Firefighter puts out fire in a forest
A firefighter battles the fire at Ramah in the Rockies, Aug. 7, 2017. (Photo/Courtesy North Fork Fire Rescue)

Jewish community on high alert as wildfire season nears

The trees have been cleared within 150 feet of all buildings, power lines have been laid underground, and newly rebuilt structures have state-of-the-art fireproof materials.

URJ Camp Newman in Santa Rosa is prepared for the wind-whipped autumn and its evil twin, the wildfire season.

“We know the impact,” said Ari Vered, executive director at Camp Newman, “and we’re not messing around. We believe if you do everything right, you improve your odds.”

Vered remembers those frantic days in October 2017 when the Tubbs Fire, one of the most destructive in state history, swept across the hills of Sonoma County. It destroyed entire Santa Rosa neighborhoods, killed dozens and incinerated most of Camp Newman.

For much of coastal Northern California, the National Interagency Fire Center is predicting above-average fire danger for the months of August through November, when winds are frequent and the dry, rain-starved lands serve as tinder. Thus, Vered and his peers at other Bay Area Jewish institutions are doing all they can, even in a time of coronavirus lockdown, to get ready.

Rubble after a wildfire at Camp Newman
Several buildings at URJ Camp Newman burned to the ground in the 2017 North Bay fires. (Photo/Courtesy URJ Camp Newman)

It was nearly three years ago that fire bore down on Camp Newman’s 500-acre campus, destroying 80 percent of its structures, including a recently completed $4 million conference center. In 2018 and 2019, summer camp was held off-site at the Cal State University Maritime Academy in Vallejo, while rebuilding progressed (this summer, camp was canceled due to the coronavirus).

Reconstruction continues apace at Newman, with the rebuilt conference center due to open in January. The restoration efforts have benefited from grants from the Grinspoon Foundation and the state, totaling in the millions of dollars.

Always at the forefront of planning for the future is the specter of wildfire.

“We are building with fire safety management as a top priority, if not the first,” Vered said. “We always talk about health and safety above all else. So it literally comes into every discussion, every decision.”

A few miles southwest of Newman is Congregation Shomrei Torah, a Reform synagogue that became the North Bay Jewish community’s main triage center during the Tubbs Fire. Under the leadership of Rabbi Stephanie Kramer, the synagogue instantly became a combination child care facility, food bank, temporary shelter and command center for a community in shock.

That experience rewrote the playbook for Shomrei Torah’s leaders, for whom extreme fire danger is a permanent anxiety. The synagogue’s senior rabbi, George Gittleman, said the greatest lesson learned from the fire is acknowledging the critical importance of community in times of disaster.

“People need a place to go, and the synagogue is a natural place for people to turn,” Gittleman said. “We’re not an isolated institution. We’re connected. The response of the Bay Area Jewish community had a lot to do with our ability to be responsive.”

Rabbi George Gittelman with children.
Rabbi George Gittelman of Congregation Shomrei Torah shares a meal with children following the 2017 wildfires.

The response included millions of dollars raised via Federation emergency funds, gift cards that people donated to those in need and volunteers from across the region who flocked to Santa Rosa to help. “The Jewish community,” Gittleman added, “is resource-rich.”

The S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation was a key organizer of emergency fundraising not only in response to the Tubbs Fire in 2017, but also for the 2018 Camp Fire, which killed 85 people and destroyed the town of Paradise, and the 2019 Kincade Fire in Sonoma County, which triggered one of the largest evacuations in state history.

The Federation remains on fire watch.

Over the past year, in partnership with the Kelle Kroll Group (a disaster response training organization), the Federation has worked on emergency preparedness with synagogues and other Jewish organizations in the North Bay. It also handed out a total of $25,000 to nine Jewish organizations, enabling them to stock up on generators, battery-powered radios, N95 face masks, first-aid kits and other supplies.

“We are not actively collecting funds at this moment,” said Kerry Philp, the Federation’s senior director of marketing and communications. “There are some modest funds still available to complete the preparedness work and to consider additional support for preparedness or new fire needs. As in the past, we will consider mobilizing a philanthropic response, as needed, for the upcoming fire season and in the future.”

Camp Newman isn’t the only local Jewish summer camp that has permanent shpilkes about wildfire. Camp Tawonga near Yosemite has had multiple brushes with fires over the years, losing three buildings in 2013 (Rim Fire) and being forced to evacuate in 2018 (Ferguson Fire). Like Camp Newman, Tawonga leadership keeps the potential for fire uppermost in mind.

Executive director Jamie Simon said Tawonga’s fire plan includes having plenty of water on site. To that end, the camp has installed a couple of 250,000-gallon water tanks, nine fire hydrants and a pump to siphon water from a nearby river. In addition, tree and brush maintenance has been scrupulously undertaken across the camp’s 160 acres, and year-round collaboration with CalFire and the First Service is a given. Tawonga also recently rerouted all of its PG&E power lines underground, a project Simon said cost $1.5 million.

Coming in a year when camp has been canceled due to coronavirus, the extra expenditures hurt.

Jamie Simon
Jamie Simon

“Because we have no revenue this year, what we had budgeted for fires has been depleted,” Simon said. “We are now fundraising for many things, including land management.” And, she added, “This year will be particularly dry, so [there is] a huge risk.”

Eden Village West, a Jewish summer camp near the Russian River in Healdsburg, is held on property owned by Rio Lindo Academy, which uses it for school from fall to spring and is responsible for maintaining fire safety measures, according to EVW director Casey Yurow.

Remote camps in the hills aren’t the only ones at risk. In June, Congregation B’nai Shalom, on the edge of suburban Walnut Creek, suffered some property damage when a small grassfire came its way. The sanctuary and main building were not affected, but they could have been.

Tim Plattner, the congregation’s president, said the close call “reinforced the criticality of being prepared, doing the [fire] abatement program and doing it on time.”

Plattner said that groundskeepers had done an extensive brush clearing around the B’nai Shalom property only a few weeks prior to the fire. “Had we put it off,” he said, “this could have been substantially worse.”

It was almost as bad as it could be for Camp Newman three years ago, but Vered and his staff have done everything in their power to prevent a recurrence, no matter what Mother Nature has in mind. He attributes that determination to a united Jewish community.

“The devastation was massive,” he said. “We still have a long way to go, but in terms of having extraordinary support, it’s been amazing. If Camp Newman is anything, we are resilient. We figure it out and keep moving forward.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.