About Author

Connect with Me:

Each year, Orange County Parks hosts a volunteer appreciation barbecue. Rangers and other OC Parks staff highlight selected volunteers who serve in their respective parks. Those personally recognized for their past year of service represent a much larger group of volunteers across OC Parks, dedicated to preserving and protecting our parks, beaches and other county treasures.

Laguna Canyon Foundation is the supporting agent for Laguna Coast Wilderness Park, Aliso & Wood Canyons Wilderness Park, and selected special project areas. While we welcome anyone at our one-day public volunteer events, we also offer volunteer certification for those wanting to volunteer on a more long-term basis. Certification requires attending orientation and interpretation training, passing a background check, obtaining CPR/First Aid certification, and spending time with a mentor to earn OC Parks’ Facilities Certification. Collectively, our certified, long-term volunteers served more than 7,000 hours last year alone.

Over the time of their service, a few volunteers become – literally – experts in their fields. After receiving their initial certification, they seek out additional specialized training as they find a niche that is both fulfilling to them and extraordinarily helpful to OC Parks and Laguna Canyon Foundation.

Areas of specialization include:

Restoration and Stewardship

Each year, a group of tireless volunteers scour the parks for specific invasive plant species. In close coordination with OC Parks, over the course of a season, these volunteers may remove over 500 bags of plants that would otherwise hijack the resources that native flora and fauna need to thrive. In addition, you may see stationary restoration sites at Big Bend, Dilley Preserve, Pecten Reef, and Aliso & Wood Canyons Headquarters. Not only do our certified volunteers steward these areas, they are a great place for short-term volunteers to receive hands-on restoration experience.

Wildlife Camera Project

A band of trained volunteers work closely with OC Parks to manage wildlife cameras, scout for tracks and scat, and catalog photos. This is time-consuming but rewarding work, as it gives us a window into how the local fauna is faring, and from time to time, a most amazing photograph of a bobcat, deer or coyote pup.

Trail Stewardship

A handful of long-term, certified volunteers have spent countless hours with Laguna Canyon Foundation and OC Parks learning what is needed to repair and maintain trails. Many started as short-term volunteers at a Laguna Canyon Foundation trail stewardship event and moved on to certification. As their interest and skills grow, they continue their commitment with OC Parks and Laguna Canyon Foundation, serving at public programs and occasionally on special trail projects.

Specialty Hikes and Rides

Passions such as mountain biking and learning about native wildlife lead some of our long-term volunteers to share their expertise with others through volunteer-guided programs. We have volunteer bikers who have ridden both the world’s trails and our local trails – extensively. They lead rides for beginners as well as more advanced bikers, with patience, skill and local knowledge. Certified volunteers often develop a deep understanding of the native flora and fauna over time, sharing that knowledge on hikes and through photographs published on social media, on LCF’s website and in the local newspapers.

Park Ambassadors, Backcountry Patrol,Ranger Reserve and Fire Watch

These are certified volunteers who are out regularly during the week, and especially on the weekends, working alongside park staff at the trailheads and on the trails assisting park visitors and alerting the rangers of potential issues. As the volunteers’ knowledge grows, they serve as additional “eyes and ears” for the rangers – invaluable, considering the massive size of the South Coast Wilderness.

As you hike, ride or stroll through the parks, you will recognize these hardworking and long-term volunteers in the parks. They will be wearing LCF/OC Parks attire and badges and are often seen side by side with OC Parks staff.

OC Parks and Laguna Canyon Foundation rely on our trained, skilled and knowledgeable volunteers. We are land stewards; we are also educators and naturalists guiding those who recreate in the wilderness towards a fuller knowledge and respect for the native plants and animals.

Together, we can both enjoy the open space and protect it.

If you would like to take the first steps in becoming a long-term, certified volunteer, come join us for an upcoming event. Introduce yourself! We’d love to meet you.

After four consecutive days of rain this month, bringing a record 4.5 inches within ten days, OC Parks Rangers made the tough call to close the trails of Aliso and Wood Canyons Wilderness Park and Laguna Coast Wilderness Park. It was a holiday weekend (Martin Luther King, Jr. Day on Monday) and it was expected to be sunny on both Saturday and Sunday.


That was the big question asked by many hikers, bikers and photographers as they were turned away at the trailheads and gates. Working with the OC Parks rangers, dozens of Laguna Canyon Foundation volunteers staffed several gates and trailheads to let visitors know of the closures.

Under a blue sky, I staffed Top of the World for several hours, turning away hundreds of guests. One disappointed park visitor commented, “I’m from Portland and have never heard of a trail closure because of rain.”

I explained that many parts of the trails are still muddy and slick, even after a few sunny days. The trails can be dangerous for hikers and bikers. In addition, we want to give the habitat time to soak up all the moisture we received.

It was heartwarming when folks asked additional questions and were eager to learn more, perhaps even debate a bit. “We could walk around the mud, right?” “Could we go over there where it seems dry?”

Together a few visitors and I went down that path of conversation: We agreed that there are muddy spots still on the trails, as there were clearly puddles in our view.

These pictures of the trails were taken on January 23rd – five days after the rain.

So, let’s just consider one dense muddy spot in the center of the trail: after one user passes through, they now have mud caked onto their boots or tires. Then another user passes through, more mud leaves that spot, and this continues until there is now a hole where the muddy spot used to be. The hole then fills with water with the next rain or misty morning, creating a deeper muddy spot. The cycle continues, not giving the trail time to heal and dry up.

Over time, the trail becomes unwelcoming, tempting bikers and hikers to go around the hole, creating new paths through fragile vegetation where the seeds of spring’s wildflowers are working their way to the surface to germinate.

Then, all of us park users, collectively and, likely unknowingly, widen the trails, which contributes to further habitat fragmentation, encroaching on the wilderness and threatening native wildlife.

And, after all, we know our wilderness parks are preserved as open space for the native flora and fauna. This is a priority to the rangers and must be a priority to us as well, as we responsibly and respectfully recreate only when the parks are open.

Reports back from our volunteers who staffed the gate closures confirmed that visitors, for the most part, understood and were willing to wait to enjoy the trails on another day. We are grateful for their support.

Hmmm, but back to the Portlander’s comment. She got me thinking. I’ve experienced exactly what she was saying. Up at Humboldt, California, where I went to college and visited with my husband just last April, we were able to hike in the rain on beautiful forested trails juxtaposed to an Arcata neighborhood, much like Laguna Beach and Top of the World. There were no park closures there and it had rained for days.


One word: habitat. Our local coastal sage scrub habitat is very different from the redwood forests of Humboldt or coniferous forests of Portland. We don’t get rain as often, and when we do, there is less root structure to secure plants, less leaf litter to mitigate mud, and entirely different soil that takes longer to properly absorb moisture. Our growing season is shorter, and we have much lower average precipitation, so our vegetation grows back slowly.

Our local habitat is unique. So protect what we love. Let’s stay off the trails when parks are closed, respect the rangers’ expertise, and pause to enjoy the canyon views from a distance. This preserves the open space not only for the native plants and animals that call it home, but for us who enjoy it so much.

Want to learn more about the animals that live here? Check out this recent Stu News article, featuring photographs taken by LCF volunteer John Foley.

Years ago, inspired by one of the most awesome gifts my dad ever gave me – a Bianchi road bike – I became obsessed with biking. I rode around Palos Verdes Peninsula almost every weekend. Back then, I didn’t wear a helmet or sunscreen. I frequently rode alone; my route was out of Malaga Cove on Palos Verdes Drives West, South, East and home on Palos Verdes Drive North. No matter how many times I pedaled up Palos Verdes Drive East, my endurance was challenged. Huffing and puffing, I muscled to the peak, so I could sit back, let go of the handlebars, grab some water, and sail down for the rest of the ride. Twenty-four miles of sheer pleasure.

This past summer, I got back into biking – mountain biking, to be specific – on a used hardtail Leader I recently purchased.

As the saying goes, “It’s just like riding a bike,” right?

Well, no. And I learned that the hard way when after huffing and puffing up a dirt trail, I sat up to grab some water and cruise down the incline – feeling pretty proud of myself – instead of focusing on the quick turns, changing soil and protruding toyon branches that lay before me. I braked hard for a rock that came out of nowhere and nearly fell into a cholla.

It was time for me to acknowledge that I needed some guidance.

On the third Sunday of each month in Aliso and Wood Canyons Wilderness Park, several Laguna Canyon Foundation volunteers lead two rides: Introduction to Mountain Biking and Intermediate Mountain Biking. Andre and Karin Lotz, Heather Hawke, Fernando GenKuong and Shawn Biglari are very experienced riders. They are CPR trained, are certified by OC Parks staff, and know the trails. Most importantly, they are fabulous and patient teachers. The two rides are scheduled at the same time so that the leaders can welcome all participants, ensure everyone has helmets and necessary equipment, and determine who will lead which ride.

For December’s ride, I arrived at Aliso and Wood Canyons not as a Laguna Canyon Foundation staffer, but as a mountain biker, ready to learn. Since all the riders that showed up that morning wanted to go on the intermediate ride, Karin graciously offer to take me on the intro ride, which was my preference. What a wonderful experience!

The Intro ride is about eight miles up and down Wood Canyon. Karin adjusts seat height if needed and reviews neutral and ready body positioning before the ride. Along the trail are bridges, water, cake mix soil, sharp turns, quick inclines and, of course, other park users. As we approached these elements, Karin reviewed things like when and how to brake, when to change gears, and where my line of sight should be. I learned that a steep, rocky incline wasn’t something to “gear up” for, to muscle through as I have always done, but to anticipate with a proper gear and consistent pedaling. If I found that I had to stop in the middle of an uphill ride, Karin showed me how to recover and pedal again. We talked as we rode and all the while she communicated with and watched out for other bikers and hikers.

And while there were things I didn’t feel ready to do – ride on a narrow wooden bridge or through a creek – I came away with improved skills and confidence, eager to ride more.

The intermediate 10-mile ride goes up Wood Canyon to Cholla and Westridge and down Lynx, Rock-It, or a trail appropriate for that day’s group. The leaders focus more on the experience than the skill level of the riders, but will include pointers on the subject where the need is realized. For the most part, riders on the intermediate ride are already competent on a mountain bike. As many are either new to Southern California or new to the park, the focus is more on where we are, what trails are available and who uses them, and what one might expect to encounter in the park. The primary goal is to have a good workout, a lot of fun, and a chance to make new friends who can share a common experience.

These rides are just plain fun with a wonderful group of riders and are a great way for those, like me, who want to get back into biking or for more experienced folks who may want some fresh ideas and input. As I hone my skills, I imagine I’ll soon want to ride with the Intermediate group, but for now, I’m happy re-learning how to ride a bike.

Join us on January 20, 2019. Sign up here:

Intro to Mountain Biking

Intermediate Mountain Biking

Be Aware; Be Prepared

Laguna Canyon Foundation’s trained volunteers and staff lead dozens of free hikes, mountain bike rides, and stewardship events each month in the South Coast Wilderness. The details of each program – whether a yoga hike, habitat restoration event, or fitness hike – are listed online, providing the community lots of ways to “opt outside.”

Before each outing at the selected trailhead, introductions are made. The leaders reiterate the details of the activity so that participants may confirm they are appropriately prepared. Participants have the opportunity to take a quick restroom break or run back to their cars for any needed items, and then everyone hits the trail for a new adventure. It is a wonderful time to get to know our wilderness in unique ways and make a few new friends.

Just a “walk in the park,” right?

Not quite. A lot goes on behind the scenes. OC Parks and Laguna Canyon Foundation’s long-term volunteers are amazing for a lot of reasons: they love the land and they know the trails; most are experienced naturalists; many are specifically trained in their field of expertise: geology, California native plants or yoga, for example.

They are also trained in CPR and First Aid. Having recently been re-certified in CPR/FA, I am reminded how important this training is to the work we do.

During the eight-hour course, led by a wonderful instructor, Louis Liwanag, volunteers learn what steps to take in an emergency. Stop; breathe; scan. This includes assessing and responding to variety of situations, from heat cramps to sprains to a heart attack. Students learn how to assess a scene and approach a distressed or injured person. They review who to call and when. Louis spends a significant amount of time on how to administer CPR and first aid and the students practice…and practice…and practice. Participants take a test and those who pass are certified.

CPR and First Aid training is as important for the volunteers to know as the trails they are on.

Ever wonder what the most common issue is that we see on the trails? Not a bike crash, ankle sprain or other physical injury; not a snake bite, bee sting or animal related injury; thankfully, not a heart attack. It is heat-related illness: dehydration, cramps and weakness.

As we head into the cooler days of fall, we might think that we’re not at risk for heat-related issues, but this is really a fallacy. Heat-related illnesses happen when we aren’t hydrated enough or we take on an activity that is too steep, too long, or too challenging for our skill level. Weather is but one factor.

The wilderness and trails are very inviting, and so it’s not a surprise if we want to go farther, higher or faster than we should sometimes. But as the volunteers are trained to do when they are first aware of a scene, we too can stop, breathe, scan. Whether on a guided hike or out on our own, let’s listen to our bodies. Are we skilled and fit enough for what we are about to do? Once on the trails, if we feel fatigued, should we go back? Should we rest? Should we let someone know?

Let nature take its course as you take care of yourself. The trail will be there next time too. Be prepared and be aware.

Nothing like planning for the upcoming school year to reflect on hard-earned accomplishments while pondering what’s ahead.

Wait, what…but it’s summer. Sweet, low-key summer!

Yes, it is July, but for several school districts, including Santa Ana, school starts again in just weeks – mid-August.

That means we at Laguna Canyon Foundation are already in the throes of budgeting, strategizing and planning for the students we’ll soon be bringing on wilderness hikes this coming school year.

Last year, Laguna Canyon Foundation hosted:

  • 76 hikes
  • with 4,506 participants
  • covering 169 miles of hiking

The participants are second through fifth graders, their teachers, and several parents. The hikes are out of Laguna Coast Wilderness Park’s Barbara’s Lake and Dilley and Willow Staging Areas, as well as Aliso and Wood Canyons Wilderness Park.

Laguna Canyon Foundation offers bus transportation, programs led by our trained field educators, and materials – all at no cost to schools or students. The curriculum covers such subjects as design in nature, adaptations, habitats big and small, the art of observation, and general fitness, all while emphasizing how each of us can be good stewards of the earth, whether in the wilderness or in our own neighborhoods.

But while facts and figures are always interesting to crunch and review, the most rewarding part of our yearly review is remembering the individual conversations we had with students, teachers and parents, and how a morning hike in the wilderness sparked their sense of wonder.

Students learn that one of the biggest “social” trails fragmenting the habitat and making it very difficult for animals to cross between the Santa Ana Mountains and the South Coast Wilderness is the very freeway they traveled on to come to the trailhead. They learn that while a snake can’t make all the holes along the trails they see, they can – and sometimes do – certainly come out of one. Why? Snakes are looking for their lunch. Students ponder, as they see the “No Dogs” sign, why their pet cannot come on the trail with them. Then an “a-ha moment” comes: a dog, after all, is a predator.

This past school year, Laguna Canyon Foundation brought students who typically might miss out on such an adventure: students who need ADA bathrooms or may not be able to hike the trails as their classmates can; students who may need one-on-one attention, such as those who are visually impaired. We prioritized accommodating the needs of each individual student, ensuring that every single child (and his/her parent) felt welcomed and had the confidence to learn and grow alongside their classmates.

Hats off to our wonderful field instructors, Alex, Audra, Cameron, Chrisha, Luma and Joanne, for the care, the knowledge and the enthusiasm they shared with each and every participant of our school program.

Student quotes from thank you notes and trailside wrap-ups:

“Thank you for taking your time to teach us about nature. I loved learning about the flowers. My favorites were the wild cucumber and the sticky monkey flower.” – Eli

“Keep calm and love animals.” – Fabian

“I love nature.” – Stephany

“If you take flowers, you might be taking an animal’s food or shelter.” – Omar

“I liked being outdoors, learning new stuff, being with my friends and hiking with our teacher.” – Janet

“The graham crackers were delicious, but I know human food isn’t good for wildlife.” – Adela

“Picking up trash like glass, is important. Hot days and trash could make a fire.” – Bailey

“I saw bunnies, one snake, animal ‘footsteps’ and a hawk’s nest. My favorite part was when we played camouflage.” – Navid

Thanks to Cameron and Chrisha for the pictures!

What’s ahead?

Laguna Canyon Foundation’s partnership with its Santa Ana Title One schools is unique. Our staff works closely with teachers to ensure our NGSS (Next Generation Science Standards) curriculum syncs with what they are teaching in class. Our goal is to bring back each student in his/her second, third, fourth, and fifth grade years to develop future environmentalists.

Our local Laguna Beach schools are also a priority. Many Laguna Beach teachers have a passion for the wilderness and want their students to understand the gift we have with the wilderness “right outside our doors.” Hikes with local students involve fitness, yes, but also discussions on safe trail use and what each of us can do – pick up trash, not go on unauthorized trails, keep our dogs on dog-friendly trails, volunteer – to protect what we love.

“In the end, we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand; and we will understand only what we are taught.” – Baba Dioum

These programs would not be possible without the generosity of our grantors and donors. This coming year, we hope to raise $150,000 to sustain our program. Whether you enjoy the trails frequently or admire them from afar, it is the open space that makes Laguna Beach so unique.

Decades ago, Lagunans fought to ensure that this wilderness would be here for generations to come. Laguna Canyon Foundation is leading the way to develop the newest generation of activists and environmentalists. Thank you to our wonderful community for all you’ve done.

Help us carry on. Donate today: www.lagunacanyon.org/donate

It was a tweet: “Laguna Vegetation Fire…one acre.”

Then a warning: “Extreme fire behavior with erratic canyon winds.”

Then it became reality: “…400+ firefighters on scene.”

Then it was in “our” park: “Command Center in Wood Canyon for #AlisoFire.”

Then it hit home: “Mandatory evacuations: Top of the World and Aliso Viejo.”

Then it hit my home with thick smoke coming over the ridge.

How many times this past week have we at Laguna Canyon Foundation — our staff, our board, our volunteers — heard our fellow hikers, bikers and trail users voice, “This is in MY park,” with questions about the oak tree on Wood Canyon…on Wood Creek Trail…at the bottom of Nature Loop/Coyote Run?

“Is ‘our’ oak tree ok?” 

“What about the deer we saw last week?”

“How did any snakes possibly get out?”

“Are animals coming back?”

“My [dad, sister, uncle…] is a firefighter. I pray they’re ok.”

A fire ignited in the midafternoon on June 2, 2018 and burned approximately 175 of sensitive habitat inside Aliso and Wood Canyons Wilderness Park. As of this writing, Coyote Run (South of Rock-it), Dripping Cave, and Nature Loop are closed.

The fire was started by a “juvenile accident.” The Orange County Register has reported that a boy came forward.

Now, thanks to hundreds of first responders, “our” wilderness is healing. The blackened hillsides may appear lifeless; however, natural recovery is already underway. The ash contains rich nutrients that will aid habitat regeneration.

So what can we do for our park?

As we read in airports, “If you see something, say something.” For public safety, including the habitat’s safety, please let the park office know if you see any off-trail use. Call 949-923-2200. If no answer, please leave a detailed message including time, date, location and description of the trespasser.

Sign up to volunteer with Laguna Canyon Foundation and OC Parks.

Stay Out. Please respect closure notices. Some areas are still unsafe. And entering closed areas could increase erosion, damage recovering plants and further traumatize displaced animals.

Be Patient. Land managers are working to reopen the trails for public access as soon as it is safe and feasible for visitors and habitat.

Donate. Laguna Canyon Foundation is working with OC Parks on clean-up and restoration efforts.

Subscribe to Laguna Canyon Foundation’s newsletter. Be informed.

Most importantly, be good stewards of the land. Pick up trash; take nothing. Stay on trails and avoid user conflict. Smile, share the trail and be grateful that “our” wilderness is safe.


Thanks to OC Parks for detailed information. Photos courtesy Ed Baranowski.

After four hours on the Dilley trails carrying shovels and tools to do trail maintenance with volunteers and colleagues, I am back home in my favorite chair, a little sweaty, smelling like sage, with my two dogs sleeping beside me. It is a good day.

I love the Dilley trails: Canyon, Blackjack, Mariposa, and Sunflower. Well, really, I haven’t found a trail I don’t like, and I know I’m not alone. Whether we hike, bike, run, photograph, paint or bird watch, the South Coast Wilderness and its 70 miles of trails, to quote Edward Abbey, “feed our souls.”

Throughout Aliso and Wood Canyons and Laguna Coast Wilderness Parks, I hike the trails with our volunteers who lead guided hikes; I hike the trails with elementary school children to develop our next generation of environmentalists; I hike the trails with my family. I pick up trash, respect the animals’ right of way in their own habitat, let the rangers know if I see something suspicious, and teach our visitors about the importance of good stewardship.

One wilderness duty that hadn’t cross my mind to do was participate in a trail maintenance event. Being of a certain age, with four knee surgeries under my belt, I just didn’t think I could handle four hours of wheelbarrowing stuff from here to there, carrying heavy tools, or otherwise keeping up with a far more able group of folks.

But I gave it a go today, and boy, I’m glad I did. Not only was it fun hard work, I learned a lot and got to hang out with cool people. Even more so, we worked on trails that I am deeply familiar with — trails where I can point out a specific wood rat nest, a good gall place, or where to see one of the best views ever.

My fellow field instructors and I take fifth graders on Dilley trails throughout the school year, trails that may, from time to time, have some challenging footing. So it was with a great sense of contribution today that I learned how to build and maintain trail drainage. As the trail experts say, “We like to keep the users on the trails and the water off.” There was plenty of work I was capable of doing, from shoveling debris out of the dirt drains to building a rock gargoyle that better defined the trail.

Trail stewardship is rewarding and hard work. It is hiking, with many stops. It is not stops to mediate, as with the Yoga Hike, or stops with the fifth graders to learn about a prickly pear cactus, but a stop to maintain a small and very important part of the trail that helps both the trail users and the inhabitants of the wilderness. Surprisingly to me, it is a very intimate experience with nature to thoughtfully tend to a little area of need. It truly refreshed my soul.

Restoration Program Director Alan Kaufmann, who heads the trail stewardship efforts, is always happy to see new volunteers at the events. “The trails are used by a wide variety of people, and, of course, for a variety of activities. We welcome everyone to these trail events. There’s always something folks at every level can do, from brushing to moving rocks.” And, Alan quips, “Sometimes, volunteers might just lean on their shovels to watch and learn; that’s perfectly acceptable, too.”

Now, as if I didn’t have enough reasons to get out on the trails, I have one more: to maintain our beloved trails for our enjoyment and for the plants and animals that live in this very special place. Another way to #KeepItWild.

To sign up for a Trail Stewardship event and help maintain our trails, visit www.lagunacanyon.org/volunteer.

Laguna Canyon Foundation is blessed to work with kind and generous volunteers, board members and staff. During the Thomas Fire, two of our own spent days in Ojai and Ventura doing what they could to help.

The call came in …

Laguna Canyon Foundation volunteer and Laguna Beach resident John Monahan has served as a Red Cross DAT (Disaster Action Team) Lead for more than three years. The Red Cross and its army of volunteers are poised 24/7/365 to assist and comfort residents when disaster strikes: fires, mudslides, cars running into their homes, earthquakes.

Most of the year, John shares a weekly schedule to be on call for local (Orange County) emergencies. This means, says John, “When I get the call, I try to make sure Red Cross volunteers are with the clients within an hour of the call to help them through these difficult days. We are focused on the individuals in their time of need to provide a variety of possible resources and services: money for lodging, clothes, blankets, food, prescription and medical equipment replacements, spiritual care and/or mental health services. A Red Cross case worker will follow up to see how the recovery is going.” Calls usually come in from first responders such as firefighters and police.

When the Thomas Fire hit, the Red Cross’s DRO (Disaster Relief Operation) was elevated to a national operation. Red Cross chapters which are local to the Ventura/Ojai area were called first, but as John explained, “The fire was so massive and so much help was needed, I was soon working shoulder to shoulder with Red Cross volunteers from Long Island and Bainbridge.”

As with local operations, the Red Cross volunteers were focused on the immediate needs of displaced victims. “We managed the shelter at the Ventura Fairgrounds and provided food, clothing, personal items and support to more than 300 people,” said John.

For the first three days, the volunteers stayed in a church gymnasium. One hundred and fifty volunteers shared a space with just a few toilets and sinks and no showers. “That was a bit tough — a lot of snoring, sweating, and noisy shift changes,” said John, “but then we were moved to Port Hueneme Naval base apartments which, of course, had showers and actual beds.” The Naval base, which became John’s home away from home for the next ten days, was about a 20-minute drive from the Ventura Fairgrounds.

“The smoke was a constant problem. As the fires moved north, the smoke continued to waft down through the Ojai River,” said John. “We were all wearing masks.”

The volunteers reported daily for 12-hour shifts. John’s specific assignment was to manage unsolicited donations. This included traffic control (cars lined up to donate), triaging donations that were useable for the current situation and donations that needed to be stored for further sorting, and securing a warehouse for the donations that couldn’t be used at the Fairgrounds.

This was a huge task, and at one point, when John was directing the line of cars, a woman pulled up with 30 – 40 bags of miscellaneous donations and several cases of water. She parked her car and helped unload her bags into the Red Cross’ U-Haul truck in an effort to keep the queue of cars moving. The air was thick with smoke. As her last bag was unloaded and she got in her car, she realized she no longer had her keys. “All of the volunteers looked stricken as we surveyed the long line of cars and wondered how long it would take to unload the fully loaded U-Haul to find her keys. As it turned out,” said John, “we found her keys which had slipped between two water cases and she was quickly on her way.”

“People like to donate material goods because they feel a closer personal connection to the people in the shelter. But it’s often very difficult to match the shelter needs with the donations. We probably received 25 – 50 times the amount of baby care items, bottled water and used clothing than was needed. Ultimately, the donations will be used, but probably not during the actual disaster at hand.

“Overall, the best advice I have is to donate money for all the facilities, food, bedding, vehicles, volunteer transportation and housing or, to make it more personal, donate time. We really appreciated all the people who came out to the Fairgrounds to help,” said John.

Because Red Cross policy requires that the perishable food served in shelters be from a commercial or professional kitchen, each local Red Cross chapter has agreements in place with vendors to provide food in case of a disaster. Food was brought in daily to the Fairgrounds and included pizza, Mexican food, sometimes even hot food from a mobile kitchen.

The Ventura Fairgrounds also had stables, which made it convenient to house pets and animals.

“It’s amazing the kind of details that go into an operation like this and I’m proud to be a part of the Red Cross. Most of us have never experienced a disaster,” says John. “That’s why I volunteer with the Red Cross, because it’s very gratifying to have the resources and experience to help when people need it most.”

“Ojai is where I’m from ….”

Laguna Canyon Foundation’s Outreach and Restoration Coordinator, Cameron Davis, grew up in Laguna Beach. But having lived her high school years at Ojai Valley School, hiking, camping and learning in the hills of Ojai Valley, it’s hard for her not to think of herself as an Ojaian. She also met the love of her life, James, at Ojai Valley School, and although the two now live in Laguna Beach, they still have many family members and friends in Ojai.

On a hot, dry Tuesday in December, as she prepared to lead 60 third graders on a hike to Barbara’s Lake, Cameron got a text from James. She needed to leave immediately to go up to Ojai. James had already left his La Mirada office and was on the 101 heading north. James’ father’s property was threatened by a fast-moving fire. He was packing his two cars and needed help. Also threatened was “The Ranch,” a citrus and avocado grove home to several horses, goats and animals, as well as many of Cameron and James’ family and friends.

Ojai Valley is rural, with a history of ranching. The Valley has a population of about 30,000 and has only three ways out. It is a small town, much like Laguna Beach.

Cameron ran home to grab clothes for James. She also grabbed whatever else seemed appropriate: water and cans of beans. She dropped their dogs off at her mother’s in North Laguna. Thankfully, since Cameron was preparing to hike that day, she was wearing appropriate clothing for the days ahead, because she didn’t end up getting clothes for herself.

James and Cameron met in Ventura to drop off James’ car “… at the safest place we could think of,” said Cameron, “the Patagonia store’s parking lot right under the security camera.” They picked up more water and headed east on the 33 toward Ojai. “There were no cars going into Ojai, just ours, and there was a line of cars leaving.”

James’ father, John, had already left his property on Ojai’s west side and headed east to what was a safer spot for the moment, the Ranch. James and Cameron’s first order of business was to pick up John’s second car and move it to the Ranch. “The neighborhood was eerily empty; there was smoke everywhere. John’s house wasn’t locked,” said Cameron.

The Ranch fast became a central place for family and friends — as many as 12 people at a time — to huddle together for the next few days, determined to protect the property and animals. “One of my high school teachers lives on the Ranch and she was not going to leave the animals and we were not going to leave her.

“For most of the time, we had electricity, giving us access to the news on the radio and the TV,” said Cameron, “but the coverage quickly moved to the Ventura fires, so we had little knowledge of how near the fires were to us.”

Enter #OjaiFire, @OjaiFire, and @CALFire. “I would have never guessed it, but aside from our ham radio, Twitter ended up being our best source of information. From tweets, we could better assess where the fires were.”

“Citrus doesn’t burn.” Old adage? Fact? Whatever the case, the Ranch was surrounded by citrus and it was a truth the group wanted to believe. “We hiked up from the Ranch to the highest point where we saw so many hot spots. The hills where we had camped over the years were covered in ash. Many streets and homes familiar to us were burned down; the air was thick with smoke.”

The days and dangers blurred together for Cameron as she retold her story. At one point, she recalled, the fire quickly turned, and now it appeared the Ranch’s east end was in danger and John’s house on the west side seemed safer.

James told the group it was time to leave, but many wouldn’t. “Citrus doesn’t burn” and they weren’t leaving the horses. James took Cameron, three dogs and three cats and drove the ten miles to his father’s home, only to return to the Ranch a few hours later as the fires took yet another turn. At this point, John’s house was still standing, although other houses on the street had burned down.

Throughout the days James and Cameron were in Ojai, the fires continued their erratic behavior. “We just lived and survived and monitored the news on Twitter and through our ham radio. We helped friends move belongings. We moved pets to safer places. We ate the beans I brought and made do with what food we could find; the Ranch work still needed to be done, so we fed the animals, worked on the irrigation in the groves, and cleared brush away from the structures,” said Cameron.

In many ways, Cameron’s Laguna Canyon Foundation restoration experience of planting, weeding and watering in our local wilderness assisted her. “If it wasn’t for all the smoke, it almost felt like at times, I was at ‘work.’ It was comforting to be productive.”

Cameron also made it a point to fill big tubs of water on the Ranch edges to potentially help the wildlife — and it worked. “We saw deer, bear and coyote tracks leading to the tubs.”

One day, Cameron and James ventured out to town to see what businesses might be open. Most were closed, but a coffee shop — and the location of James’ and Cameron’s first date — “Full of Beans” was open. They picked up coffee and muffins to take back to the Ranch. On the way back, they ran into an exhausted firefighter. He had come from Oakland and had been up for 24 hours. “Want some coffee?” James offered. At the word, two more firefighters came out of the smoke, and soon, James and Cameron were giving the firefighters all they could offer them: coffee and muffins.

Back at the Ranch, the group soon got word that Ojai Valley School had suffered much damage. The new tech center and many offices were burned and data was lost. The girls’ dorm where Cameron had spent three years of her life was burned to the ground, with only a brick chimney standing.

Staying until they knew their family was safe and grateful to know that John’s house, the Ranch, and the animals were all saved, James and Cameron made the tough decision to leave on the sixth day. “There was so much still to be done, but we had our jobs and dogs and life back in Laguna Beach.”

“Oak doesn’t burn.” Adage? Fact? When asked about a specific memory of her experience, Cameron recalls, “I was looking out into the wilderness surrounding the valley … nothing but white ash, a place that I cherish, where I grew up and developed my love for the wilderness, a place full of chaparral, now a total moonscape, except for one massive oak tree. Not one leaf was burned, just a little scorching on the trunk.”

When asked for advice to share with others about their experience, both John and Cameron said to get your to-go bag together now. Put important photos and documents on a thumb drive and/or the cloud. Create a plan with your family and for your pets. Imagine going through a disaster without your phone and car. Be prepared. When you’re told to evacuate, leave.

On a recent education hike at James Dilley Preserve, Marco, a 5th grade student, impressed one of our Field Educators by arriving with his Field Journal from the prior year’s hike. In it, he had continued his observations and drawings about nature and the open space. This was something we encourage: be inquisitive; be creative; enjoy nature – wherever you are – and write down your thoughts, sketch what you see, and make notes on what you want to research.

Since 2006, Laguna Canyon Foundation has been partnering with several Santa Ana schools to bring second through fifth graders to the South Coast Wilderness. In the open space, a living classroom, students learn from a different angle, in the fresh air and among native flora and fauna.


Our partnerships have grown. In 2017, we expanded to 12 partner Title 1 elementary schools. Using NGSS (Next Generation Science Standards) to ensure an informative and enjoyable outing for both students and teachers alike, Laguna Canyon Foundation tailors the hikes for each grade level:

Second Grade:          Art in Nature

Third Grade:              Adapting and Surviving

Fourth Grade:           Let’s Create a Habitat

Fifth Grade                The Power of Observation

There are several unique aspects of our education program.

  • Free of charge to the schools. Laguna Canyon Foundation hosts, at no cost to the schools, up to 85 school trips per year, serving more than 4,500 students. Through the generous donations of our supporters and grantors we are able to cover costs of busing, supplies and staff.
  • Students return each year. We are grateful for the commitment of the principals, teachers and parents who ensure the success of our program, which is designed so that each student – throughout their elementary school journey – may return from their second grade year through their fifth grade year. We build on the life sciences, growing and developing future environmentalists, conservationists and scientists.
  • Our education staff are trained field educators. Prior to leading a group of students, our field educators, already experienced naturalists in our canyon, repeatedly walk the specific trails we will be using for our hikes with the students. They know to point out certain plants on the trails…where a woodrat nest is…where a fossil is. While they can answer many, many of the students’ questions, they also know that they are scientists too, learning together alongside the students on each and every hike.
  • Each year, we “adapt.” With each outing as a new experience, we see ways to improve. We take input from our grantors, teachers, parents, students, field educators and volunteers to make each year better than the next.

As one teacher said, “Laguna Canyon Foundation’s education hike is often the only time my students get out in nature and, after experiencing it myself, I am grateful to see how seriously the field instructors take their responsibility. They make it really special for my kids.”

Learn more about our programs at lagunacanyon.org/education.