Camp Fire was Northern California’s worst fire in recorded history with 85 people confirmed dead and the destruction of over 18,000 structures including homes, business, and barns. Westland’s IT Director Jesse Nowlin offered his tech know-how to the Camp Fire recovery and set up critical infrastructure for the community.
In an increasingly digital world, the internet has become an important component of everyone’s life. When lives have been turned upside down by disaster the ability to communicate becomes as important as food, water, shelter, and medicine. That’s where people like Jesse come in.
“I started volunteering about a year ago. During Hurricane Harvey, I thought about how the tech community could help people. I did some research online and stumbled across ITDRC [Information Technology Disaster Response Center]. I called them to offer my skills and did some remote stuff online. This time I was deployed out to the Camp Fire recovery.”
The Information Technology Disaster Response Center is a non-profit organization that coordinates relief efforts by putting together a team of tech experts. For the last ten years, the organization has worked with FEMA, Red Cross, and participating tech companies like Verizon, Sprint, Google, Microsoft, who donate time, resources, and equipment.
Camp Fire was Jesse’s first deployment. When the ITDRC put out a call for volunteers he asked for the time off work, packed a bag, and headed to Chico Fair Grounds which had been transformed into a shelter for the 50,000 displaced residents of Paradise.
The fire had burnt and destroyed telephone lines and cell phone towers. Residents had difficulty contacting loved ones, applying for aid, or making insurance claims. The shelters needed critical communications set up. Jesse and the ITDRC rolled up in converted RVs with satellite dishes and created internet access points for aid groups and the Red Cross.
“In many cases, the recovery process can’t begin until the local government has access to their cloud-based data. Now with the internet, they are able to get to their back-ups and download the info so they can assess who’s accounted for.”
One of Jesse’s projects was helping a charter school that had moved into a local church get back online. “It allows the children to begin to return to normalcy with their routine. After all the upheaval, they see their friends and get back to learning. Here they are in a makeshift school with their friends and they start to laugh and interact. It takes their mind off things. That's the beginning of the healing process. That was really powerful to see.”
Jesse looks forward to being deployed again in the future. “It’s a great example of people working together and trying to help get something done. It was both inspiring and depressing at the same time. There is so much negativity in the news and online and everywhere. You’ve got to celebrate the good things that happened. This is an opportunity to be a part of the good thing.”