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News & Press: General News

MISAC Members Join Mutual Recovery Effort in California Wildfires

Wednesday, January 24, 2018  
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With the Thomas Fire still contained just weeks ago, this year’s catastrophic wildfire season has set new records for data points ranging from damage expenses to acreage burned. As local and regional fire departments have joined forces to contain wildfires throughout California, many MISAC members—and the agencies for which they work—have been called on to contribute to both response and recovery efforts.


“The City of Santa Rosa has been heavily involved in response and recovery efforts for the communities affected by the tragic fires,” says Kristie Bartlett, City of Santa Rosa IT Operations Section Manager. “Every department has been working tirelessly across the board to help every step of the way.”


The most recent Northern California wildfires spread throughout Sonoma and Napa Counties, hastily burning more than 245,000 acres before being contained. Per the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE), the wildfires caused 43 fatalities, forced 100,000 evacuations and destroyed approximately 8,900 structures. Those communities affected by the blaze called on not only volunteer resources, but also other agencies.


“We have had a lot of volunteers organizing relief efforts throughout the community during this process, and we’ve also received a lot of help in keeping our City services up and running,” adds Bartlett.


Among its many recovery responsibilities, the City of Santa Rosa Information Technology Department worked around-the-clock to keep its geographic information system (GIS) maps updated with essential information about the fires. During the fires, the department received daily requests for updates to internal and external maps, such as mapping locations of the fires, locating property damage by address and parcel and tracking requests for debris removal.


“At the beginning of the fires, updating our GIS maps was a challenge because there were so many requests and our staff was limited,” says Brian Tickner, City of Santa Rosa Applications Services Manager. “We are grateful for all the assistance we received from outside agencies. They really helped us manage the additional work we had on our plate because of the fires.”


The City of Petaluma, unthreatened by the fires, operated emergency shelters for evacuees from neighboring cities like Santa Rosa. The City’s resources were at capacity for seven days, until the American Red Cross arrived with more adequate assistance.  


“From the beginning of the first morning of the fires, we became an evacuee recipient,” says Tim Williamsen, City of Petaluma IT Manager. “The City was not prepared to respond to such a large evacuation, and our emergency centers hit capacity quickly. The local community did an amazing job helping us activate shelters to accommodate as many evacuees as possible.”


Although the City was only designed to handle a few shelters for two or three days, staff, including Williamsen’s information technology team, worked with churches, the Sonoma-Marin Fairgrounds, Petaluma Veterans Memorial Building and other organizations to activate a total of 10 ad-hoc emergency centers that could shelter more victims from neighboring cities.


“Most of us tend to prepare for simple disasters that are common to our area. This is a good example of why we must prepare for the worst-case scenario,” adds Williamsen.


Two months later, multiple wildfires ignited across Los Angeles, Santa Barbara and Ventura Counties, including the largest fire in California history, the Thomas Fire, which has burned more than 281,000 acres across Santa Barbara and Ventura Counties, according to CAL FIRE. Concurrent, widespread incidents present a unique challenge for responders.


“Our organization,” says Joyce Starosciak, Administrative Services Manager at the Sacramento Regional Fire EMS Communications Center (SRFECC), “provides mutual aid. Since this is what we do all of the time, the fires did not exactly catch us off guard, but we’re seeing an increase in these larger incidents, and they serve as a reminder that we always have to be prepared.”


SRFECC provides dispatch services to the greater Sacramento area and surrounding communities. Since Dec. 9, 2017, Cal OES Region IV, including SRFECC, has dispatched 120 units to multiple fire zones in Southern California to provide support and alleviate the fire response efforts being made by agencies in the immediate areas of the wildfires.


“Within these tragedies, there is always grace with the help of the community. The greatest struggle is for the victims of the fires, but those contributing to relief efforts suffer, too. People work long hours and are made to leave their families behind. From dispatchers and firefighters to community members, it’s amazing to see the community come together to help,” adds Starosciak.


Recovery efforts for communities affected by California wildfires are ongoing. MISAC encourages members affected by—or in the position to support those affected by—the fires to visit to view and offer resources.

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