellness Foundation and Fannie Mae Foundation – and has incubated two of the local fire recovery groups: Eaton Canyon Recovery Alliance and Old Fire Recovery Group.
Learn more about the Fire Recovery Initiative by reading Community Partners' special reports:
From Chaos to Community, 2nd Edition (2009): A Guide to Helping Friends and Neighbors Recover after a Major Disaster
From Chaos to Community is a first step in compiling guidance and thoughts for citizens who want to make their communities whole again.
Fire Stories (PDF 1MB)
Fire Stories is a supplement to From Chaos to Community, telling personal stories of the local leaders who helped rebuild their communities.
Read more of our Strategic Initiative Success Stories!