How Permaculture Is Helping Wildfire Survivors Recover

Volunteers prepare a space to plant a permaculture herb spiral at Pine Ridge School in Magalia, California, during the Camp Fire Restoration Weekend. Gerard Ungerman

By Dani Burlison

On a bright spring afternoon in late April, roughly 75 people gathered at the first Camp Fire restoration weekend at a farm 20 miles southwest of Paradise, California. The small private farm, nestled near a sprawling cow pasture that reaches east toward the burn zone, was safe from the Camp Fire. But in Paradise, signs of the devastating fire remain: burned-out vehicles, long lines of debris-removal trucks snaking toward the highway, billboards of encouragement (and insurance company ads) for survivors, and posters thanking first responders.

After the 2018 Camp Fire ravaged the small forested town — leaving just 10 percent of homes standing — residents were left with the enormous task of rebuilding their community. For locals, that means rebuilding homes and businesses. But it also means ecological restoration of the scorched Sierra Nevada foothills.

Matthew Trumm, founder of the Camp Fire Restoration Project, hopes his project will do both.

Trumm's friends own the farm where attendees of the restoration camp gathered for three days to launch the project, taking early steps in helping land and people recover from the deadly fires.

With the weekend camp, Trumm and a dozen other camp organizers wanted to bring people together to begin organizing for long-term recovery of Paradise. Activities provided training in regenerative design and ecological restoration, including a day performing permaculture projects at Pine Ridge School in Magalia, one of few schools left standing in the Camp Fire burn zone. On the final day of the camp, committees were formed to tackle ongoing needs to rebuild infrastructure for shelter, water, and energy.

Matthew Trumm, founder of the Camp Fire Restoration Project, directs volunteers at a work day at Pine Ridge School, one of the few schools spared by the Camp Fire.

Gerard Ungerman

As the campers arrived, set up tents, and settled in for the weekend, Trumm directed them to nearby composting toilets, a first aid tent, and an outdoor kitchen. Trees shaded a fire pit circled by straw bales, where the group would share meals and discuss the weekend's agenda. The farm was designed using principles of permaculture, a system of cultivation that creates permanent agriculture or horticulture by using renewable resources and a self-sustaining ecosystem.

Among the campers were Camp Fire survivors from Paradise and Concow, volunteers from nearby Chico, and some who drove several hours to help with the recovery efforts.

"This is an experiment," Trumm said to the farmers, builders, and community organizers who showed up to help. "Welcome to the experiment!"

Trumm's "experiment" is based on the work of ecologist and filmmaker John D. Liu, who documented the Loess Plateau Watershed Rehabilitation Project, a restoration endeavor that began in 1994 in a 250,000-square-mile region along the Yellow River basin in China. Liu went on to create Ecosystem Restoration Camps that have helped recover overly grazed and farmed land in arid environments.

So far, Liu has created camps in two countries. Since 2017 in Spain, a continual string of campers at Camp Altiplano have been working to rehabilitate degraded natural and agricultural ecosystems affected by long-term industrial farming. Camp Via Organica, near San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, focuses on providing campers with hands-on experience in ecosystem restoration and regenerative farming techniques. Through the camps, Liu aims to restore degraded habitats and improve the lives of farmers and local agricultural economies, while also providing hands-on training to those working on land recovery.

Liu's camps haven't yet addressed disaster recovery, nor have any been introduced to the U.S. The camp in California is the first camp in the U.S. and the first to apply Liu's principles to wildfire recovery.

Trumm first began studying permaculture 12 years ago, after leaving behind his life as a DJ in the San Francisco Bay Area and heading to his family's land in the hills southeast of Paradise. There, he began living off the grid and growing his own food, which eventually led him to complete a permaculture design course. Then, about five years ago, Trumm discovered Liu's work and emailed him to discuss some projects.

"He immediately offered me to be part of the council for the ecosystem restoration camps," Trumm says about their first phone conversation. "This is the first time I ever heard of the ecosystem restoration camps, and it was two weeks before the fire."

Volunteers replace classroom ramps.

Dani Burlison

When the fires ignited, Trumm says, he thought back to a phrase that Liu used in many of his restoration videos: "Let's gather around the campfire and restore paradise." The message clicked for Trumm; he needed to organize a camp to help rebuild the town of Paradise.

The Butte County communities of Paradise, Magalia, Pulga, and Concow have a long road of recovery ahead of them. In addition to the Camp Fire destroying more than 150,000 acres (240 square miles) of neighborhoods and much of the central town and numerous schools — nearly 19,000 structures in total — residents who have returned to unscathed homes among the ponderosa pines are dealing with toxic water. It is estimated that up to 173 miles of pipeline in the town's water system is contaminated with benzene and other volatile organic compounds.

As of late June, just over 50% of fire debris had been removed. Entering Paradise from the west is a heartbreaking reminder of how utterly devastating the Camp Fire was. Skyway Boulevard is lined with 85 memorial markers—one for each life lost in the disaster.

At Pine Ridge School, which is reached after driving through miles of the burn area that torched the surrounding forest and came within yards of the school's perimeter, Trumm is determined to create a safe place for students, while demonstrating the importance of community collaboration.

The small elementary school of about 450 students is one of the only schools that survived the path of the Camp Fire. About 5 miles down the road from the school is Paradise, where eight of the district's nine schools were destroyed. Some of the displaced students have been transferred to Pine Ridge.

In February, Pine Ridge was the meeting place of California Gov. Gavin Newsom and other officials to discuss recovery funds for the area. After the fires, Pine Ridge added seventh and eighth grade teachers to the kindergarten through sixth grade school to accommodate students from other schools, many of whom bus in from new or temporary housing in Chico.

Community members donated native trees and fruit trees to be planted at the school.

Dani Burlison

At the school, flowering dogwood trees and pines still stand, scattered across the campus; most of the school was spared by the fire, aside from one small building at the edge of the campus.

During the restoration event at the school, campers and other volunteers from town removed old railings along walkways and rebuilt classroom ramps. Others planted native trees and shrubs and a small school garden near the entryway to the campus, providing a contrast to the miles of scorched neighborhoods students travel through every day on their way to school. And others dug a drainage ditch for an area of the school where water pools during the rainy season.

Throughout the day, the sense of community in the small hillside town remained strong as volunteers shared snacks and chatted hopefully about rebuilding their homes while working together on projects across the campus.

Though roughly 150 people turned out for the work day, including campers, school staff, parents with children who attend Pine Ridge, and a group from Stanford University, the project is small compared to the amount of destruction just outside its gates.

Trumm said they have to start small. And because it's in the center of the burn zone and has been used as a meeting spot for the community since the fires, the school is a central place to begin the rebuilding process, Trumm said. "In permaculture, we talk about zones," he said. "Zone One is the place right outside your back door, right? The thing that needs the most attention. It's where you keep your most valuable plant stock, valuable things, sensitive things. When I try to think about that on a large scale for a disaster area like this, that's my thinking behind [starting at the school]."

"Because you're bringing the next generation [into] thinking about this stuff, you're healing that next generation," he added.

Some question the advisability of rebuilding towns in fire-prone regions. These are regions that, according to the U.S. Forest Service, have seen an increase from 30.8 to 43.4 million homes (a 41% rise) between 1990 and 2010.

The area of Northern California where Paradise once stood is one such fire-prone region. As climate change continues bringing higher temperatures and lower precipitation throughout California, fire seasons are projected to get worse throughout the state, according to a new study.

But Paradise — and Butte County in general — is a largely working class region. According to a 2016 Butte County Health Assessment Report, the county's median income was roughly $43,000 and nearly 60% of children were eligible for free or reduced-fee school lunch programs before the fire. For many, moving into more expensive areas of California, where there continues to be an extreme shortage of affordable housing, is not a feasible option.

Volunteers dig a drainage ditch at the school.

Dani Burlison

One person who wants to rebuild his home — and who attended the restoration camp this weekend — is a man known as Pyramid Michael in the Paradise community. A 70-year old veteran and construction worker turned massage therapist, Michael spent 10 years designing and building an energy efficient, passive-solar-powered home in Paradise. He recently did a "permablitz" — a comprehensive permaculture project — on his property that included planting a garden and small food forest, and installing a rain catchment system.

"Then the fire came through and wiped it all out," he says. "But I've been homeless many times in my life, I know what it's like to be without nothing or starting over again. But I'm still healthy. I have strength, and I have intelligence. And I have a vision. And I know how to work with those."

Michael hopes the volunteers' efforts will help the school become more viable, continuing to act as a hub for community organizing while families rebuild their homes. He also hopes to create a safe space for the kids to recover from the emotional impact of the fires.

Using permaculture for climate disaster recovery isn't new. Activists used mycelium to consume and break down environmental pollutants in post-Katrina New Orleans and again to address toxic runoff in burn zones after the 2017 fires in Sonoma County.

Koreen Brennan, owner of Grow Permaculture in Brooksville, Florida, and a board member at Permaculture Institute of North America, saw permaculture applied to disaster relief after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. Brennan traveled there with a small group to help build compostable toilets after the disaster as a way to address sanitation issues and also create fertilizer for gardens.

"Bringing the community together to take these small steps helps … increase the capacity and fortitude needed to take the larger steps … to rebuild."

"I think an important component of permaculture disaster relief is the hope factor," she added. "We were able to literally use garbage and the waste stream of the area, such as sawdust, to address multiple problems, while creating beautiful, valuable soil in the process that could help people eat better," Brennan says. "It gave [people] a way to start putting their lives back together, where they didn't need to wait for external help or resources."

Pyramid Michael is hopeful for something similar in Paradise.

A dogwood tree grows in a neighborhood devastated by the Camp Fire.

Dani Burlison

"The whole town of Paradise has an opportunity here. We have a real wide focus; it's a complete level playing field. There's been total destruction and we have an opportunity to actually do something different. Something that is more sustainable. Something that works with the Earth," he says. "The thing that just stresses me is that we lost 85 people's lives. One person I did know, but they were all part of our community. And I don't want to see that happen again."

The financial cost of the Camp Fire damage has been tallied at more than$12 billion, and some estimate that it will take years for cleanup to be complete and for rebuilding to begin because of a local labor shortage and massive insurance fees. And it may be at least two years and $300 million before water in the area will be safe to drink.

"We need to increase our understanding of how we are interconnected with each other and with ecosystems, in order to make better decisions about how and where we live. The result would be resilient communities that are more supportive, and have more abundant natural resources for the foreseeable future," Brennan says.

Back at Pine Ridge School, Trumm says he believes that recovery is possible and that it can start with simple solutions like planting native trees and teaching skills for resilience.

"The important thing about this," Trumm says, "is that I'm just an average person that was able to learn these skills over a short period of time, and everybody can do it."

Reposted with permission from our media associate YES! Magazine.

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