Smoke and blowing embers swirled all around. Roaring fire and crackling flames seemed to race toward residents. Roads leading out of town were jammed with cars and people trying to flee, and fire engines scurried about navigating between abandoned vehicles. Houses burst into flames, one after another.
The pine forest that once provided a canopy of shade and protection was now the primary threat to people’s very existence. Burning trees, falling branches and windblown embers were relentless. People frantically tried to find a place of refuge to wait out the firestorm. But fire-resistant buildings were nowhere to be found, and the lake was too far away.
Then they thought of the park; it was the only place in town with a large, open field of green grass in an aperture with no trees. So, to the park, they went – and waited – not knowing if they would have a home to return to. Many others, with no place to go, gathered there as well. The smoke could not be avoided, but they hoped the flames would not threaten them there.
It was November 2018 when the Camp Fire devastated the town of Paradise in Butte County, California. A once-idyllic burg of 26,000 residents was reduced to 2,000 after most homes were damaged or destroyed. The losses experienced by the residents of Paradise went beyond what anyone could have imagined. Slowly, the community is rebuilding – the population has now grown back to around 6,000 residents.
Paradise is not an incorporated city, so the local recreation and park district has taken a leadership role as the community rebuilds itself, even though four out of five board members’ homes were destroyed in the fire. The district’s new mantra is: Parks Save Lives. Not only did the district’s park become a place of refuge during the fire, but it has also become a place of serenity and healing. A series of social and emotional loss-mitigation programs are offered at the park, and the district’s community center is located there. You could say that lives are still being saved.
Communities throughout California are regularly threatened by wildfire and other natural disasters. When these disasters occur, it is often the parks and community centers that rapidly convert from recreational activities to places for first responder staging, emergency shelter, food distribution, cooling and reconnecting with family members.
The Conejo Recreation and Park District has been a key partner in serving our community during times of emergency. Formal and informal partnerships with the city, county, the American Red Cross and other organizations have set the foundation for meeting essential needs in times of crisis. During the Woolsey Fire, the Conejo Creek South Playfields became the main base camp for firefighters and first responders. Several of our community centers were used by the American Red Cross as emergency shelters, immediately after the Teen Center had been used to serve families in the wake of the Borderline shooting.
Additionally, local parks and open space were the “go-to” places of refuge for many families during the public health order lockdowns. The freedom of being outdoors and in a natural setting gave emotional relief. The ability to exercise regularly when gyms were no longer accessible felt like a physical necessity. Neighborhood parks became the hub of social interaction throughout the community.
Yes, parks do save lives, though not always in a manner that makes the local news. And when another disaster comes along, parks and community centers will once again transition to meet emergency needs.Doug Nickles is a director/board member for the Conejo Recreation and Park District, the Conejo Open Space Conservation Agency and the California Association of Recreation and Park Districts. The views expressed are his and do not necessarily reflect those of the district, agency or the respective boards.