Santa Rosa Recovering After Devastating Fires

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Water and wastewater utilities have emergency plans for floods, leaks, spills, earthquakes, personnel rescue and terror threats. 

But what about wild fires that damage or destroy not only your infrastructure but whole swaths of the community itself? 

That was the situation in Santa Rosa following the devastating Tubbs fire last October.  

Santa Rosa’s director of water, Ben Horenstein, gave a presentation on the damage to their infrastructure and the recovery effort during the winter NACWA conference in Napa. 

Santa Rosa serves over 175,000 water customers and 213,000 wastewater customers through more than 1,200 miles of water and sewer line. Essentially, 100 percent of its treated wastewater is recycled and reused to recharge the geysers steamfields, which produces clean and renewable energy for the region, as well as for agricultural and urban irrigation.

The fire consumed over 36,000 acres in and around Santa Rosa and killed 22 people in Sonoma County, 9 in Santa Rosa. In the city, it destroyed 3,000 structures and about 5 percent of the total housing stock.

“It was a tragic, devastating event,” says Horenstein. “It hit Santa Rosa in a very personal way, including impacts to city staff.”

Infrastructure damage.

Fire damage to utility infrastructure included destruction of two sewer lift stations and City staff had to scramble with interim pumps and controls to be able to manage flows, particularly with the rainy season so soon upon us after the fire. There was also extensive damage to a range of potable water system components including hydrants, meters, valves, and service lines.  City staff received the first of our post-fire sunrise when, soon after the first winter storm, there were some sinkholes appearing in areas of where the fire had gone through. Upon investigating this issue, it was found that as the fire came through creek beds, in many cases the storm drain discharge or outfall pipes caught on fire and then burned upstream hundreds of feet underground which then led to the sinkholes.

Water Quality

“During the fire we lost system pressure to areas in the city in the Fountaingrove neighborhood,” he says. “We issued a precautionary Do Not Drink advisory for this area, but lifted the notice a week later after no contamination was discovered.“ A month or so after the fire, when residents could return to the area, we received a taste and odor complaint from a resident in the same Fountaingrove neighborhood. Our team promptly took water quality samples, discovering elevated levels of benzene in two isolated areas of Fountaingrove. After an extensive investigation, it appears that the cause of the contamination was the off gassing of benzene and other compounds from burned plastic pipes and appurtenances, coupled with a drop in system water pressure during the fire which allowed the contaminants to migrate into the distribution system.” We are still developing the project to replace parts of the distribution system to allow the rebuild to move forward in the area.

Emergency Response to the Fire

In his presentation, Horenstein discussed that, at its core, an emergency response has two key issues; 1) communications – necessary to coordinate with a range of key internal and external stakeholders and to obtain situation awareness of the dynamic nature of the emergency   and 2) resources – necessary to triage and stabilize the situation.

Just as with an emergency caused by an earthquake, he pointed out, water is a key piece of the response and more than likely, a utility will have insufficient resources in place to effectively deal with the event. Mutual aid is an essential piece of planning for these types for emergencies and the water sector in California is fortunate the have CalWARN in place, he said. Based on his experience, one of the key lessons-learned is to make the call for Mutual Aid early and often as so many agencies and colleagues from throughout the State were essentially “sitting by” waiting on the mutual aid call.

Recovery effort

Santa Rosa has been hard at the recovery effort since October. The work has included debris cleanup, rebuilding damaged infrastructure, fiscal planning with an anticipated 5-7 percent loss in water revenue, protecting the local watershed, and maintaining customer confidence.

He also shared some of the lessons learned by Santa Rosa that could help other utilities in case of wild fires and other major emergencies:

  • Who’s in charge?  With large regional emergencies/disasters the local agency quickly loses control, first to the County, then the State and then the Feds, and they all have a different structure and means of communications.
  • Plan your response process so it can adapt to changing conditions. There is no way for any plan to accurately envision the circumstances of an actual emergency and thus, adaptive management of a response plan is a key piece of a successful response
  • Know the difference between tactics and strategy and where the responsibilities reside for both. It is not possible for the same group to be dealing with tactics (in the moment implementation of the plan) and strategy (what may things look like tomorrow, next week, etc. and how do we prepare)
  • Know and understand FEMA and the FEMA processes. This becomes very critical when contracts need to be put in place that are required to conform to FEMA requirements if reimbursement is expected under FEMA’s programs.
  • Understand regional priorities and resources – The priorities of the local jurisdiction (be it a special district or a city) are not necessarily the regional priorities of the Central Command structure (be it the County, State or Feds).
  • Differentiate between the roles of staff vs. that of elected officials in advance of the emergency.
  • Practice mutual aid – Call early and often, even for roles you may not initially believe you need it such as backups for internal Incident Commanders. 

Ike on planning.

In the presentation, Horenstein included this quote from General Dwight Eisenhower:

“On preparing for battle, I’ve always found that plans are useless but planning is indispensable.”

“Having gone through this fire,” Horenstein says, “it seems that in many ways battlefield experiences are informative – such as the above quote. What Eisenhower is saying is that there is simply no way to anticipate the unique circumstances of the battle (or emergency) in developing a plan.

“Yet, in order to practice/drill response scenarios you need a defined plan, hopefully recognizing it is only the starting point in the event of an emergency. Further, built into your emergency structure, you should consider the process and roles to adaptively manage your plans to the specific (and changing) conditions that you encounter.”

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