Shirl Mendonca: Lake Wildwood town hall takes look back at Lobo fire
November 6, 2017
The night and morning of the Lobo Fire had hurricane force winds with red flag warnings. Power was out, it was dark, and there were four other fires, along with medical and accident emergencies. It was an unusual situation.
Given the number of residents in Lake Wildwood, as well as fire proximity and wind, a mandatory evacuation was ordered. But, in the end, it was a shift in wind direction that kept things from being much, much worse.
The fire was a key focus of a Oct. 30 Lake Wildwood town hall meeting and the Oak Room was overflowing with residents eager to have their questions and concerns addressed by Gene Vander Plaats (retired Penn Valley fire chief) and Mike Doscher, both of the Lake Wildwood Safety Committee. Their initial presentation addressed most of the questions residents had before they opened up to questions. Cal Fire Unit Chief George Morris handles five counties and was on hand also. On the night of the Lobo Fire, he was managing three fires in our county plus two in surrounding areas.
A cell tower in Rough and Ready also caught fire that night which led to other towers getting jammed up. Cell phones depend on a working tower and one that has not been intercepted for emergency use which may account for missed Code Red alerts. I was fortunate to get a Code Red alert on my land line but did not receive a text on my cell phone.
Lesson learned: You can't count on an operational cell tower in a fire but older analog technology will still function when the power is out.
No two incidents are the same and we learned that there is a definite information flow and fluidity required. When a 911 call is received for a vegetation fire, our local fire department goes out along with any Cal Fire staff in Smartsville. Whoever is closest and available can handle the fire 99 percent of the time. The Lobo Fire started on Sunday evening and when it looked like it was contained, resources were moved to the McCourtney Fire. Then strong wind gusts came up blowing embers outside the Lobo containment line creating spot fires that grew rapidly beyond the capability of crews still on scene and the focus changed to evacuations. With multiple fires in the area, the decision was made to merge them into a complex of fires so one incident management team could manage these fires.
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This team maps the fire(s), develops an attack strategy, and gets information out through a Public Information Officer who shares updates with local radio, TheUnion.com, YubaNet.com and the Cal Fire Recorded Incident Info Line after their morning and evening briefings. There were over 400,000 website hits at the Office of Emergency Services (OES) to access the evacuation/fire map. I followed YubaNet for both the OES fire maps and citizen input and also listened to the scanner on The Union's website. Until an Incident Management Team is in place, it can be challenging to get information.
Cal Fire Battalion Chief Matt Wallen is assigned to our county and shared his insights at the town hall. He explained the mutual aid system for our Region IV, which allows them to "move up" units from all five counties under Unit Chief Morris when there are multiple incidents and non-fire calls needing attention. It was sobering when he said that he sees more and more extreme incidents in wildlands across the globe and that we can't allow ourselves to get complacent.
While the fire and law enforcement personnel can be very good at their jobs, we also have to do our part and be prepared: defensible space, Code Red, a personal emergency plan, and a solid evacuation plan.
On Wednesday, Penn Valley Fire Chief Don Wagner spent some time with me going over the map of the fire and sharing photos of houses saved versus houses lost in the Lobo and McCourtney fires. The bottom line: less fuel means less fire. Defensible space saved homes!
While a lot of folks at the town hall meeting were focused on getting sirens around Lake Wildwood to alert residents of emergencies, it is very expensive and won't change fire behavior. The only thing that will change fire behavior is less fuel.
Maybe it is time to also take a very aggressive approach to vegetation management in Lake Wildwood.
Got a tip about someone or something in Lake Wildwood or Penn Valley? Contact Shirl Mendonca at firstname.lastname@example.org.