Fallbrook (Calif.) Public Utility District general manager Keith Lewinger was sound asleep when the 2 a.m. call came in Oct. 23: A chlorine station had been consumed by a fire that was roaring through the area.

Though Fallbrook was evacuated the day before, the water and sewer utility had to get operations back online to serve firefighters. By luck, the utility was in the process of switching from gas chlorine to liquid chlorine to disinfect water at its 450-million-gallon reservoir. Because he'd already specified the components, it took Lewinger just 48 hours to procure parts and equipment to complete the switch.

Within three days, the utility was back to supplying 9000 customers over 44 square miles. “We were planning to switch anyway, so the disaster just accelerated the process,” says Lewinger.

His story is one of the positive outcomes of the state's second-worst wildfire.

From Oct. 20 through Nov. 7, during one of California's driest years on record, a large swath of the state from Santa Barbara to the Mexican border was engulfed in flames. Fueled by 85-mph winds, wildfires raced over 500,000 acres of mountains and valleys, killing seven residents, displacing almost 1 million others, and incinerating at least 2000 homes.

As in all natural disasters, public works played a critical role. Employees were assigned to fire crews to designate evacuation routes and close roads. Before the last embers were extinguished, they were repairing roads, rebuilding bridges, and reinforcing the fragile landscape that can quickly turn a simple rainstorm into another disaster.

Though eclipsed by media coverage of firefighters, the public works departments were just as important to the region's survival—and more important to its recovery.

First the Fire, then the Flood

Covering 4200 square miles, San Diego County sustained some of the worst damage. At least half of the county's 525 public works employees worked round the clock, either in the field with firefighters or at the county's emergency command center.

In addition to working nights at the command center, public information officer Bill Polick did more than 100 interviews with international news organizations within three days. Other employees worked with the county's GIS staff to plot routes for evacuations and fire crews.

Because Southern Californian soil doesn't absorb water easily, the slightest rain can cause burned debris to tumble down mountains. Landslides that occur after wildfires are just as destructive as the flames themselves.

“After a fire, we always have flooding issues,” says Vana Olson, public works director for San Bernardino County, about 100 miles north of San Diego. “Flash floods and debris flows affect county roads, so preventing them is a major priority.”

Even before the fires were extinguished, her crews were patrolling 2800 miles of paved and dirt roads, unclogging thousands of metal pipe and concrete box culverts, and assessing the health of 38 bridges.

Crews placed signs at 50 intersections warning of the potential for flash flooding. They installed and monitored rain gauges in burn areas to keep an eye on potential problems. They used data gathered by reconnaissance planes to calculate how much rainfall could trigger a flood. By coordinating with the National Weather Service, they developed rainfall estimates for incoming or developing storms.

“If we approach just 2/10 inch in some of the burned areas, we start emergency notifications through the reverse 911 system and start patrolling for landslides,” Olson says. “If it's high intensity [rain], we ask for people to be evacuated.”

To reduce the likelihood of that happening, the San Diego Department of Public Works awarded Geosyntec Consultants Inc. a $1 million contract to aerially assess the landscape. Roads or structures in high-risk areas were identified and selected for erosion control measures designed to direct debris flows away from or around buildings and other structures. The department installed silt fences and laid straw or wood-chip mulch along roads to reduce the velocity of potential flood waters or mudslides.

Poison Prevention

Cleaning up the mess that fires produce is the most time-consuming recovery task. The process involves more than simply lifting and hauling away burned homes, trees, and cars. Because flames and wind throw household hazardous waste and ash into the air, damaged properties must be inspected for hazardous materials and asbestos.

“The goal is to keep ash from floating back up into the air,” says San Diego's deputy public works director Donna Turbyfill. “The ash needs to be wet down, workers must wear personal protective equipment such as respirators and body suits, and there are special ways in which [the debris] needs to be disposed.”

Olson's crews in San Bernardino expect to finish cleaning up by next month, helped in part by a $19 million debris removal contract funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the state Office of Emergency Services, and county general revenues.

Planning Pays Off

A manager's ability to adjust to rapidly changing conditions is critical to keeping operations online during a fire.

At one point, the Olivenhain Municipal Water District in Encinitas, Calif., had to move its emergency operations center across a river. One-fifth of the district's 48-square-mile service area was burned, including a main communications facility.

“Losing communications and having to evacuate were challenging,” says general manager Kimberley Thorner. “It was all about logistics and planning and just constantly staying ahead of the fire.”

Whereas highway departments concern themselves with the aftermath of a fire, water departments play a critical role in ensuring a steady flow of water to hydrants. Thorner's employees were out in the field immediately after the pumping station went down. Others were attached with fire crews to determine where the fires were heading and where firefighters could make their stand. If the department didn't keep the communities in water, houses would burn.

“You just don't let water shut down,” Thorner says. “[In a disaster], public works employees keep working.”

None of her 86 employees lost their homes, but they did shut off water to 17 homes and businesses that were destroyed within the district's boundaries.

The San Diego County Public Works Department was particularly ready for the firestorm. Employees simply duplicated emergency response and cleanup procedures they followed four years earlier during the state's worst firestorms.

“It's ironic that during the week of the wildfire, we were concluding the audit with FEMA for the 2003 fires,” Turbyfill says. “A lot of our response was much faster because we'd been there and done that before.” — Craig Guillot is a freelance writer based in New Orleans.

Top-response contracts

How to fund operations during the 72 hours between a disaster and the arrival of federal aid.

Whether it's a hurricane, tornado, earthquake, or wildfire, disasters generate debris. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) requires contracts to be bid competitively. In an emergency, the bid process slows response efforts.

Depending upon the scope of the disaster, existing contractors may not be able to handle an oversized job. To ensure debris keeps moving, have pre-existing contracts in place.

“Anticipating that need and negotiating and changing language in existing contracts that applies only to emergency situations is a practical approach,” says emergency-management consultant Larry Lux of Lux Advisors Ltd.

In addition to considering emergency-only, as-needed contracts for guardrail repair after disasters like wildfires, the San Diego County Department of Public Works is applying Lux's logic to other potential emergencies.

“We'll compare and contrast what kinds of disasters we run into, and what kind of materials and contracts we'd need in each case,” says director Donna Turbyfill. “We've realized that fire disasters can be hugely different from earthquakes.”

Turbyfill recommends developing a detailed response plan for what's most likely to happen in your service area, not what may happen. A department that should be concerned about, say, flooding shouldn't spend an inordinate amount of time planning a detailed response to a bombing.

Also, be prepared to provide extensive documentation on not only what work was performed, but why it was done.

And make sure there's enough emergency capital on hand to deal with emergencies.

San Diego County's reserve fund includes $20 million for “unanticipated needs, events, or for various uncertainties that may occur during the fiscal year.” When public works' cleanup efforts exceed the limit, as they did last fall, Turbyfill turns to the Federal Highway Administration and the National Resources Conservation Service. The California Office of Emergency Services funds her department's efforts until FEMA reimbursements come through.