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May 29th
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Home News Latest Emergency Operations Center guides county government's Rocky fire response

Emergency Operations Center guides county government's Rocky fire response

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County of Lake, Calif., personnel, along with representative of mutual aid agencies from other parts of California have staffed the Lake County Emergency Operations Center, shown here at Konocti Vista Casino in Lakeport, Calif., on Friday, August 7, 2015. Photo by Elizabeth Larson/Lake County News.

LAKE COUNTY, Calif. – As the Rocky fire inches toward full containment, county officials are continuing their efforts not just to respond to the current crisis but to prepare for the process of transitioning into the county's recovery.

The fire has burned nearly 70,000 acres – or 100 square miles – since it began east of Lower Lake on July 29, and has threatened the Clearlake and Lower Lake communities, as well as the Double Eagle and Spring Valley subdivisions east of Clearlake Oaks.

Originally just in Lake County, it moved into Colusa and Yolo counties as well, and burned into the new Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument.

At its current size, the fire is among the worst fires in Lake County's recorded history.

Ranked ahead of it is the August 1996 Fork fire, which burned 83,232 acres in the Mendocino National Forest.

For comparison, Cal Fire records show the Fork fire destroyed 40 structures, while the Rocky fire has destroyed nearly 100 structures – almost half of them homes.

Altogether, the Rocky fire has threatened more than 6,500 structures, led to evacuation advisories or orders that impacted more than 13,000 residents, and closed Highway 20 and Highway 16, major thoroughfares through the region.

The number of firefighters at one point topped 3,600 earlier this week, with crews reported to be coming from all over California and as far away as New Jersey, in addition to the deployment of California National Guard firefighting teams and air support from across the Western United States.

Fire officials attribute the Rocky fire's massive size, erratic and unpredictable behavior, and rapid spread – including its 22,000-acre run during five hours last Saturday – to conditions resulting from California's four-year drought.

Such a fire has, in turn, required a first-of-its kind response on the local level.

Within hours of the Rocky fire's start, the Lake County Office of Emergency Services activated the county's Emergency Operations Center.

On July 30, Lake County OES Manager Marisa Chilafoe wrote a proclamation of a local emergency because of the Rocky fire which was signed by County Administrative Officer Matt Perry in his dual role as director of Emergency Services. The Board of Supervisors unanimously ratified the declaration on Tuesday.

On July 31, Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state emergency because of the many wildfires burning across California, including the Rocky, the largest now burning in the state.

Since opening its doors, the Emergency Operations Center has coordinated the county government's massive and complex fire response, with the help of Cal Fire as well as agencies from across Lake County, the North Coast region and the rest of the state.

Among its many tasks, the center has provided logistical and resource support for county agencies and residents, coordinated evacuation centers in response to mandatory and advisory evacuation orders for residents, set up a recovery fund, and provided informational updates to the media and to the community at large while sorting through enormous amounts of information – some of it false – about the fire situation.

Then, there is the center's part in planning for dealing with future needs of residents impacted by the fire.

This is believed to be the largest mobilization of the Emergency Operations Center in the county's history.

While the Emergency Operations Center was briefly open in December in response to a heavy rainstorm that spawned flooding, there's been no disaster on par with the Rocky in years.

Drawing on resources

Overseeing the Emergency Operations Center is Chilafoe, an emergency management professional who joined the county in March 2014.

While the Rocky fire is an event of serious magnitude for the county, Chilafoe has experience with even larger disasters – namely, Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

At that time, Chilafoe worked for a private company as a first responder in environmental cleanup.

She's worked on other major incidents and understands fire response, has undergone training and is credentialed in emergency response by the US Coast Guard.

Her training allowed her to bring together field and incident command structures in the Emergency Operations Center.

“The county really stepped up this time,” she said, and worked to implement the Standardized Emergency Management System in its fire response, which the California Office of Emergency Services calls  “the cornerstone of California’s emergency response system and the fundamental structure for the response phase of emergency management.”

It incorporates an incident command system, multi- and interagency coordination, mutual aid and an operational area concept, according to Cal OES.

When the Emergency Operations Center first opened last week, it was housed in the Lake County Public Health facilities.

“We quickly outgrew the space,” said Chilafoe.

They then began to look at other options, and settled on an offer from Big Valley Rancheria to locate the center at Konocti Vista Casino outside of Lakeport.

“It was a great opportunity to partner with the tribe,” Chilafoe said.

Since Aug. 1, the tribe has made the casino's entire showroom, as well as nearby conference rooms, available for the center.

Tribal officials also reported that many off-duty firefighters assigned to the Rocky fire have been staying at the Konocti Vista Casino hotel since July 30.

In a statement, the tribe and the casino thanked all of the firefighters working on the Rocky fire.

“Konocti Vista Casino and Big Valley Rancheria are proud to be able to facilitate a location and provide support to the OEC and a place to rest for the firefighters,” the statement said.

Approximately 110 county personnel from across 12 departments have staffed the center, according to Auditor-Controller-County Clerk Cathy Saderlund, who was at the center on Friday afternoon.

In one day alone, 55 people – a mix of county staffers and representatives from mutual aid agencies across the region – were working in the center, Chilafoe said.

One of the challenges Chilafoe said the Emergency Operations Center encountered was in the form of information dissemination when faced with a barrage of data pouring in from social media and other sources, accelerating the flow of details about an already fast-paced situation.

The Emergency Operations Center received information and worked to verify it quickly, but that was a sometimes time-consuming process that in the early days of the fire earned the Lake County OES some criticism for failing – in some community members' minds – to respond quickly enough.

However, Chilafoe said that county officials in such circumstances have to follow procedures to verify information as intelligence. She said rumor control is built into the emergency response process.

“We can't just post it without verifying it,” Chilafoe said of the information the center was trying to sort through.

Chilafoe said they responded by bringing in additional staff to increase the number of their public information officers to help disseminate and verify information to shorten the turnaround time.

“The last thing we want to do is post something that is incorrect,” Chilafoe said, adding that such care in confirming information is meant to protect public safety.

At one point, the center had three to four public information officers working at a time, helping to assess rapidly changing information, monitor Lake County OES' growing Facebook and Twitter presence, respond to questions and engage community members needing assistance, she said.

In addition to Jill Ruzicka, the county's public information officer, County Library Director Christopher Veach, county planning department staffer Mireya Turner and Cheryl Johns with the county's IT department all stepped into the role of responding to information queries from the press – sometimes in the wee hours of the morning.

“The entire process that we used here was new and very much a learning experience,” Chilafoe said.

She said her counterparts in neighboring counties and around the Bay Area have responded to offer their assistance.

Jodi Traversaro, Coastal Regional administrator for the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services, reported that she and her team came to Lake County at the start of the fire to offer support and assistance.

Chilafoe said the Cal OES representatives headed back to their homes on Friday.

Next steps

Late this week, the county set up an around-the-clock Rocky fire assistance line, 1-800-325-9604, to assist residents affected by the fire.

The operator-staffed public assistance line is provided through the collaboration of the Lake County OES and the Emergency Operations Center, and the Volunteer Center of Sonoma County.

Callers can get information 24 hours a day, seven days a week regarding food pantries and shelters, counseling, damage assessment, disaster response and other recovery services.

In its initial days, the line received eight calls on Thursday and seven calls as of 1:30 p.m. Friday, Chilafoe said.

While many residents near Lower Lake and Spring Valley had returned home by Saturday, residents of the Double Eagle Ranch east of Clearlake Oaks were still being kept under mandatory evacuation order due to the fire's close proximity, Cal Fire told Lake County News.

Chilafoe said plans were to close the Red Cross evacuation shelter at Kelseyville High School at noon on Friday, with the Red Cross shelter at Middletown High School to remain open while the Emergency Operations Center works with families to determine available resources.

A third shelter that the Community Disaster Response Team of Sebastopol operated at Upper Lake Middle School for two days this week had no evacuees and closed on Thursday afternoon.

Chilafoe said the Middletown shelter had about 30 people using it, which is on pace for the percentage of evacuees typical in such an event. She said evacuees usually will find other places to stay, including family.

The county also worked with North Coast Opportunities and Mendo Lake Credit Union to set up an official Rocky fire recovery fund. Information about how to donate can be found at .

Chilafoe said it's common for people to get scammed during disasters. Since the fire has started, numerous Go Fund Me and other online accounts were setting up to take donations for the fire, but without connections to verified nonprofits. Officials have urged against donating to such funds, instead directing people toward the official recovery fund at Mendo Lake Credit  Union, the Red Cross and Salvation Army.

Chilafoe said plans are to demobilize the Emergency Operations Center on Sunday evening. A plan for the full demobilization is pending administrative approval.

A local assistance center is set to open Monday, Aug. 10, at 14092 Lakeshore Drive in Clearlake, and will remain open daily from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. through Wednesday, Aug. 12.

Some of the county staff assisting at the Emergency Operations Center will be transitioned there, Chilafoe said.

The center will assist residents and business owners with access to recovery information and to connect with available resources. A virtual local assistance center also is available at .

County staff will continue to monitor recovery operations from their respective departments, with those staff to meet regularly to discuss progress, Chilafoe said.

As for the recovery process ahead, Chilafoe said she's not sure how long it could take.

While the county overall didn't lose a lot of large, critical infrastructure, Chilafoe said the toll is a large one for the people who lost their homes and property, and they will need time and help to rebuild.

“Our greatest impact has been the individual damage – homes, property and possessions,” she said.

Pacific Gas and Electric, she said, has been working steadily throughout to power poles and other power equipment damaged or destroyed by the fire. She did not have figures on Friday regarding those damages.

A final damage estimate is still being tallied. She said four county damage assessment teams first went into the field on Thursday, checking out areas that remained under evacuation.

They were back out in the field on Friday, she said, continuing to look at houses and structures that were destroyed or damaged, and investigating the condition of infrastructure, including roads, culverts, guardrails and road signage.

Damage assessment, said Chilafoe, is “our primary objective for the weekend.”

A special meeting has been called for the Board of Supervisors at 1 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 11, for the purpose of discussing county policies in actions to address the Rocky fire recovery.

The meeting will be held in the board chambers on the first floor of the Lake County Courthouse, 255 N. Forbes in Lakeport.

Discussion topics are to include debris removal and environmental remediation in burn areas, building permit waivers and any other policies to assist fire victims, temporary shelters for fire victims and a resolution amending the county's fiscal year 2015-16 recommended budget to appropriate funds for fire response and recovery.

County staff is working to finalize the plan that will be presented to the board on Tuesday, she said.

Some of the key considerations, Chilafoe explained, include how the county will move forward with addressing financial commitment and risk in recovery operations, and levels of oversight.

“There's some high level policy decisions that have to be made to continue through recovery,” Chilafoe said.

The county has been promised assistance from the state and federal levels in the fire recovery effort.

This week, Congressman John Garamendi and Congressman Mike Thompson jointly announced that the Federal Emergency Management Agency has approved the state of California’s request for a Fire Management Assistance Grant declaration for the Rocky Fire.

The Fire Management Assistance Grant Program allows for the “mitigation, management, and control” of fires burning on publicly or privately owned forest or grasslands which threaten such destruction as would constitute a major disaster.

Garamendi and Thompson reported that the grant will cover 75 percent of the costs for various fire suppression, safety and recovery needs, including equipment and supplies; evacuations and sheltering, police barricading and traffic control; arson investigation; a state emergency operations center; field camps and meals; mobilization and demobilization costs; temporary repair of damage caused by firefighting activities; and more.

Gov. Jerry Brown made a visit to the fire area on Thursday and said the state was committed to support the recovery effort.

State Sen. Mike McGuire, in a Thursday night town hall in Lakeport, also guaranteed that the state was committed to helping Lake County survive and thrive in the wake of the Rocky fire.

Cal Fire reported that it remains on target for fully containing the fire on Aug. 13.

Email Elizabeth Larson at . Follow her on Twitter, @ERLarson, or Lake County News, @LakeCoNews.

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Last Updated ( Saturday, 08 August 2015 06:49 )