While the devastating Camp Fire roared for several weeks in Butte County last November, the California Department of Water Resources (DWR) was on high alert, monitoring the extent of the fire as it approached the northwest shoreline of Lake Oroville. Ensuring the safety of impacted employees and protecting the Oroville facilities from fire were only a few of the ways DWR was, and still is, involved with recovery efforts associated with the Camp Fire and the Woolsey Fire in Southern California.
In fact, DWR staff play an integral role in the protection of watersheds and infrastructure after California wildfires. Burnt vegetation and charred soil from wildland fires can block rain from absorbing into the ground, increasing the risk of soil erosion, debris flows and mudslides.
Several DWR engineers were deployed to the Camp and Woolsey fires to assist with the identification and assessment of potential flood prone areas. In total, 34 DWR staff assisted in a variety of duties for fires across California.
Trevor Morgan, a civil engineer with DWR, deployed to the Camp Fire Watershed Emergency Response Team in November 2018. The goal of a watershed emergency response team is to rapidly gather key data that can predict the impact of mudslides and debris flows from a watershed that could threaten life, property, and cultural and natural resources.
Morgan is a veteran of emergency response teams, having been deployed eight times, most recently to the 2017 Napa and Sonoma County Fires, 2018 Thomas Fire and Montecito mudflows and the 2018 Holy Fire in Southern California.
Morgan’s deployment on the Camp Fire hit close to home, literally. He grew up in Butte Valley, 12 miles from the epicenter of the Camp Fire destruction in Paradise, California.
“Places I grew up around were destroyed,” Morgan said. “It’s helpful being a local, having local knowledge of the area.”
Morgan was pleased that many of the recommendations made in the Camp Fire Watershed Emergency Response Team Final Report were acted upon quickly. Morgan praised the experts he worked with, especially The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) and the California Geologic Survey staff. “They do a fantastic job of leading the team and putting it all together,” Morgan said.
Debbie Spangler described the devastation in and around the City of Paradise as surreal during her two-week deployment in late November 2018. Spangler is an engineering geologist at DWR’s Northern Regional Office in Red Bluff, California. But she grew up in Durham, California, the town next to Paradise.
“I knew the town well and I was disoriented when I went there. Landmarks I associated with certain areas were gone,” recalled Spangler.
Her main role on the Camp Fire deployment was identifying and prioritizing potentially high-risk areas and values at risk around the City of Paradise on the watershed task force. The watershed task force assists watershed emergency response teams with additional and thorough investigations of high-risk areas. Spangler shared recommendations with the California Conservation Corps to strategically place sandbags, silt fences and erosion-resistant hay barriers, called wattles, that prevent watershed contamination from burned infrastructure.
Spangler noted that the watershed task force and the California Conservation Corps placed more than 22,500 sand bags. In total, more than 35 miles of materials were placed in the Camp Fire area to prevent soil erosion and contamination. And there was nothing but praise for the hard work of the California Conservation Corps and the many members of her watershed response team. Some team members continued working even though they had lost their home in the fire.
DWR’s Sterling York had similar praise for members of his watershed task force who worked on the Camp Fire. York is a levee inspector and flood fight specialist with DWR. He worked closely with California Conservation Corps teams to identify and clear debris impacting waterways and tributaries near the Camp Fire burn areas during his November and December 2018 deployment.
“It’s amazing how public and private folks come together to help out and try to make things right. It’s pretty amazing to work with other first responders and the teamwork that happens.”
York described the drive into the City of Paradise as overwhelming. His team worked closely with PG&E and Butte County Sheriff’s Office to access areas closed to the public. York has recent experience evaluating mudslides, having deployed to the 2018 Thomas Fire and Montecito mudslides.
Engineering geologist Shane Edmunds was one of the DWR staff who worked on the Woolsey Fire in southern California. Edmunds analyzed the risks to life and property and burn severity in areas impacted by the Woolsey Fire during his November 2018 deployment.
Edmunds explained the location of the Woolsey Fire was the biggest challenge. “The fire burned in a unique area with steep slopes and lots of structures located close to drainages were at risk of flooding, rockfall and debris flows.”
Edmunds said his team made it a point to explain these risks to nearby homeowners – often times in face to face conversations in the field.
Edmunds noted that the Woolsey fire mirrored previous wildfires which occurred near homes and structures adjacent to steep canyons where mudslides occur. Without strong debris basins, or barriers constructed to stop loose soil and debris, structures face increased danger if heavy rain soak the charred hillsides. The Woolsey Watershed Emergency Response Team also published a final report with recommendations.
Watershed emergency response teams and watershed and debris task force teams rely on a variety of flood fighting experts to evaluate areas impacted by wildfires and identify spots prone to flooding, debris flows and mudslides.
CAL FIRE lead watershed emergency response teams and the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services (Cal OES) lead watershed and debris task force teams. Teams are supported by staff from local, state and federal agencies. The Security and Emergency Management Program at DWR help coordinate and staff these teams upon request.
The Camp and Woolsey fires caused massive devastation and loss of life. Both fires charred a combined 250,336 acres. A total of 89 Californians lost their lives, 86 in the Camp Fire and three in the Woolsey Fire. DWR will continue working with our sister agencies to protect our natural resources and help those impacted recover.