After the Fires, SAY Youth to Help Restore Sonoma County Regional Parks

After the Fires, SAY Youth to Help Restore Sonoma County Regional Parks

When Matthew Reid stood on the rooftop of his downtown Santa Rosa home on October 8th, he could see the flames engulfing the outer rings of his beloved community, including the regional parks where he spends his days as the Operations and Maintenance Coordinator, and Project Host Supervisor for SAY Youth Work Crews.

Shiloh Regional Park Fire Damage

Fire damage at Shiloh Regional Park

Now, almost four months post-fire, Sonoma County Regional Parks are bracing for heavy rainfall, potential erosion concerns, and continuing to perform fire-abatement and restoration work in conjunction with SAY’s youth work crews starting January 22, 2018.

According to Sonoma County Regional Parks’ Deputy Director, Melanie Parker, nearly 2,600 acres of regional parkland were impacted by the Tubbs and Nuns fires. Six regional parks experienced fire at some level, with the most affected areas at Hood Mountain, Shiloh Ranch and Sonoma Valley.

The threat of wildfires in Sonoma County parks isn’t a new concern or phenomenon. In fact, wildfire threat is the primary reason why SAY work crews have been focused on fire-abatement efforts for the last three seasons. “In the off months when fires aren’t as inclined to start, we developed a program where we can work in conjunction with Social Advocates for Youth to begin what we call fuel or fire abatement,” explains Matthew Reid, who supervises SAY work crews every year.

As part of SAY’s Career Services programming, our seasonal work crews provide young people with paid on-the-job training and work experience throughout our regional parks and natural landscapes since 2009. Each crew cohort is paired with work readiness training that includes career pathway exploration, resume guidance, interview preparation and practice, communication skills, and learning to work in a team environment.

SAY Youth Work Crews

Youth from Social Advocates for Youth work clearing brush and trees

These work crews are a great resource for youth interested in exploring career paths in landscaping, park management, environmental science, land management, or any job that has a physical component and involves working outside! We’ve had program graduates go on to become Park Aids, study environmental science and resource management at Santa Rosa Junior College or Sonoma State, and enter the construction trades as a result of their experience working on an SAY crew.

This season, in light of the wildfires, much of our crew’s work will be focused on restoration and doubling-down on fire-abatement efforts. “We’re going along the main trails and selectively clearing vegetation back about 25 feet. We’ll also be performing selective logging and tree removal. This is a two-fold approach,” says Matthew, “On the one hand it helps with fire prevention and on the other it helps to prevent sudden oak death.”

Fire abatement efforts are focused on minimizing the fuel available for wildfires. “What we’re doing isn’t going to stop a large fire storm like what we experienced in October, but it helps prevent as much damage as possible,” Matthew explains. “In the immediate term, one of our biggest concerns is erosion in the areas that have been cleared of the underbrush.” To help address this, SAY youth will be particularly focused on mulching areas that were heavily affected by the fires to prevent erosion and debris runoff into our waterways.

SAY Youth Work Crews

Youth from Social Advocates for Youth work crew clearing brush and trees

In order to provide this critical restoration and prevention work in our regional parks, young people on SAY work crews learn how to use a wide array of hand tools such as hand saws, bow saws, loppers, and sheers. For the heavier lifting, they also learn how to operate gas-powered power tools including chainsaws, pole saws, hedge trimmers, and wood chippers. All great job skills they will be able to take with them to their next career opportunity!

But it’s not just about the job skills young people gain when working on crews. “It’s exciting to watch the young people go through this program. For them, it’s a new experience, a first job perhaps, and they want the respect and responsibility that comes with that achievement,” says Matthew. “I have always been absolutely blown away by the cohesiveness and support of the crew members. There’s a comradery that comes from working in this crew environment and they really look out for one another.”

Matthew Reid and SAY youth crew member

Matthew Reid and crew member Ismael discussing the day’s work

For Matthew, the moments he takes away from working with our young people are priceless. As he puts it, “You can see them coming into their own throughout the season. To watch these young men and women gain skills and confidence while working together – that’s really my favorite part.”

As Matthew highlights, becoming workforce ready is about so much more than just landing your first job. That’s why SAY work crews specialize in not only helping young people gain valuable paid work experience, but also cultivate an environment where youth can gain confidence, learn to work in teams, and clearly see the positive impact they have on our community.

Our youth are working with us through funding generously provided by the Sonoma County Human Services Department. Many of our youth crew members are also part of the Sonoma County Youth Ecology Corps (SCYEC) which offers youth the opportunity to earn meaningful, paid work experience, environmental education, and the opportunity to explore careers and develop work-readiness skills.