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More Dogs on Main Street

by Tom Clyde, Record columnist

The images of the fires in Southern California are frightening whole neighborhoods wiped out, somewhere between 500,000 and a million people evacuated, and a fire storm that seemed to move at random with new flare-ups miles from the closest fire. I guess it’s hitting me harder than normal because of the fire last week in my neighborhood that destroyed a cabin. Under only slightly different conditions, that could have taken out the whole canyon. The unfortunate reality is that it is almost certain to happen someday in a neighborhood near you.

We’ve got lots of exposure around here. Summit Park is probably among the most dangerous urban/forest mixes out there, with the combination of steep terrain and dense growth. But the same general conditions exist from there all the way through to Deer Crest on the other end of the Park City metroplex. We can’t eliminate the risk without eliminating our houses. But the risks can be managed, and we can be prepared to deal with it.

As astounding as the video images from San Diego are, the most amazing thing is that there has been almost no loss of life. Property is devastated, finances are disrupted, and lives are changed, for sure. But there have been only a few injuries, and just a handful of people have died. There is something to be learned from a natural disaster on that scale that was managed so well.

The contrasts with Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans are inescapable. Both put similar numbers of people out on the streets. Both used a sports arena as an emergency shelter. The disasters were weather related, with forecasts that allowed a few days’ advance notice. Nobody knew exactly where the hurricane would come on shore, or where the fires would break out, but in both situations it was clear that the disaster was on the way and was going to hit someplace nearby.

The response to Katrina was (and remains) a monumental failure. San Diego and the surrounding area seem to have been a model of effective planning and response. When the big Santa Ana wind event was forecast, fire trucks were pre-positioned in the likely fire areas so they were on site and didn’t have to drive through the fire to get to it. In San Diego, the basic utilities were still functioning at Qualcomm Stadium. That was a huge problem in New Orleans when the electricity went out, making it impossible to provide either water or sewer service to the people in the emergency shelter (which itself was damaged by the hurricane).

The conditions aren’t completely alike, of course. Once the levees broke and New Orleans was under water, the streets were gone and the power was out, taking the culinary water and sewer with it. Simple movements became complicated. In San Diego, people are still driving around and downtown, away from the fire lines, things appear to be functioning more or less normally. Hospitals are open, stores are stocked, utilities work, etc.

San Diego has a "reverse 911" phone system, where an automated system can be triggered from the emergency services people to phone every home in a designated area and give specific instructions. That apparently made the evacuation work smoothly, without having to assume that people were listening to the radio at three o’clock in the morning. The state and local governments were prepared, had plans in place, and knew how to respond. Unfortunately, they have been through this drill before, and will surely do it again some day.

Anyway, when I look at our wildfire exposures here, and how we continue to build and build in the face of it, I have to wonder if we are planning for the inevitable. It’s not just on the government level. Does your family have a plan on how to connect with each other if the neighborhood goes up in smoke while you are all scattered at school, work, and elsewhere? Has the neighborhood taken stock of its fire risks, and done what it can to reduce them? Do you have a plan for getting people out, including knowing if there are neighbors who will need some help in the process?

I don’t know if the county has a reverse 911 system, or what it would cost to install and operate it. It’s always hard to put a lot of money into something you may not use more than once or twice in a decade. But in San Diego, it clearly made the difference between hundreds of thousands of people safely evacuating their homes and perhaps hundreds of people getting trapped in the fires.

They finally got a break in the weather. The Santa Ana winds have died down, and firefighters are getting a chance to get parts of it under control. People have been sent home to see what’s left. Fire season isn’t over for the year, and the decade-long drought isn’t over. But the immediate risk is down.

FEMA is now on site. The "duct tape and plastic" guy is in charge. Unfortunately, in the last month or so, they decided to let all the ice they bought for Katrina melt. No kidding. They had spent something like $12 million keeping tons of ice in warehouses all around the country. This was the ice they bought for New Oleans, then couldn’t figure out how to get it there. Some of it traveled thousands of miles in the process. After storing it for years, they determined it wasn’t safe for use any more, and let it melt. The Californians will have to rely on their neighbors’ ice makers instead. Maybe the thousands of house trailers warehoused in Arkansas will get moved to San Diego.

The federal government has learned a couple of things from the Katrina debacle. First, they learned that the President should do more than fly over at 30,000 feet. On Thursday, George Bush visited San Diego.

Haven’t they suffered enough?

Tom Clyde served as Park City attorney in the 1980s and is the author of "More Dogs On Main Street." He has been a columnist at The Park Record for nearly 20 years.


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