By Miriam Raftery
October 6, 2016 (Potrero)—Supervisor Dianne Jacob convened a meeting at the Potrero Library on September 27th , where officials from Cal Fire, the Sheriff’s department,County Animal Services and the Office of Emergency Services responded to concerns raised by residents during the Border Fire.
Verizon, AT&T and SDG&E were also on hand with information on communications issues and power outages.
Cal Fire/County Fire Authority Chief Tony Mecham (photo, right) was most forthcoming about lessons learned and changes he plans to make for the future.
Mecham acknowledged it was a mistake to put the command center base camp in an area that became “isolated from the rest of the world” when communications failed due to the fire. In the future, he said,”I will never again put our command post inside an evacuation center.” Any future base camp “must have connectivity and public access.” Satellite phones have also been added for fire officials to use.
A second reform will be creation of public safety map grids for use in evacuations, since Thomas Brothers is ceasing publication of its map books long relied upon by authorities and the public.
Third, Mecham said, “We have to be more surgical in how we repopulate.”He wants to see emphasis on “getting people back in their homes faster” after danger is past. He envisions repopulation by street for better efficiency. If there are issues such as damaged guard rails delaying reentry, he suggests people could be escorted in and out with one-way traffic in the morning and evening.
In addition, Mecham told ECM he would supporting designating critical workers that he could sponsor and admit , with an escort, into the area when safe, such as CERT team members specially trained to assist with animals in need.
“We’re also going to try to designate where people are to go” when ordered to evacuate, he added.
Duriing the meeting, some residents complained of confusion during evacuations.
Robert Buerer, a CERT team memberand head of Potrero’s disaster planning, said a Sheriff’s deputy “dumped” a disabled man on a scooter at the library. When those at the library were later told to evacuate, he says he asked a deputy about the disabled man.”He said, `That’s not my problem’” said Buerer, who took the man to safety himself.
Supervisor Jacob (photo, right) urged anyone who has problems with an official in the future to get their names.
A woman said she came to the library with her 88-year-old mother because it was a cool zone. After Buerer asked her to go check on a dog belonging to the disabled man, she recalls, “I cameback to an empty building. No notes on the door.”Her elderly mother, dogs and cats were missing. “I had no idea where they were.” She later learned a library had taken them to safety.
Jacob noted, I’ve seen this in past fires, a disconnect between the CHP, Sheriff’s and fire [officials].”
Buerer said he was told by the Red Cross to open an evacuation center, but “nobody came.” He saw law enforcement ordered people to leave the library as the fire encroached, but didn’t tell them where to go. “We were two miles from the fire one way and ten miles the other way. Then we lost cell service.” At the shelter, he says he waited a few hours, then went home. He urged residents to get crank radios for future disasters and tune in to AM 600,the designated emergency alert station for our region.
Theresa Greenhalgh, program coordinator for San Diego County Fire Authority CERT southern division,said CERT members are going through training to have IDS and be resources at temporary shelters in future fires.
Dan DeSousa, head of Animal Services (photo, left), spoke to concerns raised by many residents frustrated over problems getting food and water to animals inside the evacuation zone.
DeSousa explained that Animal Services only has 1 officer for every 80,000 people in the County. He says Animal Services officers were en route within two hours of the fire.
“We responded as quickly as we could. Are we perfect? No. “ He then listed off successes including evacuating 145 animals out of the Border Fire. He insisted that if an animal is in need,”call us and give us the address,” an answer that failed to address how residents could call from an area where both cell phone and land line service was down during the fire, as well as Internet service. He also added that many of his officers didn’t have fire experience before the Border Fire.
Billie Jo Jannen, chair of the Campo-Lake Morena Community Planning Group, grilled DeSousa and Dawn Danielson from Animal Control over the department’s press release about an incident involving a “guy sheltering his neighbor’s emu,prompting a virtual SWAT incident…Animal Control issued a press release.. You blackened the reputation of a resident and you did not apologize,”she said,adding that the man was planning to go into training in law enforcement before the incident.
DeSousa stated, “I can’t say too much. There is a criminal case. We put out a press release—“
Jannen fired back,” Based on your officer’s version and nothing else?”
Normally the department sends an experienced officer with a newcomer but they were operating on bare bones, it was explained, and this was the officer’s first wildfire.
“We just hired 16 more Animal Control officers,” Danielson announced. She noted that officers on the scene did treat and evacuate many dogs with burns, as well as cats, horses, goats and miniature donkeys.
DeSousa said Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) volunteers could get training as reserves to help in future fires. “We’ll be glad to teach you how to handle donkeys,” he quipped. He also praised Iris Gardner as a “Godsend” to the community for her efforts to help animals during the fire. “It’s cool that the community pitched in and helped.”
Holly Crawford and Bennet Cummings from the Office of Emergency Services also spoke. Crawford noted the importance of coordinating shelters, recalling that in 2007 there were 43 shelters opened countywide. She urged people to register their mobile phones with Alert San Diego.
Buerer asked why an emergency plan previously prepared wasn’t followed during the Border Fire. “It’s time to take the old document out, ,shake it off and see if we need to update it,” he said.
Mecham suggested writing a grant to get funding for this.
Buerer said after the Harris Fire in 2007, “We were told key people would have IDs to be recognizable to law enforcement to go into communities and help people or animals,”yet his CERT members were not recognized during the Border Fire by the California Highway Patrol.
Captain Hank Turner (photo, right)from the Sheriff’s department said working at road blocks during a fire is a “terrible job” with people yelling at officers.
Supervisor Jacob made clear she wants identification so key people can come in past road blocks, but she admitted “this is not an easy one because people change.”
Jacob next introduced Lowell Handy from Verizon and John Osborne from AT&T. She noted that communication failures were big issues in this fire, adding,” Communications is an issue here in the backcountry and we’ve heard that AT&T is shutting down land line service.”
Handy blamed the incident commander. “You picked the absolute worst place you could ‘ve put this thing.”
Osbourne said a fiber feed that serves cell phone sites was burned up and that an aerial fe4ed backup also failed. “We are working on redundancy fiber feeds in and out of rural areas,”he said.
Jannen noted that cell service faded in and out before and after the fire, even switching to south of the border and roaming. She asked why cell towers approved in the past three years still have not been built.
ECM asked AT&T if it would pledge not to eliminate land lines in this area given the history of communication failures and fact that cell phones can have batteries go dead, be lost or broken leaving a household with no phone service in an emergency. This could also be a problem if children are home alone without a cell phone. Osbourne insisted that other means such as wireless phones could be used, a disingenuous answer since wireless phones fail in a power outage, which also occurred in the Border Fire.
For now, Jacob urged people to have both land lines and cell phones. An audience member suggested getting a portable charger for a cell phone that can be carried with you.
Cameron Durckel from SDG&E observed, “There are always lessons to be learned,” but said many improvements have been made. “We’ve built the largest weather network of any utility in the United States…We have six fire coordinators, five former battalion chiefs who monitor and report in on ignitions.”
In the Border Fire, SDG&E lost 72 poles, all now replaced with steel poles, he said. Durckel explained that SDG&E had to delay reenergizing some lines to protect the safety of fire personnel at work.
As for lessons learned in this fire, he conclfuded, “We, too experienced communication issues with our crews..We had over100 people respond to this event.” They came in three trailers but for the future, he said, “We just bought a 23-foot trailer.”
Asked if low water levels at Lake Morena impeded firefighting, Chief Mecham responded, “The water level at Lake Mecham, we had no concerns with firefighting.”
Julie Salmons, one of the community volunteers who found the bodies of Border Fire victims Jim and Kyrie Keefe, spoke out critically about the County’s report on the Border Fire. “I was very disappointed to know there was no mention of Jim and Kyrie Keefe.” She noted that no search of their entire property was done by law enforcement 10 days after the fire began even though the couple’s dogs were running loose, obviously in distress. “In the next fire….what do we need to do?”she asked.
Turner, from the Sheriff Dept., replied, “Ask for a welfare check.”
Salmons asked why deputies wouldn’t go check on the couple (photo, left), who reportedly were notified to evacuate but declined, after their property burned.
Turner stated, “We’re all adults. If someone stays behind,that’s their choice,”nothing that going in too soon after a fire could endanger deputies or firefighters. He insisted that reverse calls went out telling people to evacuate and someone matching Jim Keefe’s descrption told a deputy they weren’t leaving.
A search of the home was eventually done, according to Turner, but not the full property; the couple was found between boulders on a hillside behind their home. He disputed claims by residents that deputies were repeatedly asked to conduct a search for the missing couple.
But he finally acknowledged, “We need to do better in searching…This was not our finest moment. I think we need to do better.”
Asked her reaction to officials’ responses after the meeting, Salmon told ECM, “I want them, like Captain Turner finally did, to say `We messed up; we could do better.”
She added,”I disagree with the timeline they give. Just because they didn’t see it in an official log doesn’t mean nobody asked them to help.” Despite Captain Turner’s insistence that deputies were planning a search and just awaiting a dog team dispatched, Salmons adamantly affirms that even as community volunteers prepared to launch their own effort to find the missing couple, “He said there was no search planned.”