Exploring the Epic Catastrophe The Thomas Fire
[JENNY NOVAK] Yeah, and one of the things that Randy and I had actually talked about when we were realizing the magnitude of this, and all of these were coming in that it was almost like a very localized, catastrophic earthquake. One of those things that you plan for, but you seldom in this field get to kind of deal with all of those impacts.
[TODD DEVOE] Welcome to EM Weekly, and this is your host, Todd DeVoe. And this week, we are talking about the Thomas Fire, and it’s the largest wildland fire in California’s history. And today, we have with us, two emergency managers from the California Office of Emergency Services, so CalOES, and talking about the Thomas Fire, and also the Montecito mudslides that occurred just shortly after that. We’re going to be talking about a couple of different topics in there, about their response, about messaging, things like these. I think you guys are really going to enjoy the show.
But before we get into the show, yes, I can now officially announce that we have a new platform with EM Weekly. It’s called forums.emweekly.com; this is what I’ve been really, really, really chomping at the bit to tell you guys about. It’s really exciting, the forums.emweekly.com, and there, you can go in. There are forums over there. Obviously, there are groups you guys can create. It’s a place where we can really have a working emergency management community from across the globe, where we can really talk to each other and interact with each other and learn from each other about what we’re doing in other parts of the emergency management world.
This is where the blog is going to live, and our news and things like these will be on at the forums.emweekly.com. Also, we have a new podcast as well, called EM Student. And the EM Student portion of this, the important part about it, is it’s going to be a smaller, shorter podcast, just about learning emergency management at the university level, at the community college level. And also, to anybody who is interested about learning emergency management, that’s what really EM Student is about.
And here, we will be bringing in professors from around the world of emergency management to talk about what they expect, what they are looking for in emergency management, some of the trends that are happening, some of the studies that are going on, and even just some simple stuff like, how to do your resume properly, and how to carry yourself in an interview. You know, networking in that way, and how that works for you. That’s what EM Student is really all about. And so, I’m excited to have that podcast going out as well and check it out. It’s called EM Student. However, like anything else, everybody can listen to it, let me know what’s going on there. If you guys have any topics that you think students want to hear, or if you’re a student yourself, and you want to hear about something, again, go to Ask Todd and put it out there, and we will find the information for you, and we’ll discuss it and put it out there for everybody to learn from, and that’s what it’s about, growing this community.
EM Student is the beginning for the students that really need to have our help as mentors and as practitioners in emergency management, to help them through that process to become proficient emergency management professionals. So, I’m excited about EM Student, I’m excited about forums.emweekly.com, and please, check it out and let us know what you think. I’m always open to hear what you guys have to say, and please do, and always reach out to us.
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[TODD DEVOE] Alright, so today we’re interviewing a couple of the people who responded up to the Northern California and Central California wildfires this year. It’s been a crazy California fire season, and the Thomas Fire, which is the largest fire in California’s history, and to Jenny and Randy were both on that fire. So, I’m going to let them introduce themselves, and get into what they did. So, Jenny, tell me a little bit about yourself and how you got involved into the emergency management field.
[JENNY NOVAK] My name is Jenny Novak, and I am currently an Emergency Services Coordinator with CAL OES. I’ve been doing that for about a year now. Prior to that, I worked at the University level, at Cal state Northridge in emergency management there, I also spent some time with a couple of cities, and I actually got into this field about 10 years ago, because I was really interested in natural disasters. And when I had to pick a project in school to have my senior capstone, I chose to study earthquake and tsunami preparedness in Humboldt County, and that is kind of what got me toward an emergency management trajectory. So, it’s been a really interesting ride, and I’m happy to be here today, at CAL OES.
[TODD DEVOE] Randy, why don’t you tell me a little bit– again, if you guys remember, we interviewed Randy when he was over at Cal State L.A. about the college stuff. But now he moved on to CAL OES, and well, we’ll get his background again if you didn’t check out that podcast.
[RANDY STYNER] Hi, everybody, I’m Randy Steiner, I’m a Deputy Regional Administrator for the Southern Region for CAL OES. I’ve been in emergency management now for about 18 years. As Todd mentioned, I came from Cal State Los Angeles, where I was the emergency manager for about two years. And before that, I’ve worked in water emergency management, as well as was the emergency services coordinator for the County of Orange Environmental Health Department as well. And I’ve been doing this now for about 18 years. I have some background in nuclear emergency response with the San Onofre nuclear generating station, and I’ve been doing that kind of work ever since. I came here to CAL OES and have just been working fires pretty much ever since.
[TODD DEVOE] So Randy, I want to start with you, because I love the background and the fact that you started in CAL OES pretty much the day the fires broke out. And I remember you saying, “I thought I was going to come in, be able to slide in and have a couple of weeks where I could get my hands around things,” and next thing you know, you’re deployed. So, why don’t we start with that story? Because I think it’s outstanding, and people can really relate to it.
[RANDY STYNER] Yeah, it was interesting, because when I left Cal State LA, I took the weekend off, and I took the next Monday off, and I remember going out early in the morning and there was smoke going over our neighborhood because the Canyon 2 Fire just started. So, the next day, I walked into the Southern (inaudible) to start my new job, and was immediately directed into the REOC, which was activated for the fires, and ended up doing that for the entire week. I spent some time as the REOC director, the Deputy REOC director, then over the weekend I ended up going to the local assistance center that we had set up for the fire.
After that, I started to do some training, I went to a training for two days when they told me I needed to re-deploy and go up to Mendocino County, and I ended up spending about a month and a half there. Kind of an interesting story, I went up there to be the division supervisor, in Mendocino County. I went up to Mendocino County to be division supervisor and was there for about a month and a half, and the last day of my deployment, some friends of mine decided to go out and have some dinner, and I remember, on our way out, the door pretty much to go out there, I looked at my phone and there was an alert that there was a 50-acre brush-fire in Ventura County, which was not untypical.
By the time we got to dinner, I looked at my phone again, and that had become a 2,800-acre brush-fire, and at that point in time, I realized I probably wasn’t going to actually be demobilizing. Driving down, back down to Southern California from Mendocino County, I remember passing probably 100 or so type-3 engines that were all heading down to Ventura to fight this fire, which by that point, had burned all the way to the ocean. It was such a rapidly moving fire.
So, back down to Southern REOC, I spent two days down here, in the REOC, which was activated, and then got mobilized up to Ventura County, to work the recovery for the Thomas Fire. And I’ve just come back off of that. So, I’m finally going to be able to do my job as a Deputy Regional Administrator. God willing.
[TODD DEVOE] Wow, yeah. I mean, for those of you that are students and listening to the podcast, trying to figure out what you actually do as an emergency manager, these are one of those things where you go, “Yep, I’m not going to go home for a while.” So, have your bags packed and ready to go. So, Jenny, what’s your story, as far as– again, Jenny’s pretty new to the state. And it’s trial by fire, literally, right? So, what happened with you, and you getting in your feet here, and now you got to the fires?
[JENNY NOVAK] Well, yeah. So, my first six months or so here were fairly uneventful. I remember being, like– I came here to be in response, and there’s not really anything happening! And I felt like I wasn’t really getting that experience I had come for, and it was that second week in October, I was actually up at the CESA conference, which was in Yosemite, and there were several of us that were at that conference, that’s the Annual California Emergency Services Association Conference, and it was that Sunday night, going into Monday morning, I think it was October 9th, then the fires started breaking out in Northern California. And we heard about it in the middle of the night, and right away, people had to start getting recalled. And I ended up getting recalled the next day, because of the Canyon 2 fire that Randy mentioned, that started that same week here in Southern California.
So, that was really my first major response here at CAL OES, and I was in the REOC, I think I was the Situation Unit Leader for that one, for a couple of days here in the REOC. And then I helped up in the local assistance center, which was– we were so glad to be able to provide those services to the families that were affected by that Canyon 2 fire. And then just a few weeks later, I guess it was about a month later, my normal assignment when we’re not responding, when we’re like, (inaudible) to the different counties in Southern California, and there’s 11 counties here in the Southern Region. And I had been a backup to Ventura County.
And then, about three weeks before the Thomas Fire started, the primary retired. So, I ended up being on the night of Monday, December 4th, when the Thomas Fire broke out, the primary for Ventura County. So, I remember I had just eaten dinner, and I was sitting on my couch, and I just happened to open Twitter, and I saw a tweet about a wildfire that had broken out by Thomas Aquinas College, there near Santa Paula. And I thought to myself, “oh-oh, I might get called.” And sure enough, about twenty minutes later, my phone rang, and I had to get in the car and drive up to Ventura County that night.
So, that put me on the night shift rotation; I didn’t get there until, I think, about 9:30 or 10, but I have to tell you that drive-in that night was a very, very (inaudible) experience. The winds were crazy, so they were knocking my car around, and as I was going down that Conejo Grade, what I saw when I came into Ventura County was– it’s hard to really describe, because it’s a very urban area, Ventura. Even though it’s not quite as urban as LA, there’s all the outlets; there’s all the stores. You would normally see tons and tons of lights, but it was completely dark because there was a power outage. I think it was about 120,000 customers had lost power at the start of that fire, and all you could see was the orange glow of the fire as it was growing in the mountains up in Ventura.
So, it was so eerily dark as I drove in. And as I got off the freeway, there were so many stoplights that were not working, so it was actually a pretty dangerous driving situation, with the winds, debris was in the roads from the winds knocking everything up. And I got to the EOC, and it was just pretty chaotic that first night. Because everybody was– we knew that there was a red flag condition, but you never really expect it to take off the way it did. And I mean, this was the largest fire that Ventura County had dealt with in a long time. I mean, not immediately, but it quickly became that, and it just moved quickly. It started in Santa Paula and moved into the city, and there were people working with me there in the EOC, whose homes were threatened, and a couple of them did lose their houses.
So, starting that night put me on a graveyard trajectory for the rest of the week. So I worked five graveyard shifts in a row at the start of the fire, and we were activated for 17 days. So, I eventually got on to days, but it was an intense first night, deploying up there for the Thomas Fire.
[TODD DEVOE] What was the mood of most of the emergency managers that were working in the EOC during this event? Either one can answer.
[JENNY NOVAK] Well, that first night when I arrived there, it was definitely intense, and it was definitely kind of somber because we realized immediately that structures were going to be lost, and we knew that there were, potentially, lives at stake. Because you have to remember that this was really, immediately on the hills of the Napa and Sonoma County fires, where I think, about 40 people had died in those fires. And they came in the middle of the night, and people didn’t have the warning, and it was really horrific. So that was, I think, immediately on everyone’s mind. The importance of, we need to let people know right away that they are potentially in danger.
Because people didn’t realize, you know, living in Ventura, that a fire in Santa Paula, which is what, like, 20, 30 miles away, might affect them. So, we really felt the pressure to get the word out immediately. And Ventura County’s team did an excellent job at really getting on that alerting, and they issued a wireless emergency alert for people in the area, letting them know to get out now. And so many people went to shelters. At that first night, there were 28,000 people who were evacuated right away, and that number grew over the next couple of days. But immediately, it was chaos for people, and it was intense for the emergency managers as we were making these decisions, which we knew could have an impact on whether people lived or died in this fire.
[TODD DEVOE] Quick question on the shelters. I know that we’ve had shelter operations in the past, and you make it 100 people– you’re talking, where I work, it’s 3.5 million people on the county, right? So if you get a fire, you might get 100 people. And it’s normally during the daytime and it kind of (inaudible) at night. Because I mean, let’s face it, nobody really wants to sleep at a shelter, right? So, in this case, what was the average shelter population, with 20,000 people being evacuated that time? What was the shelter population?
[JENNY NOVAK] Well, it’s interesting that you bring that up, because I have volunteered for the Red Cross for a few years before this, so I’m pretty used to what the kind of typical– and like you said, people don’t really want to go to the shelter. And when I was volunteering with L.A., I think the most I’d ever seen in a shelter was maybe 50. That first night in Ventura, they had 200 people waiting in line to get into the Ventura County Fairgrounds, which was where they set up the shelter. And we definitely, through the course of the fire, I think there were as many as five shelters open at once. Ventura County’s Fairgrounds, Oxnard, College, and then the Nordhoff High School, up in Ojai.
And then we had to share with Santa Barbara because the two counties are so close there, and Santa Barbara UCSB had also opened the shelter there, and then there was also one in Santa Paula. The Fairgrounds was over like, 150. It was close to– I know it was over 200 a couple of nights, and then you had about 40 or 50 in these other shelters as well. So, gosh, I mean, probably close to 400 maybe, at some points of this fire. There were a lot of people in the shelters, and the sheltering operations were overwhelmed almost immediately. I know that was something that I was dealing with that first night, was the Red Cross just saying, we need all the help we can get.
So, we had actually–, and that’s an interesting thing as well, because I was working on that, it was probably 2:30 in the morning, and I was trying to see how we could get more shelter staff in there, because they were already overwhelmed, just because there were so many people trying to get in, and trying to get to the shelter. They knew that they really needed help, so we sent a request over to the LA region Red Cross, and they were getting ready to deploy a team when the fire broke out in the Sunland-Tujunga area, the Creek Fire, that one was.
So, that broke out that same night, and then they recalled their resources, and they couldn’t send a team. And that was really kind of– you know, that crazy week in a nutshell, in December, that first week in December, that was the start of it. And the sheltering piece was definitely a big concern for us in trying to make sure that they got the resources that they needed. That first night was really kind of chaotic, though.
[TODD DEVOE] For those of you that are listening, and just to really understand what this is like, there really wasn’t an area in California that didn’t have some sort of impact by the fires. And I know there’s some really crazy video out there of the guy driving up into the hills and the whole hill is on fire. So, that’s just kind of painting that picture of what it was like during that period. So, there’s a bunch of fires going on, we have resources all over the place, and it was really hard to all our people to wrap their arms around what was really going on.
I mean, Randy was just coming back from the fires up in the Santa Rosa area, and you know, coming back down from there, so there are still resources that were up there. I actually spoke to the police chief of the Napa Valley Community College, and he was talking about how they had to close their college down for three weeks, I think it was. And they had– they opened up a shelter, and during that process, they had 700 and some people go through sheltering at the Napa Valley Community College. They didn’t have any power. They had to go down to another city close by to be able to communicate out to their students, and faculty, and staff what was going on because they couldn’t even run power on their campus for Internet and what not. So, just to give the impact story.
So Randy, so you’re up in North Cal. Talk a little bit about the Santa Rosa Fire and what the impact up there was.
[RANDY STYNER] Yeah, it was really interesting. I had initially been– after the fires had started, I had never worked a fire before. I was really not– my career in emergency management at this point had really been more on the planning, and we did emergency response, obviously, for the nuclear part of it. But that’s not anything like a fire. A fire is a completely different type of response, as I found out. But I was ordered to deploy up to Montecito County, and I was driving up there, and that night, my phone rang. It was one of our deputy directors for the agency, who called me and said that they wanted me to come out to (inaudible) up in Sacramento and do a stop there.
So, I ended up going up there and meeting a bunch of people in the State Operations Center, and I was transferred over to Napa to help out one of the regional deputy directors, who were working in their response for the entire Sonoma area for the fire. And we were staying in Napa at the time because there were no hotels to stay at in Santa Rosa, because of all the evacuations that had occurred. So, we were driving back and forth from Napa to Santa Rosa for about a week; I was there.
And that was really something, because you could see, at that point, the extent of the fire, the burn area in Napa, and then you’d drive back down to Santa Rosa, and you’re still in the same burn area. It’s just– the enormity of it was really something. But when I got to Santa Rosa, I did have the opportunity to tour the burn area, and in Coffey Park, I had never seen anything like that. And it’s funny, because I’ve tried to get photographs of the places I’d been, and when I was there, I was so blown away by the extent of the devastation, it didn’t even occur to me to take a picture of it, of being there.
But I remember standing in the middle of that community and thinking that it looked just like the one I live in, except there were no houses, it was just chimneys. Just this forest, these chimneys, these fires. You could see 365 degrees. And I had never experienced anything like that before, and it was really overwhelming. Even to this day, I say that I just couldn’t get my head around it, you know? The level of the destruction was the likes of which I had never seen. And that smell of that smoke that was still in the air, that’s something that really stays with you.
So, I toured the Coffey Park area, the Mark West Springs area, which was also equally devastated. I mean, nothing survived, nothing. There were no houses left standing in any of those areas. From there, I was deployed back up to Mendocino County to become the division supervisor up there. And Mendocino is a very small county; I had never seen anything like this before. They did a great job, the people in Mendocino are just remarkable people. The area that got burned was up in the Redwood Valley area, this area called (inaudible) was the majority of it.
And the devastation there was equally horrific. It’s a very rural area up there, and then once again, everything was destroyed at the path of the fire. There were no structures, or very few structures left standing up there. Where the fire went through, there were none. That’s where that little boy was killed, going up that road where he was, seeing the family’s car still there burned out, and just kind of reconstructing in your mind what had happened that night and seeing the canopy of the trees, and how the fire– I remember seeing a video from a police car going up that same road the night of the fire, and you could easily see that standing there weeks later, and just how horrifying that had to be.
You know, that was kind of where I cut my teeth on this whole type of response. And you know, it obviously deeply affects you when you see it for the first time, and you might think that, as responders doing this over and over, that maybe you eventually get used to it, and I can tell you from coming back down to the Thomas Fire, you just don’t. Each one of those homes represents a family, and seeing it on one occasion, a single occasion, of a home being burned down, it’s deeply impacting. But when you see it multiplied by hundreds of time, it’s really something that impacts you deeply when you think about all those families and how just utterly devastating the fire is and what it does. It leaves nothing; it leaves nothing, it takes everything.
When we went down to– when I did finally deployed– it’s funny, because Jenny and I had been corresponding at the time I had been deployed up north, talking business and what had been going on. So I think the first time I saw her after coming back from that deployment was in the EOC in Ventura when I got deployed up there. And we took a drive to the burn area. It was still closed to the public; the homeowners hadn’t even had an opportunity to go up there yet. We went to go survey the damage up there, and once again, it was just incredible, the level of destruction that had occurred. Equally incredible was the lack of the loss of life. The people were so good at listening to the evacuation orders, and that the messaging that was delivered that night was so spot-on by the county of Ventura, that they got everybody out of there. And when you go up to that area, I’m sure Jenny agrees with me, how nobody was killed in that fire was just absolutely a miracle.
I remember talking to a Ventura County Sherriff, who was in Santa Paula when the fire started getting out of control, they realized that it was moving West and that they needed to start getting evacuations going. And he said he was driving down Foothill Road towards Ventura and looking outside of his car– going full Code 3, howling down the road, and he looked at the side of his car, and the fire was keeping up with him, as he was moving. So, that gives you any kind of visual of how just intense that fire was, how fast it did what it did. The main part of the destruction it did in Ventura, it did it in something like 12 hours. I mean, it was just an incredible fire, the way that it moved an operated. It was really something to see. Once again, it’s not something you ever get used to.
[TODD DEVOE] All right, let’s take a quick break here, hear a word from our sponsors. And then when we come back, I want to talk to you guys about the messaging. And I really don’t want to get a little controversial over here, obviously, with the whole Montecito thing, and let’s talk about that when we come back.
[TODD DEVOE] Hey, welcome back from that quick break and thank you all for listening to our sponsors. When you guys reach out to them, let them know that you heard them here on EM Weekly, because we can’t bring you this type of quality podcast without the support of our sponsors. So again, thank you so much for listening, and let’s get back.
So, before we went on the break, I wanted to ask the question regarding the idea of messaging, and then also, what happens when people get kind of– for lack of a better term, burnt out, no pun intended, from evacuating in Montecito?
[RANDY STYNER] I can say that you know, emergency messaging is a continuum. It doesn’t just occur at the beginning or in specific parts of a disaster. It’s something that goes through the entire process from response, into recovery, and throughout that entire process. And probably the biggest issue with emergency messaging, particularly, is that continuity of message and the consistency of message. That’s probably the greatest challenge that emergency management agencies have, is making sure that everybody is hearing the same thing.
What happened in Ventura, and I wasn’t there, maybe Jenny can speak to this more, the night of the fire, was the way that message was crafted, and how it was sent out, and the time that it took to get that message out was critical, to you know, getting people to move and get out of those dangerous areas. And the county did an excellent job in that. Maybe Jenny can speak a little more to how that message was crafted and how that happened.
[JENNY NOVAK] Yeah, so, in Ventura County, they have very specific protocols, and they have trained pretty extensively to make sure that their staff are able and feel comfortable to send these emergency messages, both through the wireless emergency alert system, which is like the Amber alerts that you get on your phone, and their own opt-in system, which they use a program called Everbridge to send those notifications out.
And the night of the fire, I mean, they hadn’t actually– even though Ventura County has had the capability of sending the wireless emergency alert, which goes to all cell phones in the area that’s targeted, since the inception of the program, so I think several years, 5 or 6 years, maybe, since that program’s been around, they have not ever pulled the trigger on it and used it yet.
But that night, they knew that this was the time, and they did not want to be overusing that, because people can just turn that off if they like it’s annoying, and it’s not going to be useful. So, they are very careful about when to use it, and they knew that that night, with the Thomas Fire, that was the time to use it. And it was sent to– it looks like 11:21 p.m. and the alert on the wireless emergency alert said, “Fast moving brush-fire between Santa Paula, Ventura, Ojai. Go to readyventuracounty.org.” Which is where we were keeping all of the information about the wildfires.
So, that gave people a notice that the fire was moving quickly and what kind of general area it was moving in. Because it wasn’t moving so fast, it wasn’t a very specific area because it was moving in all fronts. And where they could go for more information. So, their philosophy is always that they want to make sure that the messaging gets out at a time that– it’s urgent. So, they want to not be sending messages like 24 hours in advance, that we want you to evacuate tomorrow. They want to be sending messages out right when you need to go, and that’s reflected in their policies for the flooding, flash flooding that might occur after the fire now; that’s something that they’ve worked out, they’re only going to send these alerts when they’ve determined that people need to get out, and they need to do that now.
So, they sent that alert that night, and they always want to make it actionable too. You don’t want to make it vague, which I think could be a problem. And sometimes, different agencies using these alerts– Randy and I both came from Higher Ed, and that’s a pretty critical part of working at Higher Ed emergency management, it’s the notification. And you don’t want to just send something to everybody where you’re not specific about what they should do, because then you’re just going to create the sense of, “Oh my gosh, something’s happening, but what do I do?” So you know, having some direction of “evacuate now,” or “this website will give you more information,” although it can be hard when you have so many users on a website at once, I think we did have some issues with the website crashing.
And then they also had sent another alert. It was two nights later on Wednesday, when the fire was really encroaching on all sides of the Ojai Valley, and the entire Ojai Valley was evacuated that night, with the exception of a shelter, which was sort of debatable, because we still had one shelter active in there, but the whole Ojai Valley was evacuated. So, the messaging was very, very critical, and I think there’s definitely some differences in philosophy between what Ventura does and what Santa Barbara did in advance of Montecito, because they had actually notified people a full day in advance, and I think it may have created just a lack of urgency for some people in that evacuation. But hard to say for sure.
[RANDY STYNER] Yeah, you can always look back, and (inaudible) is always 2020, but you know, you mentioned earlier, Todd, about that evacuation fatigue as well, and in Santa Barbara, and rightly so, the Montecito area, including also (inaudible) and Santa Barbara had been undergone evacuation, many people had been away from their homes and evacuated from those areas due to the fires for, in some cases, weeks. So, yeah, there is that issue of evacuation or messaging burnout that occurs.
We experienced that in Orange County, for the Santiago Fires several years ago; there was a definite issue with debris flows, a threat of debris flows in that area. And the county learned that they really had to be very careful about when storms are coming, how to issue those evacuation notices, because people would get burned out, and eventually, it’s that (inaudible) thing. And that’s such a hard thing for emergency management agencies to get a handle on. And it’s threading a needle, you know, of when do you pull the trigger? What’s the right time to pull the trigger on an evacuation? And it’s really a difficult thing to do.
Also, you know, the differences between the voluntary evacuations and the mandatory evacuations, and how you craft that message and create the urgency of what it is that you want people to do in those areas, and making sure that the people get that message. Because even in the mandatory evacuation areas in the Montecito area and all of Santa Barbara, they only had like a 10% or 12% compliance rate with that. So even people who were in areas that ended up getting impacted, many people didn’t leave their homes just because of that evacuation fatigue.
And the question and the challenge, and what we really have to work on and figure out is how do you get around that? You know? What could have the county of Santa Barbara have done differently? And there’s no good answer for that. And sometimes it’s just; people have to understand what the risks are. And I think that part of what we’re discovering in the Ventura Area, and specifically with the geology that’s there, is they have mudflow issues, debris flow issues on a good year when there is no fire. But now that there’s been this fire, and all this (inaudible) of the hill sides, obviously, they’re looking at that a lot more carefully, and they’re really starting to tweak those messages and those trigger points of when those messages go, and where those messages go, and which areas end up getting evacuation orders and which don’t.
And that’s a really tough gig to pull off, but situations like this, and unfortunately, the messages that are going to be learned from the Montecito incident that are going to craft these messages later on, and unfortunately, we just have to continue to go through these disasters and these evacuations, and try to learn what works and what doesn’t. There’s no way to do that. You can second-guess people or question what emergency managers do. But the fact of the matter is, until you are in that position where you have to do that, and where people’s lives are in your hands due to your evacuation orders, and until you’ve actually pulled the trigger on that, you just don’t know what’s going to happen or how it’s going to work out.
So, moving forward, it’s not a matter of pointing fingers and saying, “You had to do this, or you should have done this, or you should have done that.” It’s saying, moving forward, how do we use what occurred to make the system better in the future, and what lessons can we learn to ensure that this won’t happen again? I mean, mudflows, fires, they’re going to continue. This isn’t the end of this cycle of disasters in California; they’re going to continue. So we have to take those lessons, and we have to apply them to disasters down the road.
[JENNY NOVAK] And I’d like to add that it’s so tricky, because you just never really know when these things are going to pan out, particularly, with a weather incident like this, there was sort of a sense, I can say, in the days beforehand, that perhaps we are overreacting to this little winter storm, this is just a small rainstorm that’s happening. And of course, the fire had just occurred, so people were kind of spun up, people were worried, and I think a lot of us thought that we might have been overreacting. And that was certainly the sense in Ventura that night.
I was once again there, for a graveyard shift, and we had absolutely nothing going on. We were all just in there like, watching the radar, and not seeing any of the precipitation. And we did see it head towards Santa Barbara, but I can tell you when I left my shift, at I think it was 6 a.m., we didn’t think there were any impacts. We had heard that Santa Barbara got a little bit of mud, but I had no idea. It wasn’t until I woke up several hours later that anything had happened. And I think it’s just really hard to know when something is going to turn into an actual incident, and when you want to worry about whether or not you’re calling a wolf by sending out these notifications. So, it’s just going to be something that we have to continue to refine in this field.
[RANDY STYNER] A very interesting point as well, about how the magnitude of the incident unfolds. When I came into the EOC, when Jenny was going off shift, I was coming on shift, and at that point, we were all, “I guess we dodged a bullet, nothing happened, everything is good.” And then, “Oh, there’s a little bit of mud on the 101. Oh, there’s a fire up in the hills.” And then how the magnitude of that event started to unspool that day, that morning, was really pretty amazing. Because you go from being like, “Wow, we got out of that, so business as usual.” And then you start hearing about some houses got knocked out from their foundations, and there’s mud on the freeway. And then the first body gets popped up, and it starts going from there.
When you really realize the magnitude of what had happened, it was really a kick in the head. Because when you go from thinking that everything is ok to not– I talked to one of my colleagues in CAL OES, once the magnitude of the disaster in Montecito came full-scale, they were pulling assets. So, my counterpart, who was assigned with me in Ventura was pulled up there to Santa Barbara. And he had been doing this with CAL OES, mostly fire, because that’s really the CAL OES (inaudible), you don’t deal with debris flows very often. But there’s a veteran emergency manager, and when he called me on the phone a couple days later, his voice was quivering with the emotion of what he’d seen, talking about these boulders the size of trail trains, doing 80 miles an hour down the hills and just going through everything that they encountered without pausing.
And when he describes that, just the level of what occurred. And that’s how the magnitude of it came to me, it was on these little chunks of just like, “Wow, that was bad. Oh wow, that was bad,” and it just kept getting worse, and worse, and worse, when you hear the story about what everybody went through up there. It was just really incredible.
[JENNY NOVAK] Yeah, and one of the things that Randy and I had actually talked about when we were realizing the magnitude of this, and all these were coming in that it was almost like a very localized catastrophic earthquake. One of those things that you plan for but you seldom in this field get to kind of deal with all of those impacts. So they mad major debris impact, they had a huge lifeline. The 101 was closed for almost two weeks, I think. And then they had the issue of mass fatalities. And that’s what it was, they had to bring in cadaver dogs, and refrigeration trucks from Northern California and there were 21 confirmed fatalities, and there still are two missing, which are presumed to also be fatalities.
But just all of those impacts that you pretty much only can– when you’re designing like an exercise, for example, you usually use a scenario like the catastrophic earthquake, because you’ll see a lot of those same impacts. But really, this incident had those impacts that you seldom see all of that together in one incident, and this really– it was of that scale. Even though it was small in comparison to what the catastrophic earthquake will do in Southern California, it really gave the opportunity to see how that was going to play out. It’s been a crazy year already, and it’s only one month in.
[RANDY STYNER] Yeah, and I should say, on the Montecito, it is still a disaster, they’re still fully engaged in the recovery efforts. They’re really almost still in response more there. There are private properties that are still covered in mood and debris. But you know, when you talk about the response, going into there the next day. I mean, hearing the stories that have come out about rescuers who had to use poles as they walked around these properties because the mud had covered swimming pools, and they had to probe for where those were because if they stepped on top of them, they were going to go right through. And (inaudible) the danger of those events.
I certainly didn’t ever really consider the magnitude of a debris flow event, what it would be. You see the video of some mud coming down the street, looking like a flood. To understand really the magnitude of what those events can do and the destructive power and something like that is really eye-opening as an emergency management professional.
[JENNY NOVAK] And the impacts that it had in the utilities, that was another thing that struck me right away, was that it took out the water pipe that was feeding that whole area. So immediately, you have that impact, where are people going to get drinking water? And that was something that they had to immediately put in place, was a water distribution plan. And I know that gas and electric was disturbed for a couple of weeks. I think they only just recently– this past week, restored gas service in the area. So, it’s been one of those disaster zones, and it still is. We still have several staff out there, and their EOC has been activated almost nonstop in Santa Barbara for almost two months now, I think.
[RANDY STYNER] Yeah, yeah. And it’s– every one of their reservoirs was impacted by the fire, to begin with. So they were still in the process of dealing with that. Now the major issue is the debris basins– every debris basin that’s in that region is full of debris, and they’ve been making this Herculean effort to get equipment and crews up there to clear those out. And that, in turn, impacts the recovery efforts in Ventura. Because we’re in the process now, of doing the private property debris removal. To get the burned debris off of properties, which is hazardous material.
So, there’s a criticality to that as well. The Hawaiian Village apartment complex that burnt down in Ventura is a massive debris filled. And the state has issued permission to enter them to the debris removal program as well, just because it’s on top of a hill, there’s homes that haven’t burned all around it, so there’s all the possibility of all this debris coming from that side, which is all hazardous burned debris. But getting the crews, our initial effort to get crews to enact this massive debris removal operation that we had planned and set up prior to the Montecito incident really kind of got off the rails a little bit, because now, all those crews that we were counting on being in the region to do that work were being mobilized up to the Montecito area to deal with this debris basin issue.
So, debris basins were critical. The fact that they had been cleared out prior to the storm happening and that the county in Santa Barbara had been so on top of that saved thousands of lives. Had those debris basins not been cleared out, thousands of people would have been killed. I have absolutely no doubt about that.
[JENNY NOVAK] One other effect of this disaster that sort of highlights and underscores the interconnectedness of the region between Santa Barbara and Ventura is, with the freeway being closed, so many of the people that work in Santa Barbara and live in Ventura, because the cost of living is cheaper in Ventura, so you immediately lost a lot of your work force. So if you think about police, fire fighters, ambulance staff, they were coming off their 12-hour shifts, and their backups, their relief are not there, because they couldn’t get there. It was five hours to drive around if you were going to try to get up there through another round, because 101 is really the only round.
So, what was really interesting to see, cause that’s something you don’t think as much, I mean, when you have so many other issues; the water, the mass fatalities, the debris. Staffing is a huge issue that a lot of people don’t plan or exercise for enough, I think. And in this scenario, we really saw that play out, and one of the things that was really cool to see come together was, voluntary agencies in Ventura kind of stepping up to the plate to try to get resources together. And there is actually a group that had reached out to private pilots in Ventura to see if they could help out, and it ended up being that they could fly critical staff up into Santa Barbara, and they’re just private pilots that volunteered to do that.
And I think that it’s really, for me, so fascinating and heartwarming to see when a community comes together like that, to be so resourceful and think of creative solutions to help one another. And that whole region, they’re just very connected to one another economically, geographically, and geologically. So, it’s been a wild ride.
[TODD DEVOE] Yeah, Santa Barbara is one of those places where you can’t there from here, right? You know, if one or two the– you can go through the 101 for a little bit, but yeah, you really can’t get there from here. And so, having the 101 cut off, it just really cut that entire city off from all support. Not just from emergency managers and emergency workers, but again, there was no supply trucks coming in there. I know that some of the grocery stores and stuff started running out of food and water for the people that lived in Santa Barbara. So again, this is one of those things; their whole lifeline was cut off from that.
[RANDY STYNER] Yeah, and if you think about it, they also had this Herculean task of removing all that mud from not only the 101 but from all the roads in that area. And the amount of equipment that they had to get in there to do that was an incredible operation. And a lot of that equipment was down in the Southern California area, which would have normally used the 101 as a route to get up there. So, moving that equipment into that area that was cut off was really an incredible challenge, and required some real innovation.
And Jenny made a really good point just a second ago about exercising, and how important exercising those kinds of events are. I think we get, as we exercise for disasters, we get a little generic on how we exercise and the scenarios that we use, and that we exercise about. And what a great scenario for an exercise is that a major route is cut off. How do you bring resources into your area? Because that was the challenge that they had to do. Not only with the airplanes that they were using, but the impromptu ferry services were coming up. Amtrak adding something like two or three extra trains to go between Ventura and Santa Barbara just to bring those critical staff into and out of the area, because the 101 was not accessible at all. That created a major challenge.
So you know, moving forward, I would say to any jurisdiction that transportation piece of an exercise is a really important thing to think about when you’re planning those exercises and adding that into it.
[TODD DEVOE] I had an interview with one of our sponsors, The Blue Cell, and we talked about exercises and training. And I mentioned the fact that, a lot of times, when we develop exercises as emergency managers, going in for our jurisdictions, we tend not to give too many challenges. I think because we’re afraid to “fail” in the exercise. And I think we do a disservice to ourselves, at times, that we don’t challenge the EOC staff about these types of things, and I think you’re right, Randy, that we need to really pick up our pace on what types of exercises that we do across the board.
The other thing too, is that we always exercise up to where the event occurs, and then when we respond, and then all of a sudden, we go, “Ok, exercise is over, and the world is better.” We really don’t exercise recovery a lot, and I think we should do more work on exercising recovery than just response. I think we do response really well, you know, for the most part. I think it’s the recovery portion of it that we really need to practice a little bit more. Do you guys disagree or agree with that?
[RANDY STYNER] I agree with you 100%. The response part is really a minor part of the entire event. You know, obviously, it’s a very important part, and when you’re talking about exercises, that’s where the action is, that makes an exercise kind of interesting. But the bigger piece is the recovery piece. And understanding everything that occurs. I kind of joke about it but thinking that I was never really that interested in recovery. I was always interested in response and operations. So, I would take those trainings whenever recovery would be part of those trainings, I would kind of space out, “It’s nothing I’m ever going to do.”
But turns out, in both these fires that I’ve been on, that I was thrusted into that recovery role, and had to really learn what the steps were. And it is, it’s a process that happens there, it’s something that there’s so many moving parts that come into it, based on what emergency declarations you get, and at what level the feds come in and declare a major emergency, or how is that working? How long does that take? And what do you do to move up to that process, and how do you get ahead of that?
We had that issue in Ventura County, where we had a state proclamation for the emergency. We were waiting for the federal declaration to come, which is never super timely, there’s so many things that go into that. So how do we get ahead of that? And the issue with Ventura, definitely more so than Northern California Fires– I gotta give credit to the county of Ventura. They were so on top of how to get ahead of this disaster. They did such a great job in their immediate planning for this. They really got ahead of it.
You know, part of the recovery effort is the debris removal program that I’ve kind of talked about earlier. It’s a huge program. First of all, it’s a Herculean effort. You need massive resources to do that. There’s a huge planning piece that goes to that. But it’s also extremely important, because all that debris is hazardous material, and it has to be dealt with. You know, on top of the actual burn debris, we have the issue of household hazardous waste. So, usually, a part of this process is to bring in DTSC or the EPA to come in and do– we call it a phase 1 cleanup, where they go through, and they remove all that household hazardous material. In Ventura, that process started nine days after the fire started.
The fire was still burning when DTSC was going into the city and the county of Ventura to start that phase 1 process. Nine days, that’s as fast as it’s ever happened in the state of California. So that process was moving really fast, while the wheels of the declaration process was moving at its normal speed, which is glacial. So, the state was really forced to confront, how do we get ahead of this? Once this phase 1 process is going, we have to follow it up with this phase 2 process. And the state made a decision that they were going to fund the phase 2 process regardless of the federal declaration, whether or not that FEMA money was going to come in to help support that process.
So, they had to make that decision to keep ahead of the momentum that was already rolling on this disaster. And I think, as we– unfortunately, this isn’t going to be the last time we do this, but as we continue to do this, that momentum is going to be picking up a lot faster as we do this, I think. Unfortunately, fortunately,/unfortunately, we’re going to become better at this as we go. So, that’s a big consideration.
[JENNY NOVAK] Yeah, and another thing that Ventura did really well to get in front of their recovery for this was they immediately established a recovery task force. A unified group with people from all over the county, as well as the city, and they had five– I guess that’s five subgroups or task forces. One for housing, one for debris, one for health, one for finance, and one for watershed. So those are the main areas where they thought we’re going to have to consider, you know, how we’re moving forward in each of these arenas and bring all the right players together.
And they set up regular meetings, and they had this group convening, and it still is convening, and it probably will be for months to come, because these are all the major things to think about. And I think a lot of jurisdictions– we have our EOC structures, we know, you know, what we’re going to do in response. But do you know who you’re going to pull into your recovery team? I think that’s something that a lot of places should look at and have a plan for so that when a disaster of this scope does occur, you can really launch into that and not lose any time.
[RANDY STYNER] And that’s something you can totally get ahead of in your planning process, where you can pre-identify those basic task forces that you know you’re going to need. Like Jenny said, really, in the planning process that I’ve been associated with, it’s always the operational part of it. But the recovery piece, like you said, Todd, we don’t consider that enough when we’re doing our planning process. We plan for the disaster, but what comes next? And this task force issue is something that you can easily plan for. You can easily assign leadership, way in advance of a disaster.
I mean, even in Ventura, it was something they had to come up with on the fly. And they kept me going, the emergency manager of Ventura is one of the best in the business, and he was on top of this immediately. But even then, it’s something that could have been worked out way beforehand. And all jurisdictions and emergency managers all across the spectrum need to take the lesson from this and identify those task forces, and identify the people that are goign to lead those task forces, because getting them stood up during the operational phase of the disaster and having that recovery framework in place immediately is so crucial, to how that recovery is going to pan out, direct whether it’s goign to be smoother or bumpy.
And in the case of Ventura, and I’m getting on it right away, it 100% set the stage for the entire recovery, and that is why things are moving as fast as they are in Ventura and why that community is going to recover in a really good way.
[TODD DEVOE] All right, we’re coming close here to the end of our time together. I want to give you guys the rest of your day back. We can talk about this forever, for sure. It’s really interesting, and you guys are giving some really great perspective to the recovery aspects of the Thomas Fire, and to the Santa Rosa fires, and to their response as well. So, is there anything else you want to add– two questions. One is, if somebody wanted to talk to you guys about this, how could they get in touch with you?
[JENNY NOVAK] Well, this is Jenny. You can just send me an email; I’m email@example.com. So, that’s firstname.lastname@example.org, and I’m happy to continue to have this dialogue with anyone that’s interested in learning about the Thomas Fire and the ongoing recovery.
[RANDY STYNER] Yeah, me as well. I’m email@example.com. And as well, I’m happy to discuss it with anybody who would like to.
[TODD DEVOE] And of course, if you guys don’t have your pencil ready for taking down those email addresses, I’ll have those on our links in the show notes, and both Jenny and Randy, they are awesome in the emergency management field. If you guys have other questions as well, I’m sure they would be happy to talk to you all about that. Ok, now here comes the toughest question, and I don’t know who wants to take it, or if you guys both have one. Ok. What book, or books, or publications do you recommend to somebody in the emergency management field, in response and/or leadership and/or recovery?
[RANDY STYNER] I can take the first step at that. One of my favorite books that I’ve read recently it’s called Extreme Ownership, by Jocko Willink. It’s an outstanding book that talks about– he’s a former Navy Seal, and it talks about the management process of how the SEALs, and really how the military views leadership, and the basis of it is that when a team succeeds, it’s because the team did its job. But when a team fails, it’s a failure of leadership. And the way that book is written and how it expresses that and illustrates that it’s just an outstanding method of leadership in general. So I recommend that book.
[JENNY NOVAK] So, I’ve actually spent the last year doing a lot of reading. That is something that I’m happy to answer. And one of the books that I just read is called “Displaced,” and it talks about the Hurricane Katrina diaspora, and how people were moved all across the country following that hurricane. So that’s a really good one, that one is edited by Laurie Peek, who’s the director of the Natural Hazards Center right now.
Just last fall, I read “The Fire Outside My Window,” which was written by a journalist and survivor of the Cedar Fire. Which, I had no idea I would be involved in the new largest fire in California history when I read that book, but it gave a really great perspective about how all the agencies worked together during that wildfire response, because the Cedar Fire was previously the largest, in 2003, in San Diego.
Those two books, I think, are really great. If you’re looking for a little bit more academic, I also really liked “A Paradise Built in Hell,” by Rebecca Solnit. And it sort of talks about how communities come together in disasters, more so than being divided. So, any of those are really great recommendations I have; I enjoyed all those books.
[TODD DEVOE] So, before I let you go, is there anything else that you’d like to say to the emergency managers and students of emergency management that are listening to this podcast?
[RANDY STYNER] Just continue to learn. Just look at these disaster as they occur, there’s always something to be learned from any of these incidents, and there’s always something that can be gleaned from them. So look at them, find out what went well, what went wrong, and apply them to your planning process.
[JENNY NOVAK] And I would just say that this is a really exciting time to be in this field, and I hope that you are considering a career in emergency management. It is a growing field, and I think you’re already on the right track listening to this podcast. I recommend trying to read about emergency management. The IAEM bulletin is a great source, emergency management magazine. Just try to kind of keep your pulse on what’s happening in the emergency management world, and look for local resources, look toward your professional organizations, the California Emergency Services Association or other state associations and the International Association of Emergency Managers. All great resources to keep you dialed into the latest developments.
[TODD DEVOE] Jenny and Randy, thank you so much for spending your day with me today, and it was really great talking to you all. I can’t wait to do this again sometime, so thank you very much.
[RANDY STYNER] Thanks, Todd.
[JENNY NOVAK] Thank you.