County staff assist Sonoma County in fire recovery efforts

Published on November 09, 2017

When small counties are confronted with a huge emergency, they can easily become overwhelmed. The recent fires in Northern California did just that and a call for help went out to all the other counties in the state. Placer County responded with staff to help with the emergency.

About a dozen Placer County staff members have worked shifts in the past weeks and continue to work in various positions. More staff is scheduled for deployment into December. Placer continues to send assistance for the recovery, including staff from the Office of Emergency Services, Department of Public Works and Facilities, Health and Human Services, Adult System of Care and Environmental Health.

“When major incidents like the recent fires hit a county hard, other counties in the state try to help with key staff support,” said John McEldowney, Placer County’s emergency services manager. “Placer County was fortunate to be to able help this time and it is great training for those Placer employees who volunteered to go. That will only help us in the future when a major incident befalls us here in Placer County.”

The damage to structures is tangible; it is easily seen and repaired. Emotional scars on survivors who lost everything from homes to possessions to loved ones can be more difficult to repair. Adult System of Care staff deployed to schools in Sonoma County to work with students, parents and school staff in processing the horrific experiences they had suffered.  

“We had an opportunity to connect with some people, both students and staff, but I think the bulk of the need for emotional support is going to be experienced and expressed once those who experienced the trauma and the losses begin to settle into a new normal,” said Bill Thomas, a quality assurance program specialist with Placer Adult System of Care. “Many are still in survival mode and are not yet at a place where they can process the emotional component of what they’ve been through.”

Behavioral health worker Scott Genschmer spent several days in Santa Rosa working at two different schools. At one, more than 100 students and five teachers had been displaced by the fire, many from the devastated Coffey Park neighborhood. Kids showed him cell phone photos of their homes, reduced to rubble. 

In the midst of that devastation, experienced mental health professionals were crucial. 

"They are trying to put one foot in front of the other. Crisis counseling is incredibly important. It starts the healing process early on," he said. "If you experience trauma and go without mental health support, it can get worse over time."

The disaster hit close to home for Genschmer, whose mother was evacuated from Calistoga for a week and came to Roseville. Her neighborhood, thankfully, was spared.

"This could easily happen in Placer County," Genschmer said. "It's our responsibility to help others in need. When the call comes, we need to raise our hands."

More than 6,000 homes were destroyed in Sonoma County communities. The massive job of cleaning up all the debris and ash left behind in the wake of these devastating wildfires prompted a request for assistance. Placer County is sending four registered environmental health specialists to oversee the site remediation and debris removal work, to make sure each home site is free of hazardous materials so they can start rebuilding as soon as possible. Others will help relieve Sonoma County staff and keep up with health inspections and other work until the situation returns to a more normal pace.