Playing our parts

The following is the fourth in a series of stories written by Sonoma-based author Rebecca Lawton about the experiences of people close to Pepperwood during the North Bay fires that began October 8, 2017.

Playing our parts:
Sandi Funke, Pepperwood’s Education Director, shares her story about the Tubbs Fire

By Rebecca Lawton

Sandi on the night her family evacuated their home in Sonoma

Education Director Sandi Funke had a hint of warning before the Tubbs Fire started. On Sunday October 8th, she helped host the California Naturalist Regional Rendezvous at Pepperwood. “Naturalists had come from all over the state, 120 or so of them, to explore the preserve and hone their skills. It was the first‑ever regional gathering and an amazing day. I was walking with one of our researchers, Stu Weiss, who was there talking about climate change and the weather. The winds were starting to pick up, and he said, ‘This is fire weather.’”

Sandi went home after working eleven hours and collapsed. “When my head hit the pillow, I was out.” She woke at 4:30 a.m. to banging on the front door and the sight of her husband Michael already awake in the kitchen. “He’d stayed up all night, and he was creepily sitting there in the dark with his computer open. He’d turned his phone into a police scanner, which he’s never done before. It was so jarring.”

“And he said, ‘There are fires everywhere. Pepperwood is burning.’”

Sandi’s first reaction was to burst into tears. Her second was to put on her host hat again. She invited Lisa Micheli, President & CEO of Pepperwood, to evacuate to her house. “Lisa came with a neighbor who also lives on the far east side of Sonoma. So Michael and I had evacuees in our home by nine o’clock.”

“We had a broken toilet, my son Mikey was out of school, we had stacks of laundry, and I’m thinking, ‘Okay! We’re going to host people!’”

Sandi spent the next three days feeding her family and guests, taking items to the nearest evacuation center, and watching Pepperwood’s leader take care of business. “From the word go, Lisa was calling insurance, trying to get up to the preserve, talking to family and friends. It was extremely reassuring to see her in action.” Sandi in turn played her part by keeping her mini evacuation center running.

“I had to function on multiple levels,” she says. “I needed to be a parent, a boss, a host. I was texting my staff every day. ‘How are you doing? How’s it going? I’m thinking of you.’” She wanted to hold things together in part because she had a nine-year-old in the house. “I don’t think I did a very good job. Mikey definitely saw me cry more in those six days than he ever had in his life.”

Sandi packed many important things including wedding photos and a cereal bowl… but not her glasses!

Sandi and her family self-evacuated at the end of those three days. “Highway 12 was closed, Highway 37 was closed, and we were down to Highway 116 for getting out of Sonoma Valley. It felt really scary, so it was time to go.” They found a hotel room in Salinas. “It was the closest one that wasn’t $500 a night. We’d loaded our car with family artifacts, clothes, and every stuffed animal of Mikey’s—but I forgot my glasses. We brought a cereal bowl, but no glasses. Typical evacuation brain.”

When they returned home a few weeks later,  Mikey was out of school sick for a few days. Sandi had him test Pepperwood’s new and evolving fire‑based education curriculum. “He was sitting around, so I asked him to read some children’s books on fire ecology. He gave me his fourth-grade analysis of them, which was just great.” Reviewing the children’s fire literature is part of building up Pepperwood’s knowledge and vocabulary about it to effectively teach the next generation.

“We’re reviewing the curriculum not just with our own staff, but also with the larger environmental education community.” The Sonoma Environmental Education Collaborative (SEEC), of which Pepperwood is a backbone organization, is listing and evaluating the literature. “As a group, we’ve identified several teaching resources about fire. Now we’re reviewing every single children’s book we can find on fire ecology.” The group is also reviewing and listing resources of trauma-informed instruction.

Sandi is a firm believer that environmental education is a critical piece in the community dialogue about fire.

“We really have to move forward in terms of thinking about fire as part of living in a Mediterranean climate. This isn’t the last fire we’re going to see in our wildlands and at the wildland-urban interface. We have to help people understand that this is natural, that it’s part of our ecosystem. And we have to prepare.”

Pepperwood’s program for students is already focused on building up scientific observation and thinking skills. “Our environmental inquiry approach is not going to change,” Sandi says. “We’re going to continue to focus on it, but we’re adding a fire ecology lens.” Pepperwood’s public hikes are also turning their focus to changes in the landscape. “That’s our new theme.”

Sandi’s son Mikey reads in a hotel bed after their family evacuated

Sandi says that Mikey’s fourth-grade class has talked about the fires mostly in terms of evacuation. “It’s appropriate for his school, where almost everyone was evacuated but, fortunately, only one family lost a home.” Many of the students who’ll return to Pepperwood for visits, however, will be from schools where plenty of families lost homes. “We’ll be very careful how we talk to them. At SEEC we’ve set up a forum for educators to share how they’ve been discussing the fire, and we’ve been consulting with a school counselor to help us frame the conversation. We don’t want to re-traumatize kids when we’re talking about what has happened.”

Pepperwood is an ideal place to hold post-fire student and community conversations. As Sandi says, “We say that we have a living laboratory here at Pepperwood—and it is, and it’s been through the fire. Once the woods are cleared of hazard trees, and we can take students back out, then we’ll use the forest and chaparral to help us have these conversations.” Pepperwood also engages many adults, including through Santa Rosa Junior College classes. “It’s going to be very exciting to get the college students out on the land. They’ll see with their own eyes that fire is part of the landscape, and the landscape comes back. They’ll see for themselves the species that are adapted to survive fires, or at least have their young survive.”

Sandi and her team are excited about their roles in talking about survival and renewal. “You take your piece, and it’s a small piece that’s part of a much bigger puzzle. The fires were huge, what we’ve all gone through is life-changing. Playing my small part brings me back to the perspective that we’re a community—an amazing community—and it brings me back to gratitude.”


Your tax-deductible gift to Pepperwood will support education and outreach efforts to help our communities recover from the North Bay fires in a way that makes us more resilient.


Rebecca Lawton is a Sonoma-based author, fluvial geologist, and former Colorado River guide who writes about water, rivers, and climate. She blogs occasionally at


  1. Suzanna Mayo says:

    This series is such excellent personal and inspiring coverage of the firestorm ‘headwaters’ of our beautiful northern CA watershed home. As a naturalist at that conference Sandi facilitated, I witnessed a few moments of silent foreboding just 12 hours before, part of a group standing on a road of a south slope by the state-of-the-art weather station. 18 or so of us in the afternoon grounds tour session bowed our heads after listening to the 2:30pm sobering report of 2% humidity on that hot autumn afternoon. The forecast for evening wind gusts of up to 60mph were believable, given the sounds of dry oak leaves roaring in our ears, intermittently blocking out Stu Weiss’ lecture on hydrology and ground water capacities of oak woodland species.. It was horrific for me, even in our green redwood- sheltered farm in Pocket Canyon, to wake up Monday morning to texts from a panicked mother-in-law on McPeak Rd. (off River Road near Hacienda Bridge). Though her fears of the fire hopping the Santa Rosa Plain and consuming Forestville turned out to be unfounded, I still cannot forget those heavy 5 minutes of silence on the hillside just hours before the actual event. I am just one of a group of environmental educators/scientists from all over northern California that stood considering, imagining and fearing in a surreal group experience that turned out to be pre-cognition of the coming event to be unleashed: Nature’s fury.

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