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Wildfire Refugee to Full-Stack Web Developer: My Journey

Sam Tanoak Sycamore
✍️ Freelance web developer, technical writer, dev advocate ☀️ Solar-powered off-grid mountain dweller
Originally published at blog.sycamore.design Updated on ・4 min read

Picture this:

Charred leaves and ash rain down from the sky, covering your front porch in a kind of post-apocalyptic snow.

It's the middle of the day, but it's so dark out that crickets are chirping.

They think it's nighttime.

The sun is a muted red dot casting a sickly yellow shade on your surroundings wherever it can peek through the gray-black smoke.

Wildfires are quickly approaching your town, and it's time to get out.

Now.


This was what I - along with hundreds of thousands of others - experienced when the CZU Lightning Complex wildfires tore through the Santa Cruz Mountains of coastal California in August 2020.

All told, the fires would burn for almost 40 days and consume over 86,000 acres of land. Miraculously, only one person lost their life, but over 1000 homes were destroyed and thousands more threatened.

I chose to evacuate before the official order came through, and was very fortunate to have places to crash for the three weeks that I was displaced. The fires came within a half-mile of the small mountain town where I live, but my idyllic off-grid sanctuary was mercifully spared.


Anyone who's suddenly had their life turned upside down by an event like this can tell you that it forces you to reevaluate lots of big-picture questions in your life.

I had already been feeling somewhat directionless since calling it quits on my podcast, The Good Life Revival, earlier that year.

That project brought more joy and opportunity into my life than anything I'd ever experienced before, but after dedicating myself to it for the better part of three years, I had to accept the tough reality that it would always be a "passion project" and never a "viable business that could support a family."

The podcast was the best outlet I'd ever found for channeling my passion about educating others on the wonders of the natural world, and the need for radical action in response to a rapidly changing global climate.

I was able to cultivate a very nurturing community that encouraged me to practice what I preach: I'm not just going to talk about minimizing my carbon footprint -- I'll go live off-grid, grow my own food, and report back with my experiences.

And that's exactly what I did.

But how much of an impact can you really have as one person, alone in the woods with no electricity or running water?


While I was in limbo over those three weeks during the fires, I became utterly obsessed with all of the data I could find regarding their movement.

I spent countless long hours anxiously hitting the refresh button on every app I could find, zooming in as close as possible to see if any of the little 🔥 icons had gotten any closer to my neighborhood in the last 10 seconds.

It was fascinating to me how these services could pull data from satellites in real-time and visualize it on a map, and I observed that there were many different ways to do this.

I was especially interested in the work of Zonehaven during this time, and frustrated when their service quickly went down due to being thoroughly overloaded.

It occurred to me that potentially hundreds of thousands of people just like me were relying on Zonehaven and a handful of other services to try to gather the latest information about this unfolding disaster.

This, I realized, was one way that I could make a more meaningful impact, and potentially help others when they need it the most.

And on top of that, it might actually be a viable career path that would enable me to start a family one day.


As soon as I was able to return home, I started teaching myself how to code.

I found a job in landscaping to make ends meet, and I'd wake up at 4:00 AM every day and study for two hours before heading into town for work from 9 to 5.

I looked into the tech stacks being used by the companies whose work I admired, and became acquainted with some of the people involved. I discovered that the visualization and UI was mostly being done with JavaScript and React.

So that's what I decided to learn.

After a month or two of studying HTML and CSS, I stumbled upon a video tutorial from Traversy Media, one of the best resources out there for learning to code.

Build a Wildfire Tracker With React & NASA API.

One day, I told myself, I will have the skills to be able to follow this tutorial and understand what's going on.


That day came in February 2021.

Over the previous month, I had learned the basics of React and component-based development, as well as how to fetch data from APIs.

I returned to the tutorial video, and to my pleasant surprise I found it not only comprehensible but actually kind of, well, simple.

I followed the instructor note-for-note the first time around, then deleted the code and started over. I couldn't match it perfectly on my own, but got close enough painting in broad strokes that I was satisfied with what I'd learned.

I even expanded the functionality to include other natural events like severe storms, floods, and earthquakes.

Granted: the Traversy app is very bare-bones, and orders of magnitude less complex than what companies like Zonehaven are building, without a doubt.

But it was a huge eye-opener for me to see that I really did possess the skills necessary to tap into real satellite data and represent it visually on a map.

What an incredible power to be able to wield!

That's when I knew that I'd be in this for the long haul.


If you enjoyed this piece and you want to keep up with my work, you can sign up for my email newsletter through this link. I promise to make every email something you will be excited to open!

Discussion (6)

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memphis1983 profile image
Kieran

A well-crafted and awesome article, Sam. I guess I'm one of those lucky ones living in a different world (India) without having to worry about such a horrifying experience ever happen here but I can say as much that it is indeed a life-changing event!

It's so refreshing to read one of your articles or tweets and it's a different experience every single time. Looking forward to reading more of your blog, might get addicted LOL. Wish you the very best in all your endeavors! Keep Rocking! ♥

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tanoaksam profile image
Sam Tanoak Sycamore Author

Thanks so much for reading and following along, Kieran! I hope you never have to experience wildfires!

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missionmike profile image
Michael Dinerstein

Great read, Sam. I signed up for dev.to now just to comment, but maybe I’ll like it here too :) Your story is remarkable, I’m encouraged by it and excited to see your continued growth as a developer and designer!

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tanoaksam profile image
Sam Tanoak Sycamore Author

Thanks so much for reading!

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tech_jdc profile image
Joshua Clark

A well written article Sam, you have some amazing story telling skills. I’m excited to see where this goes, keep up all the good work!

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tanoaksam profile image
Sam Tanoak Sycamore Author

Thank you for reading!