When a Congressional Commendation arrived on Laurie Giannini’s desk for her leadership during the Butte Fire, her first response was something like, “Why me?” She is quick to point out that it was the efforts of all the friends, family and community members who came together to transform the Calaveras County Fairgrounds into the fire camp and evacuation center that it became.
There had been fire camps at the Fairgrounds before, such as during the Rim Fire of 2103, but this time was much different. Many of her staff, along with three board members and Laurie herself had been evacuated from their homes. She spent a nervous night on the couch in her office awaiting word from her husband who had been called out on the fire to do bulldozer work and hadn’t been heard from. Amid the chaos familiar faces started to show up and take charge of various aspects of the massive operation that was unfolding by the minute. “I didn’t make a single phone call,” Laurie says, “I would express a need… and it would happen.” Supervisor Debbie Ponte arrived and promptly took to answering phones in the Fair offices. Other staff members helped manage the flood of information – and misinformation – cascading on social media.
The fire broke out on Wednesday September 9, and by Thursday horses started to arrive – so Giannini reached out to Animal Services and said she’d take all the large animals if they took the small ones. Then an entire team of local ranchers organized themselves to evacuate livestock and by Saturday morning they had 400 animals at the fairgrounds. The RV park and campground was also full, and on Friday afternoon more friends arrived to state that they would start feeding the people who had been evacuated. Several local church and community groups rallied to take turns providing meals to the evacuees. Doctors Orman and Smart came in and set up a medical clinic. A truckload of washing machines showed up. So many people came to volunteer that Laurie says she had start turning down offers for help.
There is a subtext here to this story of people from all over the community showing up and making things happen – which is that good leadership is about getting out of the way. Laurie’s relationships and reputation that she has built as CEO of the Fairgrounds can’t be understated. It’s not by accident that a whole bunch of solid individuals with the right skill sets came together during the Butte Fire. The last few lines of the commendation say it best: “ Whereas, Laurie was a rock to the community during the chaotic evacuation from the raging fire and never lost focus despite the uncertainty of the safety of her family and home… I, Congressman John Garamendi, on behalf of the people of California’s 3rd District, do hereby recognize and commend Laurie Giannini for her heroic and selfless acts and dedication to her community during the Butte Fire.”