Launch Slideshow

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Disaster blasters

Disaster blasters

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    While flames usually don't damage roads, they destroy other infrastructure assets. San Diego County lost 17,000 linear feet of guardrail, six drainage culverts, and 200 signs in last fall's wildfires. Photo: Bill Polick

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    San Diego County homeowners can grade property up to 200 cubic yards and 8 feet high without a permit. To help fire victims avert flooding, the public works department issued guidelines for installing wooden barriers, block walls, slope drains, and planted or seeded slopes, and gave away sand bags and the 20-foot fiber rolls pictured here. Photo: Bill Polick

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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.