Emergency Response Team Helps California Schools Overcome Wildfires

COURTESY OF THE CALIFORNIA DEPARTMENT OF EDUCATION

Jake Wolf, a member of the California Department of Education’s emergency services team, monitors wildfires at the California Office of Emergency Services Sept. 14 during a visit from President Joe Biden.

In the height of wildfire season, Joe Anderson and Jake Wolf have met virtually every Thursday morning. with exhausted and disoriented school principals whose campuses had been evacuated or destroyed by the wildfires raging in California.

The couple make up the emergency services team for the California Department of Education, but for some school district officials assisted by them, they and their principal, Juan Mireles, are affectionately referred to as the 3J’s.

The one-year team helps school officials communicate with state and federal agencies in an emergency, provides technical assistance on accessing government funds, connects them with needed resources, offers advice on how and when to reopen schools safely and help in any other way possible.

The team reached out to school officials needing help during the weekly call, which also included officials from the public school association, or when district leaders contacted them. They also monitored the fires and offered advice on evacuations when the flames got too close to schools.

“We relied on our three J’s to have these conversations about what we were going through,” said Plumas Unified Superintendent Terry Oestreich, whose district was evacuated and two schools closed in August due to the fire in Dixie. “They advised us not to speed up the process. We are dealing with the air quality, which was very bad, and we had a big cleaning to do in the building.

Oestreich first met the men in July when Tim Taylor, executive director of the Smalls School Districts Association of California, asked if he could invite them to join the virtual Plumas School District cabinet meeting. The district was under evacuation orders because of the fire, and the emergency services team wanted to make sure district officials understood how to handle the emergency.

“If you haven’t done it before, you just stop in your tracks and have no idea what you’re dealing with right now,” Oestreich said.

A week after the meeting, the Dixie Fire destroyed the town of Greenville in Plumas County, razing many of its homes and businesses, as well as a charter school site. Greenville High School and Greenville Elementary School suffered only minor damage but had to be closed due to safety risks from the fires, including the potential for toxins in the water supply.

Elementary students have been moved to a nearby Taylorsville school that had been closed ten years ago, and high school students have been sent to Quincy and Chester high schools – trips that can now take two hours due to fire damage, Oestreich said. . The Emergency Services team is currently helping the district and the charter school find cell phones to house their students in Taylorsville.

The California Department of Education formed the Emergency Services team last October to help schools deal with the combined emergencies of the Covid-19 pandemic, wildfires and planned power outages, caused when utilities cut off electricity to reduce the risk of fire.

“We have always noted the need to have dedicated resources to help us (with emergency management) as it takes a long time, and we all have our daily jobs to do,” said Mireles, who heads up the emergency services. ‘school and transport facilities. Division at the Ministry of Education. “That’s why we embarked on this adventure, to create a team that would help us and that would be dedicated to helping us in the emergency management work that we do. “

Wolf and Anderson both worked in the governor’s emergency services office before moving to the Department of Education. The two men live in counties in the foothills affected by forest fires.

“I have four kids in public school right now so it’s a little more rewarding for me to see the things we pay for my kids,” said Anderson, who lives in El Dorado County. where the Caldor fire burned more than 220,000 people. acres. “So I’m definitely invested, you know, in emergency management for schools, and that’s why I’m here. “

Courtesy of the California Department of Education

Joe Anderson is part of the California Department of Education’s emergency services team.

Wolf and Anderson had their busiest fire season yet with nearly 2 million acres burned in California this year. During that time, they taught dozens of districts how to navigate state and federal regulations, make financial claims, and meet local public health and public works requirements. They also advised them on who to contact for additional financial and emotional support.

Both team members are briefed several times a day by state agencies like the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services and Cal Fire about wildfires or other hazards that can put school facilities, the staff and students at risk. Together, the agencies coordinate emergency responses.

When forest fires threaten communities, Wolf uses Geographic Information System maps to measure the distance between schools and a fire. If a forest fire gets too close or the air quality is too bad, the team contacts school officials so they can prepare and make sure everyone is evacuated.

Taletha Washburn, principal of Plumas Charter School, has been linked to Wolf after the charter school learning center in Greenville burned down. Now they are working together to find laptops to at least temporarily replace the classrooms lost in the fire. In the meantime, students attend school near Taylorsville, where the charter school has another school site.

Wolf sent air cleaners to school – high-powered air filtration systems that remove air pollution and environmental contaminants – and helped connect Washburn with agencies that can help support the school.

“It’s intimidating,” Washburn said of the loss of a school site. “There are a lot of weird new things to do when you’re in this position. Navigating the landscape of the support system is really intense.

Washburn says she’ll also need Wolf’s expertise as she begins to seek help from the federal and state governments to help replace the school.

Wolf says his goal, when schools are closed due to emergencies, is to get students back to school as soon as possible so that teachers can educate children and build relationships with them.

“I have an aunt who has now been a teacher for 34 years in the Gridley School District,” Wolf said. “I see the amount of effort and the amount of consideration she puts into being a teacher. And that really inspires me and what I do.

Wolf offered to help Sherri Morgan, principal of the Long Valley Charter School in the small town of Doyle in Lassen County, when the school got caught up in the fire at the Beckwourth Complex in July.

“He was an incredible wealth of knowledge,” she said. “I know the school and the education, but I have a lot of missing information regarding post-disaster response. He was awesome. I felt supported by him.

Morgan said Wolf had helped her understand the steps needed to clean the school after it was damaged by smoke and the need to have the air systems inspected. He also helped set up a local helpdesk at the school so residents could go there to meet with state and local agencies and insurance companies for help.

“It was so invaluable that the California Department of Education hired people to help in this way,” Morgan said. “It is sad and reassuring that they are here.”

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