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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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.