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Lessons Learned From the Witch Creek Fire

Rod Gould is city manager for the City of Poway and a member of the League’s board of directors. He can be reached at rgould@ci.poway.ca.us.

Sunday, Oct. 21, 2007, dawned like any other warm and sunny autumn morning in the City of Poway. However, by noon there was smoke in the air and a reported wildfire between Julian and Ramona, east of Poway. The Red Cross set up an evacuation center at the Poway High School gym. Fire, law enforcement and city officials gathered to assess intelligence about the spread of the fire. After a meeting of the cooperative agencies, our best guess was that fires would enter the City of Poway at 5:00 a.m. the next morning.

Wildland fires are nothing new to Poway (pop. 50,500), located in northeastern San Diego County. Four years earlier, driven by Santa Ana winds, the Cedar Fire roared through Poway, destroying 53 homes and one business. Since that time, city staff had been planning and practicing for a wildland fire event, knowing that we would have to be ready to respond rapidly and effectively to limit the loss of lives and property. The situation on Oct. 21 had all the makings of a disaster about to happen.

Into the Fire

As the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) director, I directed the EOC be set up Sunday night and ordered staff to report at 3:00 a.m. the next morning.

The fire entered Poway at 3:30 a.m., and conditions couldn’t have been worse --- winds were at 80 miles per hour with even higher gusts and rock-bottom humidity. We were experiencing the first of three days of Santa Ana winds. At 3:55 a.m., I declared the incident a local emergency. Adrenaline ran high, but staff responded calmly and effectively.

Poway was by no means alone in experiencing fire on Oct. 22, as crews were battling blazes in Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, Santa Barbara, Ventura and San Diego counties simultaneously. More than 750 fire engines were on order to provide mutual aid for Southern California, but it would be a long time before they reached Poway.

Furthermore, there was very little air support due to the hurricane-force winds. Ground crews’ ability to contain wildfires driven by high winds is extremely limited. With multiple fires burning throughout Southern California, resources were stretched thin and conditions were perilous.

By Monday afternoon, fires were burning in numerous areas of north Poway. I ordered the evacuation of 7,000 homes. The Red Cross could not assist in setting up an emergency shelter due to other commitments. City staff commandeered two municipal buildings in Community Park and the Boys & Girls Club to shelter 1,000 people.

New fires broke out northeast of Poway and in the southern portion of the city. We assisted with the voluntary evacuation of Palomar Pomerado Hospital and nursing homes with the help of Poway Unified School District buses.

Our firefighters, with the support of limited mutual aid, did their best to save homes wherever possible. Sheriff’s deputies assisted in a safe evacuation. By Tuesday morning, we had lost dozens of homes but weren’t yet able to make a detailed assessment due to burning fires and smoke.

Finally, by mid-morning Tuesday, the winds abated. Helicopters went up, and massive support arrived. By Wednesday, the tide had turned in favor of the firefighters. On Thursday, all residents were allowed back into their homes.

Assessing Damage and Rebuilding

The Witch Creek Fire burned 7,247 acres in Poway, including Lake Poway Park and Blue Sky Ecological Reserve. Ninety families lost their homes, and six homes were badly damaged. On the positive side, no lives were lost.

Poway immediately began the rebuilding process. This included clearing the streets and arterials and installing erosion control devices to protect the city’s water supply, private properties and the municipal stormwater system. We named a City Assists Recovery Effort (CARE) team of city employees to reach out to fire victims and reassure and help them start the rebuilding process. Parks were reopened, and San Diego Gas & Electric restored power in many areas of town that had lost service. By the end of the weekend, we closed the evacuation center. The Poway Rotary Club eventually collected more than $90,000 to help fire victims. The community rallied behind the firefighters and those who lost homes, and Poway is now well along the road to recovery.

What We Learned

When I consider the damage done by the wildfire and the city’s response, I’m pleased with the steps we took to prepare for such a regional emergency. The following is a short list of the Witch Creek Fire’s most critical lessons.

Update your emergency operations plan and checklists. Too often they are out of date and of little use. The checklists are important for your disaster service workers, who may need simple reminders in order to get started when a disaster hits.

Equip and practice setting up an Emergency Operations Center (EOC). Think this through, and put some resources behind it. The EOC is the nerve center that manages local response to an emergency. Staff needs to know how to set it up rapidly and should be comfortable operating in the EOC. This takes practice.

Understand the Standardized Emergency Management System (SEMS) and the National Incident Management System (NIMS). These systems really work. Train by using them so they become second nature. The systems require that staff operate differently than they do in non-emergency situations. Practice, practice, practice!

Orient disaster service workers and plan to meet their needs during an emergency. Many city employees don’t know or forget that they are required to report and serve during an emergency in their cities. It’s a good idea to review this obligation regularly. Be sure to offer means for employees to communicate with their families, and provide food, sleeping accommodations and medical help to support them in performing their duties.

Know how regional resource decisions will be made. If the emergency is not localized, your city will be competing with others for emergency staffing, equipment, materials and supplies. You should have a clear understanding of how those decisions will be made in order to influence them effectively for your city’s protection. This should not be learned on the fly.

Obtain the needed equipment in advance. This may include emergency generators, cots, food and water supplies for disaster service workers, emergency packs for evacuees and having open contracts with local businesses for the rest. Your communication system should be tied into the regional system as seamlessly as possible.

Feed your website and local news stations with accurate information about the local emergency and your response. Try to get your elected officials on the air with regular updates. Use geographic information systems (GIS) to map the disaster and update the media. Don’t underestimate the public’s ability to access the Internet and your website to get up-to-the-minute information.

Have your school district’s emergency center and local hospital representatives close by. We provided space in the EOC for Poway Unified School District to operate its own emergency center and had hospital representatives with us throughout much of the emergency. Having these resources right in the EOC was incredibly helpful.

Be ready to make triage decisions. Often, demands for emergency resources quickly outstrip availability. Staff should be ready to make hard decisions to maximize the preservation of life and property. Elected officials should back staff in making these tough choices.

Don’t use all of your personnel at once. You will need to relieve your staff after the first 24 hours, so plan to use your disaster service workers in shifts. Staff several people deep for each key position in the EOC.

Have briefings often in the EOC. This allows everyone to hear information at the same time and to understand the decisions being made. Brief the elected officials and those in the evacuation centers as well.

Don’t scrimp on record-keeping. Having good records of the emergency and the decisions made throughout is essential for after-action reporting and federal and state reimbursement. Have the forms and paperwork ready before the emergency hits.

Get ready for recovery. Assemble your development assistance team because as soon as the fire is out, residents will want answers about how to rebuild their homes and lives.

Be Prepared

Since the Witch Creek Fire, the City of Poway has adopted stricter building standards in the wildland urban interface, enacted proactive brush clearing requirements throughout the city, approved a new evacuation route from a hard-to-defend neighborhood, enhanced communication equipment and trained more residents to assist in the next emergency. As a learning organization, we seek to improve after each emergency.

Don’t let emergency planning and preparation drop off your priority list in these difficult economic times. You never know when disaster will strike and challenge your city to perform at its highest level. Develop the emergency systems, strategies, skills and equipment and hope you will never have to use them. Exercise them to stay sharp and sleep soundly at night.