Fresno’s preparing for major disasters, whether or not they arrive

“Nothing ever happens in Fresno. Then it does happen. We need to be prepared and we need to know what we’re doing. Because it will cost lives if we don’t.”

The Fresno City Council on May 16 was slated to consider adopting the Fresno County Multi-Jurisdictional Hazard Mitigation Plan Update for 2018.

The item was pulled from the agenda. The plan will be reviewed at a later date.


The item was on the Council’s consent calendar. When it comes back to the Council, the plan deserves a separate and formal hearing.

The Hazard Mitigation Plan with attachments runs to nearly 1,000 pages. It’s theme is simple: Modern life is complex; the intersection of modern life and nature is full of potential peril; American civilization in the 21st century has in place an immense number of peril-fighting assets, some government operated, some in the private sector; these assets, faced with fighting a sudden and deadly natural peril, work best when they work together; the people demand nothing less.

Doubters of this analysis merely need to recall the horrific wildfires that ravaged Northern California last year.

The pipeline delivering the Hazard Mitigation Plan to the Council comes through the Fresno Fire Department.

Chief Kerri Donis wrote in her summary to the Council: “The purpose of the hazard mitigation plan is to reduce or eliminate long-term risk to people and property from hazards. Fresno County and other participating jurisdictions developed this multi-hazard mitigation plan to make the County and its residents less vulnerable to future hazard events.”

Much of the plan deals with natural hazards. However, it also deals with manmade disasters such as hazardous materials incidents. It’s my understanding based on an admittedly quick review that terrorist incidents are not part of the study.

I don’t think I’m going out on a limb by saying a society that can respond effectively, if not perfectly, to a catastrophic incident such as an earthquake is prepared to respond as effectively to a terrorist incident.

I can see why City Hall originally put the Hazard Mitigation Plan on the consent calendar. How do city officials in a public hearing bring focus to an action plan of nearly 1,000 pages dealing with just about everything that could go wrong over an area of 6,000 square miles and a population of 1 million people?

So, permit me to present just a few highlights from the plan. I’ll include some comments from an interview I had last fall with Captain Daniel Vasquez of the Fresno Fire Department. He is the City of Fresno’s Emergency Preparedness Officer (thank you for your patience, Capt. Vasquez).

Finally, I’ll share a brief story about experiencing second-hand an existential natural threat to part of my family. I’m talking about the Carr Fire in the Redding/Shasta Lake area of Northern California. That community’s response to a threat of unimaginable scale was remarkable.

A changing County

The Hazard Mitigation Plan begins by setting the scene.

First, there is Fresno County’s geography. They say geography is destiny for an individual. So, too, for the organization of a society. Fresno County has three distinct geographical areas. Some of us live in the Sierra Nevada, one of the mightiest mountain ranges in the contiguous United States. Most of us live on the floor of the San Joaquin Valley. A few of us, hardy souls if you ask me, live in the Coast Range Mountains to the west.

Our climate in the summer is hot on the Valley floor. Always has been, always will be. If Providence is good to us in a particular year, we get a decent amount of rain in the late fall, winter and early spring. That means snow in the Sierra and snowmelt the following summer.

Our economy is largely agriculture-based. We can grow just about anything on the Valley floor if only we get the water. Our economy also has strong regional, national and international components. That’s due in part to our location in the middle of California. Modern economic life is about logistics. Fresno County is a key hub in the 21st Century world’s logistical network.

Our people are a diverse lot, befitting a nation based on equality of all peoples. Folks want to come here. The cost of living is much lower than on the coast. There is plenty of opportunity for the ambitious.

But we have economic challenges. More than a quarter of Fresno County’s population lives in poverty as identified by the government. When Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. said America is the least exclusive club in the world but has the highest dues, he might well have anticipated the paradox that is Fresno County.

Looking ahead, Fresno County’s natural environment figures to come under more pressure from humanity’s insatiable desire to do things and build/grow stuff. Much of the population growth will be in cities. Says the Report: “Since 1960, Fresno County’s population has shifted from the county’s unincorporated area to the county’s cities, with the incorporated-unincorporated split changing from 50.2 percent to 49.8 percent in 1960 to 82.5 percent to 17.5 percent in 2015.” But such a shift in percentages doesn’t change the fact that about 175,000 residents still live in unincorporated areas of a county bigger than Connecticut.

Bringing human order to all this requires effective governing institutions. Eighteen of them are required to approve the Hazard Mitigation Plan.

We’ve got a dozen incorporated cities.

The City of Fresno is the 34th largest city in America. The City of San Joaquin has an estimated population that barely tops 4,000. The County of Fresno (Ken Austin is head of the Office of Emergency Services) is the “straw that stirs the drink” when it comes to coordinating responses to big incidents. Some of the other institutions with a direct hand in the Plan are the Fresno Metropolitan Flood Control District, the Kings River Conservation District and the Westlands Water District.

Throughout the county, but especially concentrated in the bigger cities, we have specialized institutions poised to address a major disaster. To name a few: Hospitals, law enforcement agencies, firefighting departments, other first responders such as ambulance crews, authorized militias such as the National Guard, keepers of the public infrastructure (roads, lights, electricity, water, sewer, natural gas, etc.).

Of course, the beauty (OK – the bane, as well) of American democracy is that there is no shortage of both constitutional and voluntary institutions through which “The People” can make their wishes known. The Plan did yeoman work on public outreach. No plan can guarantee that the politics of a multipolar world will be pretty.

Then there is Mother Nature. Floods, droughts, tornadoes, high winds, deep freezes, broiling temperatures, wild fires, earthquakes, sinking land, spoiled water – we’ve got them all and more on a seemingly annual basis. They hit all of the county at times. They hit only portions of the county at other times.

Finally, we’ve got strategy. We all recall what Mike Tyson said about strategy: “Everyone has a plan ‘tlll they get punched in the mouth.”

Fair enough, Iron Mike. The immediate shock of unexpected stress on a massive scale can fog the collective brain, thus rendering painstaking efforts to coordinate all of the above into an effective plan of action for every contingency suddenly irrelevant – i.e. the punch in the mouth. Adaptation and initiative, not rote learning, then become pivotal.

But it’s far better for a society to try to prepare than to do nothing. That’s what the nearly 1,000 pages of the Hazard Mitigation Plan Update are all about.

I give you one example of the compelling reading in the Plan. There are appendixes exploring in detail the hazards facing unincorporated Fresno County and each of the incorporated cities.

For the City of Fresno, a chart – “Hazard Summaries” – says the geographic extent of a dam failure (think Friant Dam with Millerton Lake as full as it can get) would be “significant” (10% to 50% of the planning area). However, the probability of Friant Dam simply collapsing is “unlikely” – less than 1% chance of occurring in the next 100 years).

The geographic extent of a major earthquake, on the other hand, would be “extensive” (50% to 100% of the planning area). The probability of such an earthquake is “occasional” – a 1% to 10% chance of occurring in the next year or a recurrence interval of 11 years to 100 years.

As to the magnitude/severity of a major earthquake to Fresno, the plan says it would be “critical” – “25-50 percent of property severely damaged; shutdown of facilities for at least two weeks; and/or injuries and/or illnesses result(ing) in permanent disability.”

We’re not atop the San Andreas Fault. But we’re in California. It could happen here.

How to tie everything together?

It starts with leadership and cooperation across jurisdictions.

What does that entail? I give you a hint from my 40-minute interview with Capt. Vasquez, the City of Fresno’s Emergency Preparedness Officer.

“There are certain steps that we need to take” when a major incident occurs, Vasquez said. “This is to make sure that, if there’s a declaration of disaster by the governor or a presidential declaration of a disaster, that we followed the proper steps (during the response). The reason that we do that is that, in order for the city to receive reimbursement for funds to help us to manage these large incidents, we have to abide by certain rules. That’s one of the reasons we utilize ICS – the Incident Command System. That’s how we manage these large incidents.”

The city has an emergency operations plan that serves as a guide.

Said Vasquez of this plan: It’s “how we’re going to operate. Who do we contact next? We are the City of Fresno. But if we’re going to ask for help, the first step that we’re going to take is I’m going to contact Fresno County Office of Emergency Services.”

Such a contact is a key step in requisitioning resources to handle the incident.

“When I say ‘resources,’ that’s help,” Vasquez said.

The City of Fresno has its own resources. If more are needed, Fresno County is the next step up the ladder. The call for resources can expand to a regional level. The final two levels are Sacramento and Washington, D.C.

“It’s very important that we have these partnerships – and we do,” Vasquez said.

Training at the city level is vital. So, too, is training in conjunction with all jurisdictions that could be involved in responding to a major incident.

“When I say training,” Vasquez said, “I mean let’s conduct some functional exercises. Let’s find out what’s going well and what’s not.”

Depending on the type of serious hazard, an Emergency Operations Center may be set up.

“The purpose of the EOC is not to manage the incident but to manage the resources that are needed for the incident itself,” Vasquez said.

There would be a separate command post to manage the response to the incident. The EOC, Vasquez said, is “to reach out grab any resources that don’t have within the city to help the commander at the incident.”

In other words, logistics. As any warrior will tell you, logistics often determine the winners and losers in a serious conflict.

“When you have a significant incident, you’ll use up your resources pretty quick,” Vasquez said.

There is an important part of any effective response to a disaster that often gets overlooked.

“We take care of each other – all the citizens of Fresno,” Vasquez said. “It’s important for every individual, every citizen, to be informed, to have a plan. We try to educate as much as we can. I get requests from private industry, from elderly-care facilities – I’ll go out and give talks on emergency services. Part of my job is to educate the public. I tell them how important it is to have a plan. Just like you need a fire plan if you have a fire in your house. You also need a family plan in case of emergencies.”

Vasquez recommends that families have an “emergency-go” kit at home: Three days of food, vital records, credit cards, cash, water, cell phones, flash lights, utensils, etc.

It’s “something that gets you by for the first three days,” Vasquez said. “Because there are no guarantees. If you don’t have any place to go, at least you can be self-sufficient for a period of time.”

In some circles, Vasquez said, the ideal is for an emergency-go kit to be big enough to sustain a family for a full week.

“But logistically that takes a lot,” Vasquez said. “They recommend a gallon of water per day per person. That’s a lot of water. But you’d better have something.”

Local stakeholders for emergency preparedness are believers in the concept of continuous improvement, Vasquez said. They’re constantly training, constantly thinking about how plans can be improved.

“It’s important for the community to understand that,” Vasquez said.

Of course, the training and the accumulation of resources in order to respond effectively to everything that could go wrong throughout Fresno County are expensive. It’s no criticism of political leaders to suggest there will never be enough money for perfection. They are faced with too many demands for limited taxpayer funds.

But, Vasquez said, Fresno’s emergency preparedness efforts are blessed to have Lee Brand in the Mayor’s seat and Wilma Quan in the City Manager’s seat.

Said Vasquez: “That’s the good thing about having a very progressive City Manager and Mayor preparing us for large incidents. We need to have this (leadership) from the top. Otherwise, it doesn’t happen. But it’s happening.”

Finally, permit me to tell a personal story about a multi-jurisdictional incident.

The Carr wildfire in Shasta and Trinity counties started in late July 2018 and raged for five weeks. Eight people died in the fire. More than 1,600 structures were destroyed. The cost in damages was more than $1.6 billion. Tens of thousands of people in the Redding area were evacuated.

My older daughter Kate and her husband Jason live in Shasta Lake City, a small incorporated community on the north edge of Redding. They have a young son and a beautiful home in a growing housing development in the southwest corner of Shasta Lake. The boundary with Redding is within walking distance. The boundary with the brush and relatively small trees that cover the hills of Redding/Shasta Lake is almost within spitting distance.

It was this dry growth that provided the fuel for the Carr Fire.

Kate and Jason were vacationing with friends on a houseboat on Lake Shasta when the fire exploded from a modest event into a “firenado.” The fire, they learned while on the lake, was moving toward Redding and Shasta Lake. They decided they had to try to save whatever valuables they could carry from their home.

They left their son in the care of trusted friends and, with two others from the group, drove toward Shasta Lake. They had no idea what they would encounter as they made the short drive south on I-5. Would the freeway be bumper-to-bumper with cars headed in both directions? Would their neighborhood already be subjected to official evacuation orders? Would law enforcement personnel be posted at entrances to the neighborhood, keeping everyone out?

To make a long story short, Kate and Jason made it home and got what they needed. Along the way, they were phoning friends, making arrangements should they be forced (by the fire or official orders) out of their home for a long period. The fire at one point was headed right for their neighborhood. At the last minute, it went a different direction. Their neighborhood was spared.

Throughout this uncertain journey home, Kate kept in constant contact with my wife Mary via the miracle of a cell phone. Kate and Jason live 325 miles away from Fresno. But it was almost like Mary and I were there.

Mary found online a photo from the Carr Fire and used it for a while as the screen saver on our home computer. The photographer was looking west toward the iconic Sundial Bridge that spans the Sacramento River. In the immediate background is Redding. Just beyond Redding is the Carr Fire. The towering flames stretch from one edge of the photograph to the other edge. The flames completely dominate the scene. It looks like something from World War II.

Mary and I visited Kate and Jason shortly after the fire was contained. I went for a walk around Redding. Many of the businesses had signs in the windows, thanking the variety of first responders who helped save Redding and Shasta Lake.

“Shasta Strong,” said the signs.

Capt. Vasquez of the Fresno Fire Department said he knows the working assumption of some Fresnans when it comes to major disasters.

“Nothing ever happens in Fresno,” Vasquez said. “Then it does happen. We need to be prepared and we need to know what we’re doing. Because it will cost lives if we don’t.”

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