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Lake County’s Summer Of Pain

There has never been a summer of wildfires like the one residents of Lake County endured in 2015, both in number and in size. It began with the July 29th Rocky fire, which burned 69,438 acres and destroyed 43 homes. It was followed by the August 9th Jerusalem fire, which burned 25,118 acres, and the September 2nd Elk fire, which consumed another 673 acres. There was also a smaller fire in August that threatened the town of Lucerne, which was probably saved solely by the timely and precise attacks by CalFire's giant DC-10 fire bomber.

Big aircraft also made the difference in the Elk fire, which was hammered into submission mainly by an intense attack by helicopters and fixed wing air tankers, and an ancient four engined C-54 saved the day during the 215 acre August 22nd Peterson fire. But on the hot, windy afternoon of September 12th, the CalFire aerial armada was over a hundred miles away working on the Butte fire, which eventually burned 70,868 acres and 475 homes. When fire broke out in a ditch running through the yard of a home on High Valley Road the county already had plenty of warning of what to expect-except this time there would be only a minimal air attack available in the first few critical hours.

The Valley fire was almost instantly noticed by the neighbors across the street from the point of origin, who immediately called Calfire and began to do whatever was possible to contain the flames. The fire skirted around the home and began to burn a nearby woodshed, which the two men managed to save after removing several gas cans that can be seen in the many media photos of the site. No one was home where the fire started, but there were at least two things in the ditch that could have possibly sparked the blaze. The first was the wiring and water lines that ran from the home's well to the vegetable garden that was reached by a small wooden bridge spanning the ditch. The lines appeared to be in very close proximity to one another as they crossed the ditch, and a water leak may have caused an electrical short which in turn could have ignited the nearby weeds. The wiring itself appeared to not be entirely intact or complete, though it was not clear when viewed at a distance if this was due to work done on it before or after the fire.

Another other possibility is that the broken piece of the bottom of a clear glass jar that was found in the ditch could have ignited nearby weeds or pine needles, as the time the fire began coincided with the time of day that direct sunlight could hit the glass, instead of being shaded by the tall trees that surrounded it. Whatever the source, the fire quickly spread into the weeds and underbrush behind the home and headed up the hillside to the south, with the direction switching to the east as the fire met with the powerful afternoon winds streaming over the ridge. CalFire received their first call at 1:22 pm, and by 1:51 pm requested help from the Lake County Sheriff's Office to help with evacuations.

This is where the incident began to take a tragic turn, and when hours of panic, confusion and terror for thousands of local residents began. The method used to alert Lake County residents to emergencies is a reverse 911 phone system, but after a small number of people received an automated advisory evacuation call it began to fail as the few land lines serving the area burned. Scores of frightened fire area residents were making calls to 911 dispatch, and more calls came in from concerned friends and relatives wanting the sheriff to evacuate loved ones, which further confused the situation and taxed dispatchers. With no functioning alert system the handful of deputies on duty were forced to spend their time going door-to-door to order evacuations, and the it-looked-good-on-paper formal evacuation plan was forgotten. In spite of the local fire departments having a list of people unable to self-evacuate, this information was never requested by the sheriff and was not forwarded to him by any fire chiefs.

The reason given by sheriff Brian Martin was that there was no time to help those who couldn't evacuate themselves-the fire was moving so fast the five deputies he had on duty could only go house-to-house and try to get as many people out as possible. There was also no time for updating any of the county's public information sources like the OES website and Facebook page or Twitter account, so the limited amount of news people could access was frequently either outdated or in conflict with what CalFire was saying, particularly in the case of evacuations and road closures. The local emergency broadcast system consisting of four commercial radio stations was also not utilized, apparently also due to the lack of time and staff.

For decades the county had relied on a warning system consisting of sirens located at every fire station like those used to warn of tsunamis or tornadoes, and it's 2009 Community Wildfire Prevention Plan called specifically for the sirens in the communities of Cobb and Loch Lomond to be upgraded, as well as for new ones to be installed at Lake Pillsbury within five years. But the sirens remained quiet throughout the disaster, and are never even mentioned in the county's 2013 Natural Hazards Mitigation Plan. At some point the decision was made to stop using the sirens, but there is no public record that shows when this happened and why. Sirens would have freed-up deputies to evacuate the elderly and disabled, and undoubtedly would have saved lives, though a month after the fire began they are still either sitting behind fire stations or otherwise disabled.

As the afternoon progressed the fire was now displaying the same frightening characteristics of the Rocky fire, burning rapidly in three different directions at once and creating it's own weather system. The bright summer day had turned dark, as an enormous plume of smoke covered the sky from one side of the Clear Lake basin to the other. Pages of books and newspapers were falling from the sky over ten miles from the fire and ash was drifting down like snowflakes, coating everything with a grey sludge. The fire was now growing at a rate of several thousand of acres an hour and was clearly completely out of control, yet no mandatory evacuations were ordered for many communities that were directly in harm's way. Finally a nixle alert was issued at 6:31 pm, for the few that had signed-up for them and still had cell phone service it may have helped, yet it only advised evacuations-they were not mandatory.

By 7:30 the fire had reached Anderson Springs and likely claimed it's first victim, 72 year old Barbara McWilliams. McWilliams caregiver had informed the sheriff's office and CalFire about the disabled woman being unable to evacuate herself, but by the time deputies made it near her home it was engulfed in flames. Another Anderson Springs resident was 69 year old Leonard Neft, who was one of the few that had received an evacuation advisory robo call, but by the time he had made the decision to leave it was too late. 66 year old Robert Fletcher of Cobb also was unable to escape the flames, and so was 65 year old Hidden Valley resident Bruce Burns. 61 year old Middletown resident Robert Litchman remains missing and is presumed dead; most if not all Middletown residents received no alert of any kind and either saw the smoke or were warned by neighbors to leave.

By the time the fire was contained it had scorched 76,067 acres, burned 1,280 homes and 26 apartments to the ground, along with many historic buildings like the Hobergs resort. Small communities like Cobb and Whispering Pines had a rustic charm that will be hard to replace when the rebuilding begins, as architecturally they were a visual trip back to the 1940's. Already a slew of building restrictions have been lifted in the fire areas, with the emphasis on getting buildings replaced ASAP with not much thought given to any major planning changes that could be incorporated. Residents are questioning the removal of so many trees around PG&E power lines, as some see the cutting as excessive and accuse the utility of using the fire as an excuse to do cutting that would never have been allowed before on private property.

There were other problems as well, as when the fire reached Middletown the municipal water system failed as the power lines burned, meaning there was no water to fight fires, yet the county courthouse has two enormous back-up generators that have not been used since they were bought before the Y2K scare. An additional irony is that the south county has what is considered to be a model fire prevention program, and the area was considered better prepared than most of the county to deal with a major fire.

Perhaps the only good decision made that day was to evacuate the Clear Lake Riviera and surrounding communities, which could have been an even far worse disaster if they had began to burn. One thing that became obvious in the course of the incident was that the ongoing problems with the Lake County Office Of Emergency Services had not been corrected, as several days into the disaster OES director Marrisa Chilafoe quit for unknown reasons. Chilafoe was an odd choice for the position, as her background was more along the lines of maritime fires and spills, rather than protecting small rural communities from natural disasters. Chilafoe's tenure in the position was brief, about twice that of her predecessor, whose time at the helm was measured in months after a DUI arrest seems to have ended it. Now Social Services director Carol Huchinson is unofficially running the show at the OES, the fourth person to have the job in the last two and a half years.

The county Human Resources department is still not even posting a job listing, so it can be assumed that the OES will continue to be a haphazardly managed afterthought for the time being, something to generate enough paperwork to make FEMA and the state happy and not much more. In spite of the plethora of obvious failures on the part of many involved at the management level of Lake County first responders, so far nothing has publicly changed policy or procedure-wise since the incident began, and there has not even been a public discussion of what worked and what didn't undertaken by county government. In fact, the only thing that has changed since the fire began was that as the forest was still burning the Board of Supervisors voted themselves and top management hefty 10% raises, even for the ones who bungled their jobs so badly that it cost people their lives.

Even more amazing is that Rob Brown, the supervisor whose district suffered the most damage, is now planning to run for a fifth term in 2016. Brown's hand-picked successor's Beau Moore's home burned to the ground in the fire, causing him to drop out of the race in order to focus on rebuilding. Brown was also the chairman of the committee that crafted the 2013 Natural Hazards Mitigation Plan, which only mentioned the evacuations and the alert system briefly, and placed all faith in the phone system that failed so badly. Brown was on familiar ground on the committee, as his ranch has been the epicenter for a myriad of disasters-everything from escaped buffalo colliding with cars to a "controlled" burn getting loose and burning down the neighbor's barn, or his son's car taking out a nearby utility pole that shut off power to nearly all of Kelseyville for several hours. Brown is also on the county "Disaster Council", another paper entity that seems to have little to show for its efforts, with little transparency and zero public awareness.

There are a slew of changes that need to be made to correct the problems: sirens need to be reactivated and tested, the county needs a better way to get time-critical data out to the public than Facebook and Twitter, and the reverse 911 system needs to be a back-up plan and not the primary alert system. The OES has to be staffed by someone competent, and that means offering competitive pay for once. The fire chiefs need to step-up and earn their large paychecks, as unlike the sheriff their focus is public safety and they should have foreseen some of the problems with the evacuation. No one had to die in the Valley fire, as there were several hours to alert people that were squandered when the sheriff's decision to order mandatory evacuations was delayed in spite of the obvious need; combined with the lack of a reliable alert system the two elements became a fatal mix.

Today the wind is warm and dry, and a county waits and watches the sky for the first trace of smoke, knowing that we are no better prepared than the day the Valley fire began.

2 Comments

  1. Bud Wiser November 6, 2015

    Is it only me who sees more than a coincidence between this story of homicidal incompetence? And the unlawful ridiculous harassment/intimidation attack on Phil by said Law/Government incompetent.

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