Fire tested community response and resolve

By Julie Pierce on September 23, 2013

Pierce, Julie_color_websiteIt’s been over two weeks since the major fire on Mt. Diablo was contained and controlled and we were all able to breathe a big sigh of relief. On behalf of all of the residents of Clayton and our surrounding rural areas impacted by the fire, I express our heartfelt gratitude to all of the dedicated firefighters and emergency responders who brought the fire safely to conclusion. It was a scary few days for all of us.

Now that the flames are gone, it’s instructive to review the roles we each assume in response to a local emergency. My phone began to ring early Sunday afternoon as many saw the smoke billowing over the horizon of our beloved mountain; we wondered just how big and exactly where the fire was. Was it a small grassfire or was it the fire we all dread, like the one in 1977? Alarmed by the flames cresting the ridge, it was clear to all that it was a big fire. “What’s happening? Are we in danger? Should we get ready to evacuate?”

Clayton, like all local governments in California, operates under the Standardized Emergency Management System (SEMS), the system required by California Government Code Section 8607(a) for managing emergencies involving multiple jurisdictions and agencies. SEMS has been established to provide effective management of multi-agency and multi-jurisdictional emergencies in California.

By standardizing key elements of the emergency management system, following SEMS establishes a hierarchy of command or management, facilitates the flow of information within and between levels of the system, and facilitates coordination among all responding agencies.

Mutual aid

Since the fire was in the unincorporated area outside the Clayton city limits, addressing the fire was CalFire’s responsibility. While our regional ConFire and other regional departments helped coordinate the initial response, there can only be one agency in charge and it was CalFire for this wildland response. All personnel took direction from CalFire. Our Clayton Police Department and the Highway Patrol also responded to help as requested and directed by CalFire. CalFire requested and received aid from many of its firefighting stations and other agencies throughout the state.

The role of a local elected official in such an emergency is limited. Our job is to stay out of the way of the operation while staying informed, and helping to relay information to our community. We are necessarily not in the direct line of command. That job is left to the professionals.

After receiving a call from City Manager Gary Napper, I joined him at city hall to gain accurate, up-to-the-minute news that I could then relay to area residents. Gary manned phones on Sunday, taking calls from the ConFire Public Information Officer and Clayton Police Chief Chris Thorsen to assess what our city, as the affected neighboring jurisdiction, could do to assist in the emergency response effort. As we got new information, I relayed it to our community via social media and emails and answered calls from residents and the media.

Library as hub

Responding to the initial evacuation of the Curry Canyon area off Morgan Territory Road, we opened the Clayton Library meeting room for an Evacuation Center to be staffed by the Red Cross. We took calls from residents and organizations who volunteered lodging for evacuated horses and small animals. We used our contacts with local media to correct initially inaccurate information that was broadcast in the emergency alerts. Our police department and later the Highway Patrol and city maintenance personnel manned the road closure barricades at Marsh Creek Road/Regency Drive.

The initial incident command center was at our local Fire Station 11 before being consolidated to Camp Parks in Dublin to fight the fire, which was kept mostly on the southern and eastern flanks of the mountain. Area residents showed their gratitude to the firefighters by inundating them with spontaneously donated food and water. Our Clayton CERT teams assisted at the command center and were deployed at various locations to help.

There were a few hiccups, quickly corrected, which will help us train for the future. As the fire progressed it was sometimes frustrating to not be able to get immediate information about the status. CalFire issued somewhat regular reports and held briefings for the media. Since our city was not the primary local agency, we were not always the first to get information. When information flowed, I posted it to Facebook, which proved to be an effective outreach. Local area and former residents around the country were grateful for the latest information.

Many thanks to all the wonderful firefighters, emergency first responders, volunteers and city employees who pitched in to put out the fire and safely manage the emergency.

As always, you can reach me at JPierce@ci.clayton.ca.us. Tell me what you think.

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