Lessons from the Northern California Fires: Disaster Plans and Early Care & Education

Elizabeth WinogradNovember 27, 20190 Comments

In October 2017, a series of fires broke out across Northern California leaving unprecedented damage in its wake. In Sonoma County alone, more than 13,000 homes and 900 businesses were destroyed or damaged – including the loss of nearly 500 licensed early care and education (ECE) spaces, literally overnight.

Mark West Community Preschool was decimated in the fire. Co-owner Renee Whitlock-Hemsouvanh had, along with her business partner, Jenny Kenyon, invested $300,000 in the center since 2013. “We were already operating like more of a nonprofit than a business,” says Whitlock-Hemsouvanh. “It’s hard for people to understand the thin margins in the child care industry.”

Infant and toddler care and education isn’t often the first thing that comes to mind in disaster recovery, but it has one of the most immediate impacts on families. For those struggling to find shelter and get back to work, finding a safe haven for our youngest children becomes critical. First responders also depend on child care to free them up to provide emergency relief.

The Low Income Investment Fund and its Sonoma County community partners believe that planning for ECE is a necessary component of any disaster plan – and should be in place long before fires, earthquakes, floods or other events strike. After the North Bay fires, we worked alongside the public sector to create a plan and a revenue stream to rebuild.

With support from the City of Santa Rosa, Mark West Community Preschool relocated to a city-owned church property. The building can accommodate the same number of children, but needs fire sprinklers, child-sized bathrooms and other renovations. “There’s been a lot of momentum to rebuild,” says Whitlock-Hemsouvanh, “but we have a long way to go.”

Renee Whitlock-Hemsouvanh surveys the remains of her child care center following the 2017 fire in Sonoma County, California.

After the North Bay Fires

Across California, three quarters of the young children who need child care don’t have access to the high-quality, affordable early learning opportunities that will set them up for success in school and life. In Sonoma County, the shortage of child care was exacerbated by the 2017 wildfires as average rents soared 35%. Across the state, we are at a crossroads: losses from natural disasters, the escalating cost of housing, and the severe shortage of affordable child care threaten our economic future.

LIIF, funded by First5 California, joined First5 Sonoma County, 4 C’s of Sonoma County and the local Child Care Planning Council to build private and public partnerships to replenish child care spaces in Sonoma County, piloting a project in the City of Santa Rosa.

This partnership prompted a convening of the mayor, city manager, affordable housing developers and leaders in philanthropy, finance and ECE advocates. The group rallied to work towards creating a plan to co-locate child care facilities within housing developments, which will build on Governor Newsom’s $263MM budget earmarked for ECE facilities over the next five years.

“While we’ve gained critical momentum, creating a supply of dedicated resources and infrastructure support is a process,” said Elizabeth Winograd, LIIF’s senior program officer. “When disaster strikes and a critical community resource like ECE is decimated, we have to build relationships and a pipeline to replenish supply, which takes time.”


Lessons for Replication

  1. Quantify the Need: ECE leaders in Sonoma met soon after the disaster to identify the number of child care spaces lost in the fires. This information helped convince elected officials and other decisionmakers that ECE facilities were critical to rebuilding the community’s social safety net.
  2. Remove Land Use Barriers: After convening public and private stakeholders, the Santa Rosa City Manager committed to streamlining the permitting process, reducing fees and creating incentives to add child care to facilities projects. County leaders are also working to expedite their zoning and permitting processes.
  3. Increase Visibility of Co-Location: Co-locating ECE and affordable housing ensures that parents and child care providers can afford to live in the city where they work. Unlike affordable housing, ECE has no industry-wide funding pipeline. Following the fires, we brought local housing developers to the table to demonstrate best practices for including ECE in new developments. With the support of BRIDGE Housing and the backing of the Santa Rosa Mayor and children’s champion Tom Schwedhelm, Santa Rosa has introduced developer incentives to include ECE in affordable housing projects.

Thanks to our partners in Sonoma County and the City of Santa Rosa:

  • BRIDGE Housing
  • Community Child Care Council (4Cs) of Sonoma County
  • Child Care Planning Council of Sonoma County
  • First5 Sonoma County

Elizabeth Winograd is a senior program officer at LIIF. She can be reached at ewinograd@liifund.org

This post is part of LIIF’s Early Care & Education blog series. Read other posts in the series here.