How Permaculture Is Helping Wildfire Survivors Recover
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
"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.
A pygmy rabbit rescued from a breeding site in Beezley Hills, Washington, eats owl clover in its new enclosure. Kourtney Stonehouse, WDFW
- 7 Devastating Photos of Wildfires in California, Oregon and ... ›
- California Wildfires Destroy Condor Sanctuary, at Least 4 Birds Still ... ›
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Mark Hertsgaard
What follows are not candidate endorsements. Rather, this nonpartisan guide aims to inform voters' choices, help journalists decide what races to follow, and explore what the 2020 elections could portend for climate action in the United States in 2021 and beyond.
Will the White House Turn Green?<p>Whether the White House changes hands is the most important climate question of the 2020 elections. President Donald Trump rejects climate science, is withdrawing the United States from the Paris Agreement, and has accelerated fossil fuel development. His climate policy seems to be, as he tweeted in January when rejecting a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers proposal to protect New York City from storm surges, "Get your mops and buckets ready."</p><p>Joe Biden, who started the 2020 campaign with a climate position so weak that activists gave it an "F," called Trump a "climate arsonist" during California's recent wildfires. Biden backs a $2 trillion plan to create millions of jobs while slashing emissions—a Green New Deal in all but name. Equally striking, his running mate, California Senator Kamala Harris, has endorsed phasing out fossil fuel production—a politically explosive scientific imperative.</p><p>The race will be decided in a handful of battleground states, five of which already face grave climate dangers: Florida (hurricanes and sea-level rise), North Carolina (ditto), Texas (storms and drought), Michigan (floods), and Arizona (heat waves and drought). <a href="https://climatecommunication.yale.edu/visualizations-data/ycom-us/" target="_blank">Public concern is rising</a> in these states, but will that concern translate into votes?</p>
Will Democrats Flip the Senate, and by Enough to Pass a Green New Deal?<p>With Democrats all but certain to maintain their majority in the U.S. House of Representatives, the Senate will determine whether a potential Biden administration can actually deliver climate progress. Democrats need to pick up three seats to flip the Senate if Biden wins, four if he doesn't. But since aggressive climate policy is shunned by some Democrats, notably Joe Manchin of coal-dependent West Virginia, Democrats probably need to gain five or six Senate seats to pass a Green New Deal.</p><p>Environmentalists, including the League of Conservation Voters, are targeting six Republicans who polls suggest are vulnerable.</p><ul><li>Steve Daines of Montana, who denies climate science</li><li>Martha McSally of Arizona</li><li>Thom Tillis of North Carolina</li><li>Susan Collins of Maine</li><li>Joni Ernst of Iowa (bankrolled by Charles Koch)</li><li>John James of Michigan (also a Koch beneficiary)</li></ul><p>Republican Senators are even at risk in conservative Kansas and Alaska. In both states, the Democratic candidates are physicians—not a bad credential amid a pandemic—who support climate action. In Kansas, Barbara Bollier faces an incumbent funded by Charles Koch. In Alaska, Al Gross urges a transition away from oil, though his openness to limited drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Preserve dims his appeal to green groups. He faces incumbent Republican Dan Sullivan, who receives an 8 percent lifetime voting record from the League of Conservation Voters.</p>
Will Local and State Races Advance Climate Progress?<h4>THE CLIMATE HAWKS</h4><p>Under Democratic and Republican leadership alike, Washington has long been a graveyard for strong climate action. But governors can boost or block renewable energy; the Vermont and New Hampshire races are worth watching. Attorneys general can sue fossil fuel companies for lying about climate change; climate hawks are running for the top law enforcement seats in Montana and North Carolina. State legislatures can accelerate or delay climate progress, as the new Democratic majorities in Virginia have shown. Here, races to watch include Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Colorado.</p><h4>THE CLIMATE POLICY MAKERS</h4><p>Perhaps the most powerful, and most overlooked, climate policy makers are public utility commissions. They control whether pipelines and other energy infrastructure gets built; they regulate whether electric utilities expand solar and energy efficiency or stick with the carbon-heavy status quo. Regulatory capture and outright corruption are not uncommon.</p><p>A prime example is Arizona, where a former two-term commissioner known as the godfather of solar in the state is seeking a comeback. Bill Mundell argues that since Arizona law permits utilities to contribute to commissioners' electoral campaigns, the companies can buy their own regulators. Which may explain why super-sunny Arizona has so little installed solar capacity.</p><p>In South Dakota, Remi Bald Eagle, a Native American U.S. Army veteran, seeks a seat on the South Dakota Public Utilities Commission, which rules on the Standing Rock oil pipeline. And in what <em>HuffPost</em> called "the most important environmental race in the country," Democrat Chrysta Castaneda, who favors phasing out oil production, is running for the Texas Railroad Commission, which despite its name decides what oil, gas, and electric companies in America's leading petro-state can build.</p>
Will the Influencers Usher in a Green New Era?<h4>THE UNCOUNTED</h4><p>The story that goes largely under-reported in every U.S. election is how few Americans vote. In 2016, some 90 million, <a href="https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2018/08/09/an-examination-of-the-2016-electorate-based-on-validated-voters/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">roughly four out of every 10 eligible voters</a>, did not cast a ballot. Attorney Nathaniel Stinnett claims that 10 million of these nonvoters nevertheless identify as environmentalists: They support green policies, even donate to activist groups; they just don't vote. Stinnett's <a href="https://www.environmentalvoter.org/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Environmental Voter Project</a> works to awaken this sleeping giant.</p><h4>THE SUNRISE MOVEMENT</h4><p>Meanwhile, the young climate activists of the <a href="http://www.sunrisemovement.org/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Sunrise Movement</a> are already winning elections with an unabashedly Green New Deal message. More than any other group, Sunrise pushed the Green New Deal into the national political conversation, helping Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey draft the eponymous congressional resolution. In 2020, Sunrise has helped Green New Deal champions defeat centrists in Democratic primaries, with Markey dealing Representative Joe Kennedy Jr. the first defeat a Kennedy has ever suffered in a Massachusetts election. But can Sunrise also be successful against Republicans in the general elections this fall?</p><h4>THE STARPOWER</h4><p>And an intriguing wild card: celebrity firepower, grassroots activism, and big-bucks marketing have converged behind a campaign to get Latina mothers to vote climate in 2020. Latinos have long been the U.S. demographic most concerned about climate change. Now, <a href="https://votelikeamadre.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Vote Like A Madre</a> aims to get 5 million Latina mothers in Florida, Texas, and Arizona to the polls. Jennifer Lopez, Salma Hayak, and Lin-Manuel Miranda are urging mothers to make a "pinky promise" to vote for their kids' climate future in November. Turning out even a quarter of those 5 million voters, though no easy task, could swing the results in three states Trump must win to remain president, which brings us back to the first category, "Will the White House Turn Green?"</p>
- Climate Activists Prepare for November Election - EcoWatch ›
- The Next Election Is About the Next 10,000 Years - EcoWatch ›
- Latino Voters Worried About Climate Change Could Swing 2020 ... ›
- Climate Crisis Could Change Permafrost Soil Microbes, With ... ›
- Zombie Fires Could Be Awakening in the Arctic - EcoWatch ›
- The Arctic Is on Fire and Warming Twice as Fast as the Rest of the ... ›
By Tony Carnie
South Africa is home to around 1,300 of the world's roughly 7,100 remaining cheetahs. It's also the only country in the world with significant cheetah population growth, thanks largely to a nongovernmental conservation project that depends on careful and intensive human management of small, fenced-in cheetah populations. Because most of the reserves are privately funded and properly fenced, the animals benefit from higher levels of security than in the increasingly thinly funded state reserves.
Vincent van der Merwe at a cheetah translocation. Endangered Wildlife Trust
Under Pressure<p>Cheetah populations elsewhere in Southern Africa have not prospered over the past 50 years. In Zimbabwe, cheetah numbers have crashed from 1,500 in 1975, to just 170 today. Botswana's cheetah population has held steady at around 1,500 over the same period, but illegal capture for captive breeding and conflicts with farmers and the growing human population are increasing. In Namibia, there were an estimated 3,000 cheetah in in 1975; roughly 1,400 remain today.</p><p>In contrast, South Africa's cheetah numbers have grown from about 500 in 1975 to nearly 1,300 today. Van der Merwe, who is also a Ph.D. student at the University of Cape Town's Institute for Communities and Wildlife in Africa (iCWild), says he's confident that South Africa will soon overtake Namibia and Botswana, largely because the majority of South African cheetahs are protected and managed behind fences, whereas most of the animals in the neighboring countries remain more vulnerable on mainly unfenced lands.</p><p>Wildlife researchers Florian Weise and colleagues have reported that private stock owners in Namibia still trap cheetahs mainly for translocation, but there are few public or private reserves large enough to contain them. Weise says that conservation efforts need to focus on improving tolerance toward cheetahs in commercial livestock and game farming areas to reduce indiscriminate trapping.</p><p>Van der Merwe says fences can be both a blessing and a curse. While these barriers prevent cheetahs and other wild animals from migrating naturally to breed and feed, they also protect cheetahs from the growing tide of threats from humanity and agriculture.</p><p>To simulate natural dispersion patterns that guard against inbreeding, the trust helps landowners swap their animals with other cheetah reserves elsewhere in the country. The South African metapopulation project has been so successful in boosting numbers that the trust is having to look beyond national boundaries to secure new translocation areas in Malawi, Zambia and Mozambique.</p><p>Cheetah translocations have been going on in South Africa since the mid-1960s, when the first unsuccessful attempts were made to move scores of these animals from Namibia. These relocations were mostly unsuccessful.</p>
Charli de Vos uses a VHF antenna to locate cheetahs in Phinda Game Reserve. Tony Carnie for Mongabay
Swinging for the Fences<p>But other wildlife conservation leaders have a different perspective on cheetah conservation strategy.</p><p>Gus Mills, a senior carnivore researcher retired in 2006 from SANParks, the agency that manages South Africa's national parks, after a career of more than 30 years in Kalahari and Kruger national parks. He says the focus should be on quality of living spaces rather than the quantity of cheetahs.</p><p>Mills, who was the founder of the Endangered Wildlife Trust's Carnivore Conservation Group in 1995, and who also spent six years after retirement studying cheetahs in the Kalahari, says it's more important to properly protect and, where possible, expand the size of existing protected areas.</p><p>He also advocates a triage approach to cheetah conservation, in which scarce funds and resources are focused on protecting cheetahs in formally protected areas, rather than diluting scarce resources in an attempt to try and save every single remaining cheetah population.</p><p>"People have an obsession with numbers. But I believe that it is more important to protect large landscape and habitats properly," Mills said.</p><p>He suggests that cheetahs enclosed within small reserves live in artificial conditions: "It's almost like glorified farming."</p><p>"In the long run we have to focus on consolidating formally protected areas," he added. "Africa's human population will double by 2050, so cheetah populations in unfenced areas will become unsustainable if they are eating people's livestock."</p>
Scientists are on the brink of scaling up an enzyme that devours plastic. In the latest breakthrough, the enzyme degraded plastic bottles six times faster than previous research achieved, as The Guardian reported.
- Mutant Enzyme Recycles Plastic in Hours, Could Revolutionize ... ›
- Scientists Find Bacteria That Eats Plastic - EcoWatch ›
- Plastics: The History of an Ecological Crisis - EcoWatch ›
- Scientists Accidentally Develop 'Mutant' Enzyme That Eats Plastic ... ›