Wildfires raged across much of California in late 2017, setting unwelcome new records. In October, 43 people died and more than 181,000 acres were destroyed when 14 separate fires struck the state’s legendary Wine Country north of San Francisco. In early December, flames whipped by hurricane-force winds in southern California ignited the Thomas Fire, which spread through drought-plagued Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties. At 281,893 acres it became the state’s largest recorded wildfire. Smaller, but still dangerous, wildfires also broke out in Los Angeles County.
Throughout the stricken areas, public works professionals responded with non-stop dedication and passion, thus ensuring crucial, 24/7 services that enabled firefighters and other first responders to do their jobs. Here are the remarkable stories of how PW departments in five cities and counties performed, along with tested advice for almost any emergency situation.
Napa County Roads: A Proactive Attitude
Steve Stangland, Public Works Superintendent for Napa County, likes to say “You can’t get there until we’ve been there.” When at least five wildfires burst into flames the night of October 8, his watchword immediately gained new meaning.
A 22-year public works veteran, with 18 years as a firefighter, Stangland is responsible for keeping the county’s 450 miles of roads and 79 bridges both open and safe.
At 10:30 p.m., he received a call at home that the Atlas Wildfire had broken out in eastern Napa and was spreading fast.
“We take a proactive approach,” says Stangland. “As soon as we learn about an emergency, we automatically dispatch crews—in this case, we coordinated our efforts with Cal Fire.” That organization is California’s department for emergency response and resource protection; it has an extensive presence throughout the state.
“In a wildfire, our first tasks are to keep the roads cleared so firefighters can get in to do their job, and the roads closed to the public to keep both firefighters and the public safe,” he continues. “Then, when the immediate danger is over, we must get the roads cleared, inspected for damage and repaired so driving conditions are safe for both firefighters and the public.”
Stangland’s car is equipped with a radio that allows him to set up a mobile Emergency Operations Center until he gets to the office. This provides dispatch centers with a single number to call for roads assistance. “I consider public works to be a first responder,” he emphasizes. That night, however, as he drove to his office, he turned a corner and ran into a wall of flames from what turned out to be the Tubbs Wildfire that later destroyed much of Santa Rosa. He drove 70 miles around it to reach the Napa Public Works yard in Yountville.
With the wildfires closing in on the Napa county Public Works roads lot in Yountville, the roads crew saved the buildings with the help of five engine companies, two water trucks and a bulldozer. (Credit: Steve Stangland)
When he arrived, fire was already bearing down. He and his 25-person crew moved their trucks and tools to the grounds of the California Veterans’ Home, several miles away. Crew members then returned to the PW yard where, with five engine companies, two water trucks and a bulldozer, they worked to save the buildings. Using backfire, a technique that holds back an advancing fire by setting smaller fires to clear the area it is moving toward, the fire burned up to the buildings—and ultimately spared them.
By the time the Atlas, Tubbs and Nuns Wildfires were fully contained in late October, they had consumed almost 143,000 acres in Napa County and destroyed over 700 homes and buildings.
Until December 6, Napa roads crews worked seven days a week to make county roads safe. “During a disaster, we try to maintain 12-hour rotations,” says Stangland, “but when things go to hell in a handbasket, this plan goes out the window.”
Cal Fire also provided eight so-called “hand” crews of 18 people each to remove burnt or hazardous trees from roadsides.
“With the earthquake in 2014, plus storms and fires since then, disaster response is our new normal,” Stangland observes. “I can’t say enough about our dedicated roads staff—I just have the privilege of leading them."
Sonoma County: When Moments Counted
At 9:45 p.m. on October 8, the Tubbs wildfire began in Napa and by 2:00 a.m. had raced 14 miles to Santa Rosa in Sonoma County. There, burning embers ignited flames a half mile ahead, forcing whole neighborhoods to flee. October 9 was also Johannes Hoevertsz’ first day as Sonoma’s new Director of Transportation and Public Works. He was sworn in at the Emergency Operations Center (EOC).
“We didn’t have the luxury of time to start evacuations ahead of the fire,” he recalls, “so transit buses became evacuation vehicles for roughly 15,000 people.” Besides local residents, they carried hotel guests, students at Sonoma State University and youths at Juvenile Hall.
When firefighters couldn’t assemble in a pre-selected parking lot because the fast-moving fire had destroyed the large, adjacent Kmart, Sonoma roads employees became their first responders, helping firefighters to go where they were needed. The county workers joined with others from Cal Fire and Pacific Gas & Electric to remove blackened trees and destroyed utility poles.
Hoevertsz says that trees and vegetation burned alongside more than 90 miles of county roads, virtually immobilizing ground transportation. With no time to spare, the County Supervisor waived the customary public bidding process so Hoevertsz could hire contractors as quickly as possible to clear the debris.
Despite the unprecedented magnitude and speed of the fire, the Sonoma County emergency plan worked “as well as could have been anticipated,” he observes. “For the first six days, we worked 24/7 and the teamwork was incredible.” He says that as the fire raged and destroyed thousands of local homes, now-homeless employees clamored to return to work. He hurriedly signed purchase orders for new uniforms and boots so people could get back on the job as soon as possible.
The Tubbs fire was contained on October 29, after claiming 43 lives and burning through almost 37,000 acres. In Santa Rosa, it destroyed 5,100 homes as well as hotels, a vineyard, most businesses and local landmarks.
Because of the extraordinary destruction, FEMA is handling debris removal along with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the California Office of Emergency Services. Thousands of tons are being moved daily to the County landfill, which is creating two unavoidable new problems: Bottlenecks at the landfill are adding to traffic congestion, and the life of the landfill is being significantly shortened.
These days, Sonoma County Public Works is concentrating on recovery: continued debris removal, planning for erosion control, and new traffic lights and road signs. The department is also updating its emergency plan to provide for redundant telecommunications; after losing 70 cell towers almost at once, Hoevertsz and his staff keenly appreciate being able to text in an emergency. Also, staff contact information is continually updated, along with that of contractors, and confirmation that procurement contracts are in place.
Hoevertsz says the Tubbs Wildfire—which combined with other area fires to become the Sonoma County Complex Fire—has made him even more aware of the importance of what he does. “We don’t know what’s next,” he says, “but we have to keep our forces well-equipped, well-trained and prepared. It’s not just about paving potholes.”
Santa Barbara City & County: Thoughtful Planning, Long-Term Recovery
The smoke and ash from what became the record-setting Thomas Wildfire arrived in Santa Barbara soon after the flames ignited on December 4 about 45 miles away. This gave public works departments in both the City and County of Santa Barbara more than a week to prepare before the conflagration raged close enough to threaten local lives and homes.
“About 10 years ago, after two other wildfires destroyed hundreds of homes and structures, we developed a thoughtful evacuation and emergency operating plan that we now implemented,” says Rebecca Bjork, Public Works Director for the City of Santa Barbara.
Because many essential PW employees live in Ventura and other towns already affected by the Thomas fire, the City arranged to temporarily lodge them close to work. Reservoirs were checked to ensure they were full, and water lines were examined to confirm they were operating properly. Bjork’s department also staged emergency generators throughout the city and readied street crews.
“The County of Santa Barbara is responsible for the Emergency Operations Center, so our priority was to safeguard that it could operate 24/7 as long as necessary with enough people who had the necessary knowledge and ability,” states Scott McGolpin, P.E., County Public Works Director. “Holiday vacations were already planned, and it was critical to have enough experienced people to staff the 12-hour shifts.”
“On December 14, as the Santa Ana winds pushed the fire closer, we began mobilizing and putting employees on call,” recalls Bjork. “The next three days, December 15 through 17, were the most active for us, with mandatory evacuations in place, the police and National Guard handling roadblocks, and the County keeping roads open for the firefighters.”
At 281,893 acres the Thomas Fire, which spread through drought-plagued Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, became California's largest recorded wildfire. In its wake is a sight that has become increasingly familiar: the burned out carcasses of homes, land, and cars, some of which were missing their rims after they melted in the fire.
She adds that proactive communication with the community was fundamental to the City’s PW response. Its website was updated frequently, along with information through social media. “An emergency situation like a wildfire is a very emotional, stressful time for people,” she notes. “They want immediate access to information, and they need to know the city is thoughtfully replying to their concerns while also taking care of their critical needs.”
By December 18, with the Thomas Fire contained in the City and County—and no loss of lives or homes—each PW department started recovery. The City began assessing smoke damage and vacuuming up the thick deposits of ash throughout the picturesque town. Bjork’s department, which operates downtown parking, temporarily lifted fees to bring people back.
At the County PW, McGolpin says cleanup immediately began on a dozen watersheds affected by the fire, along with deepening 10 debris basins. On the steep Santa Ynez Mountain hillsides, transportation and road crews began clearing culverts and removing fallen trees and rocks from potential debris flows. After a fire, this is a vital, ongoing procedure, especially between winter rainstorms.
In early January, less than three weeks after the end of the Thomas fire in Santa Barbara County, heavy rains lashed the burn-scarred, unstable hillsides. The storms triggered floods and torrents of cement-like mudslides, especially in the community of Montecito, killing more than 20 people.
Ventura: Unprecedented Public Works Support
At 9:06 p.m. on December 4, when she first learned about the Thomas Wildfire in neighboring Santa Paula, Mary Joyce Ivers, Fleet and Facilities Manager for City of Ventura Public Works, was attending a City Council meeting. Ivers was there as acting Public Works Director since her boss, Tully Clifford, was out of town.
The fire was racing southwest toward Ventura, driven by hurricane-force Santa Ana winds and burning through one bone-dry acre every second. Ivers quickly left the meeting, notified her staff and joined Ventura’s Emergency Operations Center (EOC) at Police/Fire Headquarters.
At 10:00 p.m., Ivers was able to briefly call her husband, Jack. He had already left their Ventura home with their two dogs and the family’s PC hard drive.
As the wildfire continued to grow, police evacuated 27,000 residents. The EOC focused its efforts on assisting police with street closures, especially in the city’s hillside neighborhoods. The oceanside city of 106,000, located 100 miles northwest of Los Angeles, backs up to the Los Padres National Forest.
That first night, the entire city lost power because of the high winds and spreading flames. Public Works focused on the critical need to assist the Water Department with portable generators for water tanks.
“Our city employees were prepared and knew exactly what to do,” says Ivers. “Robert Wiman called to report that he and Tim Wolverton—both of them fleet mechanics—were on their way to help fuel the generators.”
The Thomas fire raged in Ventura and the surrounding county for five days. More than 4,000 firefighters and 600 fire trucks had quickly arrived from other cities and states to reinforce the city fire department. Sean McGlynn, Santa Rosa’s City Manager, came to help and to share his hard-gained experience from Santa Rosa’s devastating fire in October.
Everyone in the 84-person Ventura Public Works Department found ways to help. Administrators made coffee and served food—much of it donated by local restaurants that were still operating—to the firefighters. When trucks returned to refuel and give crews a short break, fleet employees washed grimy windows—even posting directions to restrooms.
The measurable part of Public Works’ support is unprecedented in any previous Ventura disaster: For example, that week, the city supplied 16,460 gallons of fuel to fire trucks and other emergency vehicles—contrasted with 20,000 gallons in a normal month.
Public Works began its recovery phase on December 11—one week after the fire had started. Ivers oversaw the prompt cleanup of Ventura’s majestic City Hall; it suffered smoke damage both inside and out.
The department has completed damage assessments and coordinating debris pickups from homeowners. Before the winter rains arrived in early January, Public Works concentrated on controlling erosion and reducing mudslides, which both continue.
On December 20, a group of residents sued the city for damages, charging that some city hydrants didn’t have sufficient water pressure. The suit is now in litigation.
Despite the loss of 551 homes in the Thomas Wildfire, Mary Joyce Ivers is optimistic. “We successfully evacuated 27,000 residents, we received phenomenal help from the city and county, and people were there to make the right decisions,” she says.
Los Angeles County: Prepared to “Keep ‘em in Bed”
With its dramatic geography and welcoming microclimates, Los Angeles County rightly heads any list of the best places to live and work. This may be why it’s also the most densely populated county in the United States. More than 10 million people live within its 4,083 square miles—larger than Delaware and Rhode Island combined.
Mark Pestrella, P.E., is Director of Los Angeles County’s Department of Public Works, which serves the residents of this vast region through six comprehensive business areas. In a wildfire or other emergency, at least four of them—Water Resources, Transportation, Environmental Services, and Development Services and Emergency Management—all have a critical role in the response.
“The wildfires we experienced in late 2017 in Los Angeles County were not unusual,” says Pestrella. “Along with other natural disasters, we’ve been dealing with them as long as the county has had a public works department. But we must be prepared to manage every aspect of the devastation that can occur, and we’ve become better and better at fine-tuning our response.”
Unlike many public works departments, resources at LA County PW include dedicated dispatchers and staff for 24/7 emergency response; they work closely with law enforcement and the fire department. During fires, firefighters use water from any of the 14 reservoirs that PW manages.
Four wildfires—La Tuna, Rye, Creek and Skirball—erupted in late 2017 in Los Angeles County, together destroying about 30,000 acres. While they were not as devastating as the fires elsewhere in the state during this time, Pestrella believes the LA County fires are noteworthy.
“Open, unpopulated areas that catch fire are a natural phenomenon, but these recent fires each began in open or forested areas bordering on a municipality,” he says. “It’s clear that carefully planning where future new home developments can be safely placed will be crucial to saving lives and homes.”
LA County Public Works engineers Roy Cruz and Laren Bunker check the outlet pipes of the Upper Sunset Debris Basin, where debris and mud accumulation had obstructed the outflow during a January 9 storm. The 80-year-old facility in Burbank, California was undergoing emergency construction to increase its storage capacity and remained rock solid through the storm event. (Credit: Kerjon-Lee, LA County Public Works)
Pestrella also points out that while relatively few homes and other structures burned in the four recent fires, the arrival of rain creates a damaging, potentially toxic, debris flow into precious watersheds if not quickly examined and cleaned up. As soon as the fires were fully contained, PW’s Water Resources business area began assessing hillsides for their potential to generate destructive mud and debris flows and excavating the 154 debris basins upstream of the Los Angeles, Santa Clara and San Gabriel rivers.
“After a wildfire,” he notes, “the debris flow doubles, so we must ensure we’re ready before the next rainfall. At the same time, recovery can go on for years.”
Pestrella takes special pride in his department’s outreach to county homeowners about post-fire debris flow, paid for through flood protection assessments. Any homeowner can have a PW engineer visit their home to advise about possible debris-flow damage or sandbag placement. Homebound seniors can have sandbags placed for them.
“At LA County Public Works, our informal motto is ‘Keep ‘em in bed’,” he says. “The public doesn’t know what PW does for them—but emergency response is the highest form of public service.”
Extraordinary Devotion to Duty
Faced with record monster wildfires, PW professionals in California responded with extraordinary devotion to duty that helped save lives and property. Many PW workers kept roads clear so that firefighters could safely get in and do their jobs. In one instance, after the gathering place for firefighters had already been destroyed, roads employees escorted them where they needed to go.
When every moment counted, transit buses were used to evacuate thousands of people to safety. Other PW professionals, with more time to prepare, checked reservoir levels and water lines. PW websites provided the public with helpful, up-to-date information. Administrative staff served meals to weary firefighters—while other PW employees cleaned sooty truck windows.
In early January, heavy winter rains arrived in southern California, turning charred, weakened hillsides into deadly mudslides. The new devastation hit especially hard in Montecito in Santa Barbara County. At press time, local PW departments were still clearing boulders and debris from roads, repairing water and wastewater facilities, and clearing debris basins before the next rainfall.
Public Works is always the last to leave, but in this instance their response will continue indefinitely.
Helen Horwitz can be reached at email@example.com.