Sonoma County Office of Education

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Sonoma Valley Schools Respond to Community Needs in Wildfire Emergency

Author: Rick Phelan
Published: 10.19.17

fire and benchWildfires have impacted many areas of Sonoma County over the last week. Nearly one tenth of the county’s one million acres have burned involving over 5,000 structures with losses estimated at $3 billion. In Sonoma Valley, the communities of Kenwood, Glen Ellen, Aqua Caliente, Boyes Hot Springs, and the city of Sonoma were severely impacted. Heroic efforts were manifested by firefighting strike teams from around the world. In addition, notable efforts were provided by Sonoma Unified School District (SVUSD) staff rallying resources in response to community needs.  This blog post shares my perspective as a resident of Sonoma Valley offering a view on SVUSD’s response to the emergency and their work with other community members.

Sonoma Valley has over 30,000 residents stretching from Kenwood in the north to Schellville in the south. During the October wildfire emergencies, Sonoma Valley Unified School District staff worked ‘around the clock’ 24/7 to serve a wide array of community needs, a tangible manifestation of: ”The love in the air is thicker than the smoke.”  A sampling of groups that were served are listed here:

  • Evacuated residents from Sonoma Valley homes: Over 350 displaced people found shelter at Sonoma Valley High School during the fire storms.  SVUSD staff worked with the American Red Cross, California Emergency Management Team and volunteers from Sonoma Valley to obtain cots, bedding, clothing and food. SVUSD staff developed systems to support personal hygiene, safety and nourishment. Along with the basics, SVUSD staff and volunteers worked to offer regular news updates, musical entertainment, movies, and Internet access.
  • Sonoma Developmental Center- residents with multiple disabilities were recognized as being in danger at the onset of the fires. Officials from the developmental center worked with SVUSD staff to establish an evacuation center in the gymnasium at Adele Harrison Middle School. 86 wheelchair bound clients from the center and their caretakers found a temporary home at the middle school. SVUSD staff and community volunteers supported efforts to make the residents comfortable and safe.
  • Hanna Boys Center- coordinators were concerned about the Hanna campus and their residents proximity to fires.  When Hanna was evacuated, coordinators worked with SVUSD to arrange accommodation for over 80 boys in Golton Hall at Sonoma High School. Golton Hall offered a temporary safe haven for the boys and staff.
  • Assisted living facility residents- a number of assisted living homes with non-ambulatory clients or persons with memory loss issues in the valley were threatened by fires.  Residents were brought to the evacuation center at Sonoma Valley High School. SVUSD staff recognized more intensive needs and set up an area on the SVHS campus where the assisted living residents needs could be met. In some cases SVUSD staff and volunteers stepped in to offer personal care and support as needs presented themselves.

From my perspective, Sonoma Valley Unified School District’s response to the fire storms was exceptional and noteworthy- school district leadership, principals, teachers and classified staff went above and beyond offering time, compassion and support.  They established order and created systems for community volunteers to offer support and service. U.S. Representative Mike Thompson acknowledged the work done by SVUSD saying, “...we would like to extend a huge thank you to the Sonoma Valley Unified School District, who opened, managed and operated (shelters) since the first day of the fire storm..the shelter(s) were entirely staffed by the administrators, teachers and staff of the school district and our amazing community volunteers.”

In the aftermath of the fire storms, it should be noted that district personnel aren’t finding time to rest. Staff have shifted their energies and are now preparing for the resumption of classes on Monday, October 23. Three areas of work are taking place now:

  • Ensuring safe school facilities- Staff are at schools checking power, phones, and Internet service.  They are also taking steps to make sure sites are clean and smoke free. Ash from the fire can be toxic. Staff maintenance crews are cleaning and changing filters in ventilation systems.
  • Evaluating valley roads to insure they are open and safe for school buses- If there are problems on routes, establishing temporary ‘work-arounds’ and communicating with families about the changes.
  • School staff readiness- Some staff members have lost their homes or are still evacuated.  Administrators are checking in with staff, making sure they are able to reach sites, planning to meet instructional needs from lost days and setting up to serve the socio-emotional needs of all who have been impacted by the fires.

Photos from the Sonoma Valley High School Evacuation Areas

Pfieffer Gym- one of four evacuation areas at Sonoma Valley High School


Meal service area
Sonoma Valley High School Pavilion- regular meals were offered to evacuees in the high school's Pavilion.


Dog taking refuge at SVHS
One of the dogs who found refuge at Sonoma Valley High School

Blog: Technology for Learners