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As the Smoke Clears: A Reflection on Natural Disasters in Our State

As we enter what had traditionally been known as “fire season” in California, which is now less predictable, we are reflecting on the way in which this element has shaped and impacted our state. Several past projects, as well as a new grant focus area, give us insight into the ways we can respond to how these disasters affect our state physically and culturally.

Fires have, historically, not always been cause for alarm. Many native tribes have used controlled burns for thousands of years to manage the brush and growth that could eventually provide fodder for bigger fires. With the increased risk of wildfires in developed areas and a complex forestry management system, not to mention the threats to indigenous ways of life, folks like Peter Crowheart Zavalla, the Tribal Liaison with the Los Padres National Forest, have worked with government to help inform the policies and practices that provide the best outcomes for both land management agencies and American Indian communities. Crowheart Zavalla spoke at a Humanities for All Quick Grant-supported event in February about how the many tribes who live in and around the area support the US Forestry Service. Held a few months after the widely reported-on Woolsey fire in Ventura and Los Angeles County, the event brought insight and healing to a venue that had itself been impacted by fire—the Chumash Indian Museum in Thousand Oaks, whose outdoor teaching area, including replica Chumash village and native plant garden, had been scorched. The community rallied around the museum and, this past weekend, volunteers helped rebuild the village for future visitors to enjoy.

In the northern part of the state, the Carr Fire had devastating impacts in Shasta and Trinity Counties in July and August 2018. The extent of the damage lent itself to superlatives: the sixth-most destructive fire in California’s history at the time, and the seventh-largest recorded wildfire in the state. But the students from Redding’s Shasta College, a community college partner of California Humanities through our CA 2020: Democracy and the Informed Citizen initiative, wanted to take a deeper look at the human impact of the fire on their community. In courses taught by college instructors Heather Wylie and Chris Rodriguez, students learned about investigative journalism techniques, developing, researching, writing, and recording stories on the local effects of the Carr Fire, as well as the more recent Camp Fire to the south in Butte County. Featured on local NPR affiliate Jefferson Public Radio, the students created a podcast, Out of the Ashes, after interviewing, investigating and sharing the stories of a community recovering from natural disaster. With the support of the Mellon Foundation and McConnell Foundation and in partnership with the Pulitzer Prizes as well as the Federation of State Humanities Councils, Shasta College was one of four community colleges throughout the state that provided hands-on media literacy training to their students and worked with California Humanities to bring Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Sonia Nazario to speak both to students and to the public.

In 2019, due to the timeliness and importance of these and other projects, California Humanities announced a new focus of funding for our Humanities for All grants, Second Responders: The Humanities in the Aftermath of Natural Disasters. This new focus area—spurred by a conversation with the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and supported by a NEH Chairman’s Award—is meant to support public humanities projects such as oral histories, performances, exhibits, workshops, book discussions, film screenings, and more, that help individuals and communities make meaning after tragic events and find ways to move forward together. Whether they are dealing with wildfires, floods, earthquakes, or landslides, the projects should focus on the collection, sharing, ad discussion of stories by community members affected by recent disasters. Applicants to upcoming rounds of Humanities for All Quick Grants (opening September 15, and due October 15) and Humanities for All Project Grants (opening in 2020) may select this designation when submitting.

Monica Perry, a Shasta College student who helped created the podcast about the Carr and Camp fires, said, “This project has been a wonderful way of connecting and becoming more connected to our local neighborhood. Hopefully it will aid in the healing and forward movement of the frayed community.”​

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UPDATE: Humanities for All Project Grant Deadline Extended to August 5

A new focus area supports stories of Californians affected by recent natural disasters.