Map Your Neighborhood looks ahead to a dangerous fire season

By Sydnie Conner, Townsy Media, April 20, 2021

map your neighborhood

Sebastopol City Councilmember Diana Rich started a Map Your Neighborhood group in her neighborhood.

With wildfire season approaching during a drought year, Sonoma County residents have reason to feel a sense of dread. West County especially may have a sense of urgency after encountering the first major wildfire on this side of the valley last year with the Walbridge Fire and two straight years of evacuations — first during the Kincade Fire in 2019 and then during the Walbridge Fire in 2020.

As many municipalities are ramping up fire preparedness campaigns and California is considering declaring a state of emergency, some residents may find peace in collaborative preparedness: getting to know your immediate community and working together to prepare for emergencies.

That’s what Sebastopol’s Map Your Neighborhood is all about.

Map Your Neighborhood is an “all-hazards collaborative preparedness” program that trains people to reach out and build a network with their neighborhoods and prepare to weather disasters as a community.

Map Your Neighborhood will be having a training class on Wednesday, April 21, at 6:30 p.m. over Zoom, at no cost.

Strength in numbers

Skip Jirrels, Sebastopol’s Public Safety Outreach Coordinator, has been hosting these classes since they began in Sebastopol in 2010.

Jirrels describes Map Your Neighborhood as entirely community-focused, ideally resulting in residents who are prepared to solve and adapt to problems on their own without waiting for help from first responders.

Map Your Neighborhood “trains the trainers” — preparing leaders to coordinate with their respective neighborhoods and collaborate on the specific vulnerabilities a neighborhood may face.

skip jirrels

Skip Jirrels believes that in times of emergency there’s strength in numbers.  (Photo courtesy Skip Jirrels)

Jirrels believes that many emergency preparedness programs put too much of an emphasis on individuals preparing themselves to survive the first 24 hours of an emergency, until they are rescued by first responders. But Jirrels is wary of this idea because in larger emergencies, like region-wide wild fires, emergency personnel may be overwhelmed, and residents may have to make do on their own for a longer period of time.

“They are not riding up on their white horses to save you,” he said. “There is more strength in neighborhoods than there is in individuals.”

Reaching out to neighbors and discovering hidden skills

Sebastopol City Council Member Diana Rich is a Map Your Neighborhood leader in her neighborhood northwest of downtown, as well as a member of a Sebastopol Neighborhood Communications Unit and a liaison between these groups and city government.

She described the process of getting to know her neighbors and asking them to come to an emergency preparedness meeting as “daunting,” even after having lived there for 15 years.

Diana Rich

Sebastopol City Councilmember Diana Rich created a Map Your Neighborhood group in her neighborhood.

“We made a list of tools and skills in our meeting, and everyone has something to offer. One person was a former cop who knew how to respond to medical emergencies. There’s a school teacher who could take care of the children. Often, the people who don’t want to go to meetings are the ‘doers.’ We keep them in the loop, and I know they’re going to be here for us. One guy who has a bunch of tools proved to be extremely useful during the evacuation. He was one of three of the neighbors who stayed behind, and he fed the birds, cleared out someone’s fridge, and provided us with updates while we had no access to the news. We were all there for each other and had a sense of security (and) belonging.”

Map Your Neighborhood and its neighborhood spin-offs have also been keeping Sebastopol connected to the rest of the county, as well as improving municipal emergency response plans, Rich said.

For instance, the Sebastopol Neighborhood Communication Unit, a HAM radio and walkie talkie group, has been preparing for the not-unlikely scenario of mainstream communications collapsing during an emergency. Their work of identifying quadrants within Sebastopol and establishing a person in each as a communication “hub” is being done in collaboration with the fire department.

“Our city’s infrastructure is historically intertwined with various entities run by nonprofits and community-driven groups,” Rich explained. “The community center, senior center, the pool, the little league field — they are all owned by the city, but not operated by it. Our city tends to be respectful of grassroots projects. We have volunteer leaders, and the city steps up to provide endorsement, funds or a place to meet without intruding on them.”

To sign up for the next Map Your Neighborhood class on Wednesday, April 21, contact Skip Jirrels at sjirrels@cityofsebastopol.org or 707 799-2204. Stan Green of Sebastopol Neighborhood Communication Unit can be reached at information.sncu@gmail.com.