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The Fire: Before and After

By Todd Winslow posted 04-01-2021 08:11 AM


Fire pic

How Two California Districts are Implementing Best Practices in Emergency Preparedness Planning

California has been no stranger to natural disasters. Earthquakes, wildfire, and drought are among the top ongoing threats in the state. CSDA teamed up with USC Sol Price and Southern California Edison to host a Virtual Emergency Preparedness Summit in February. The two-day summit drew 192 registrants from 112 organizations and featured 20 speakers. The agenda included mitigation, response, asset planning, communications, and more. Across the many experts and points of discussion, some best practice patterns began to emerge.

We recently reached out to two districts that were featured in California Special Districts Magazine after the 2013 Rim Fire to see what changes they’ve implemented in their recovery process. Tuolumne Utility District and Twain Harte Community Services District each have unique aspects of their new processes that align nicely with broad sections of the Emergency Preparedness Summit recommendations. These districts’ real-life experiences provide clear examples of emergency preparedness implementation.

Infrastructure and Resource Planning:
Planning ahead for the expansion of resources is critical. You do not want to be calling someone for the first time when you are already in a moment of need. There is an old saying, “dig your well before you’re thirsty,” that is applicable to this scenario. Make connections in your community that can help in crisis moments. Identify the limitations in your pool of resources and reach out to those who may be able to fill some gaps. This may be local community volunteer or fundraising organizations, resource conservancies or broader state or federal partnerships. Right now, while times are calm, identify partnerships to cultivate for “boots on the ground” when you need them, and seek ways to raise needed funds for infrastructure improvements.

Case in Point:
Tuolumne Utility District (TUD) noted an expansion of their water supply availability was needed, including “points of diversion, and delivery by studying, designing, and completing water system consolidation and efficiency projects where possible.” In addition, the district operates in an area with over 100 private/mutual water companies that may need TUD’s expansive technical, managerial and financial assistance in the future.

Attacking the wildfire risk more directly, TUD applied for fuel reduction grants, and was awarded $496,000 from the Sierra Nevada Conservancy. The grant included efforts “along the Tuolumne Main Canal, a 16-mile gold rush era, historic wooden flume conveying 95% of the District’s source water from Lyons Reservoir, to its network of water conveyance ditches leading to the water treatment plants. The project was designed as a collaborative effort to improve forest health and resiliency to wildfires and beetle outbreaks.” Project partners included TUD, Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E), Stanislaus National Forest, Sierra Pacific Industries (SPI), California Conservation Corps, the Highway 108 FireSafe Council, CalFIRE and the Tuolumne Rancheria Fire Department of the Tuolumne Band of Me-Wuk Indians.

Twain Harte Community Services District also provided information on some of the modifications made to their district operations since the 2013 catastrophe. General Manager Tom Trott reports the district made several equipment and infrastructure investments. The availability of water sources in rural connection points is a resource challenge they identified. In response, the district purchased a Type 1 Tactical Water Tender (2500 gal) – also known as a ‘fold a tank’ – which allows firefighters to take water to the source of the fire and also enables them to set up an efficient point to fill multiple engines. Determined to preserve their water availability as much as possible, they installed a raw water fire draft point which enables engines to be filled with untreated water, therefore preserving the treated water systems to be maintained for drinking water in the community.

Communication in Crisis:
When crisis strikes, the single biggest factor that allows for concerted, organized response is communication. Develop your alert systems, subscription systems and backup systems for mass communication. Grow your social media following for use in an emergency, access bulk text services to broadcast instructions to your employees, develop a system to “piggyback” on city or county emergency alert systems that may be more expansive than your single district’s reach. Identify communication roles – who writes your alerts, who reviews and approves, and who are your backups in those roles, if needed? If the power is out for an extended period, identify locations of community gathering that will be appropriate locations for printed flyers. Have backup generators available and fuel on hand so operations can continue. Maintain document templates for emergency scenarios and identify the parameters for each level of communication so you don’t have to pause to consider whether a particular step is warranted: the situation is already defined and the decisions steps are pre-determined.

Case in Point:
Twain Harte CSD added an “old school” emergency alert back into their capacity by rehabilitating the firehouse Fire Alert Horn to provide audible warning of imminent threat as a back up to their emergency alert system. Checking the box for high-tech options, they established an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Program which utilizes thermal imaging as both a firefighting and rescue resource. In addition, they established their Facebook page, and implemented a subscription-based community alert system.

Event and Incident Action Plans:
First, Create an Event Action Plan to identify how things “should” run, identify variables and how to account for them. Clearly define staff roles and expectations, resources that must be in place during the event, communication processes and strategies. The Event Action Plan flows into an Incident Action Plan to be activated when the contingencies of the Event Action Plan are exceeded. The Incident Action Plan shifts into gear to allow dynamic decision-making using the information on hand and resources and roles that have been previously identified. In addition to the existing resources, there is a plan for expansion of resources when the situation requires it.

Fire photo 2Case in Point: Twain Harte CSD partnered with the CalFIRE “Ready Set GO” campaign for ongoing community education on preparedness, created an Emergency Response Team with regular meetings designed to educate, train and empower community partners to assist in emergencies.

Know Your State & Federal Resources
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is a resource you should be involved with BEFORE disaster strikes. Their website has best practice guides that help in the creation of comprehensive plans. Search the internet for “FEMA CPG101” to find their Comprehensive Preparedness Guide or “CPG201” which will guide you in Threat Hazard Identification and Risk Assessment (“THIRA”). FEMA also has a YouTube channel with Mitigation Planning webinars. Research
and apply for a FEMA Hazard Mitigation Assessment (HMA) Mitigation Planning Grant. Identify what resources would be available through FEMA and CalOES before a crisis so you have a plan in place. Also, to be prepared for the sudden influx of agency personnel and resources, get to know your FEMA and CalOES Public Assistance Officers.

Photo: MidPen Ranger fighting CZU fire in 2020