When people think of the government's response to wildfires, they often think of the fire department, emergency services teams, and law enforcement. But there's much more to a major response than that. Several County departments responded to the Chimney Fire in a variety of ways.
Responding organizations included Cal Fire, California Highway Patrol, California State Parks, San Luis Obispo County Sheriff, American Red Cross, California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, California Conservation Corps, PG&E, San Luis Obispo County Health Agency, San Luis Obispo Air Quality Board, San Luis Obispo Public Works, Paso Robles Fire Department, Monterey Co. Water Resource Board, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, US Army Camp Roberts, CAL-OES, San Luis Obispo County OES, Monterey County Sheriff, Monterey County OES, Fort Hunter Liggett, and Los Padres National Forest.
Here are some of the accounts and behind-the-scenes stories of the different ways the County responded to this local emergency.
Preserving Communications for County Response Teams
On the afternoon of Aug. 15, just two days after the Chimney Fire started, the County's communications shop received a call from the California Office of Emergency Services with a notice that the fire would most likely reach the County’s Rocky Butte communications site within the next week. Rocky Butte is the primary County public safety radio communications site for Sheriff's Office, County Fire Department, and other County radio systems for the North Coast and Nacimiento Lake area. Without this site covering the region, first responders would have poor to no radio coverage at all in the area.
With the help from the Sheriff's Office, the County Information Technology team identified this site as critical infrastructure and requested the appropriate resources to protect it however possible.
Over the next four days, the Sheriff’s Office provided updates several times a day on the Chimney Fire’s advance towards the site. On Thursday, Aug. 18, PG&E called the IT team alerting them that the commercial power service to Rocky Butte would be disconnected. The team had to act quickly, starting generator backup power that would have to hold for six days until power was restored.
The next morning, Aug. 19, the team received a call that the Chimney Fire had made it to the Rocky Butte communications site. The team made a trip up to north county, where the site is located, to conduct an assessment of the damage. But when the assessment team members started to get close to the site, they came upon hundreds of fire personnel and dozens of engines and trucks protecting the area.
Every few minutes, they could see aircraft flying over and dropping fire retardant to the left and right of them on the surrounding areas. Once they arrived, they saw that the Chimney Fire had burned right up to communications site.
"The fire crews in the area did nothing short of an amazing job protecting it," said County Information Technology Supervisor Vahram Havandjian. "Santa Barbara County Fire engine E313 was at our site with a crew and water hoses pressurized and ready to keep any other small area fires at bay. We cannot express our gratitude and thanks for all the excellent work that went into protecting this critical facility. Losing the site would have cost the County over one million dollars. Even more importantly, loss of communications could endanger the lives of those fighting the fires and the livelihood of those people living in the affected areas."
Health Agency Response to the Chimney Fire
Much of the following is from the After Action Report prepared by Elizabeth Merson, Program Manager of Public Health Emergency Preparedness.
During the Chimney Fire, the County Health Agency managed the public health and medical response for the fire and key response activities. The agency ensured environmental health safety, provided support to mass care operations, collected and disseminated situational status information, provided mental health support to evacuees returning home, and provided health information to the public. The Health Agency’s response to the Chimney Fire was more comprehensive, particularly in environmental health activities, than in previous fire responses.
Here are just some of the activities the County Health Agency participated in during the Chimney Fire:
- assisted in evacuating animals from properties in the affected area.
Animal Services officers
- Animal Services established a small animal housing and care area in conjunction with the American Red Cross evacuation shelter at Flamson Middle School.
- Public Health Nurses and staff provided evacuated families at the shelter with diapers and other baby supplies as well as some children’s clothing.
- Health Officer Dr. Borenstein coordinated with the Air Pollution Control District (APCD) to monitor air quality and issue guidance to at risk populations.
- Public Health provided guidance online and delivered important fact sheets to residents of fire damaged areas about air quality, environmental hazards and precautions concerning their water wells, propane tanks, and how to safely clean up structure fire debris.
- Public Health participated in a community meeting for residents affected by the fire by answering questions and providing guidance about fire debris cleanup and recovery efforts.
- Public Health staff attended daily Cooperating Agency meetings hosted by the fire incident management team. Staff attend the meetings to get updated information on fire activity and to coordinate response activities with other involved agencies.
- As part of the interdisciplinary Damage Assessment team that inspected the affected areas, Environmental Health Services assessed household hazardous waste, damaged water wells and swimming pools.
- Environmental Health Services conducted sanitation and food safety inspections at the Red Cross evacuation shelter and two fire camps.
- Emergency Medical Services monitored impacts to healthcare providers, including ambulance providers, hospitals and potentially affected residential care facilities.
- Emergency Medical Services provided daily situation reports to healthcare partners to keep local and state agencies informed about fire activity affecting the healthcare system.
- Public Health Emergency Preparedness supported the Red Cross shelter by providing privacy screens for shelter clients.
- Public Health Emergency Preparedness sent two Medical Reserve Corps volunteers to assist the Red Cross in providing medical services to shelter clients.
Anyone who was affected by the Chimney Fire can find resources and information here.