Michael Thompson has been with Sonoma Water since 1995, and during the last few years has seen two devastating fires engulf the surrounding communities. He has two words of advice to prepare for wildfires: “Plan and practice.” Mike recently sat down with Cindy Paulson, chief technical officer for Brown and Caldwell, to talk about his experience with the Tubbs and Kincade fires, and how his staff rallied to keep their water system functional.
Sonoma County Water recently experienced the Kincade Fire, the second of two devastating fires in the Santa Rosa area in just three years. Can you describe the experience?
The Kincade Fire was very different than the Tubbs Fire in 2017. The Tubbs Fire was on us in lightning-fast speed whereas with the Kincade Fire there was time to prepare. Gratefully, the county sheriff and emergency services used this time to evacuate thousands of people that were in harm’s way. This allowed 5,000 firefighters to put everything they had in fighting the fire and saving towns. I am so grateful that the lessons from 2017 resulted in both advanced warnings and an incredible and courageous response from our public safety professionals.
So, with the mandatory evacuation orders in place, and the specter of personal loss, how did you rally your agency staff to operate the water system during the fire?
Our staff rallies themselves. We learned though that we had to make sure they didn’t rally themselves into the ground. We have many people who will quickly jump into action at a moment’s notice. A few days into the event, we found that we were relying too much on a small group of these action-oriented individuals and they were running themselves into the ground. These kinds of people seem to never ask for help.
When we became aware of this issue, we developed a better staffing plan aimed at spreading the load and forcing people to take breaks. And that had to be conveyed as an order, not a request. We ended up completely restructuring our emergency operations center structure because of this. I think as a manager, your job isn’t just to keep water running, it’s also to protect your staff, at times, from themselves. This was an important point and lesson learned.
How did your agency manage to keep the water system functional?
Generators, lots of them, and lots of amazing people. Also, about 10 years ago, we had installed the IT infrastructure necessary to relocate our 24-hour SCADA center to another location, and that was one of the best investments we made.
During the event, we had to quickly evacuate our main operations center and administration building. In a couple of hours, we disconnected our computer servers and removed our most critical historic paper files. Essentially, our whole organizational history and data was stored in 12 vans and SUVs in the City of Rohnert Park corporation yard until the evacuation order was lifted.
Could you talk a little bit more about any systems or processes that you put in place after the 2017 fires that helped you in this most recent event?
We have been more aggressive with vegetation management to create defensible spaces around our key water and wastewater facilities, and around our own power lines that run at our water supply facilities. We’re also continuing work to improve our emergency operations structure and training, and improve coordination with other water utilities in our service area.
What else would you do differently to be ready for future fires?
We have a long list of improvements we are working on, but there were a few key things. First, we want to make sure we work with our staff and encourage them prepare to evacuate and get themselves and their families in a safe situation. This is from a human perspective and from a public service perspective because we may need their help responding to an emergency. One of the biggest challenges water providers faced was the availability of fuel for generators. Many of the water districts and water purveyors in our area were scrambling to find fuel for their generators. So secondly, we need more reliable fuel supplies available.
Finally, we want to improve our communication systems in a broad sense. This means having our remote SCADA system up and running quicker, contacting and tracking the status of our coworkers, and coordinating with other water providers and the County of Sonoma.
As power shutoffs become more of a reality for utilities across California, how have they affected Sonoma County, and what measures are you taking to respond?
We are on a steep learning curve. In the first PSPS, we were learning what would happen, how to respond, and what it takes to respond. We have learned we need the right people, machines and fuels to get through an event, and, most importantly, that with the right planning these aren’t overwhelming challenges.
What advice would you have for other agencies to better prepare for potential wildfires? If there were a short list of things, what would you advise?
Plan and practice.
First, have well thought-out emergency operations and evacuation plans. Know where you’re going to go, if you have to go. Your continuity of operation plan becomes very important, very quickly.
Second, increase the emphasis on staffing for your emergency operations plan. Make sure your staff is ready to respond to keep your critical services operating; otherwise, you’ll have to rely on the same people who always carry you through.
Third, make your facilities as fire-safe as possible. Create defensible spaces to give firefighters a chance to protect water facilities. It’s a very high priority for them.
Finally, practice and exercise your plans.
Thinking more broadly about California and other fire-prone areas of the company, what do you think they can do to mitigate or minimize wildfire impacts in the future?
I believe we need to think a little bit differently, and be more flexible in how we see our communities. Land uses that make up our communities are not really fixed, they are dynamic and are always evolving. Ideally, our communities could evolve into city-centered cores that can provide public infrastructure and services such as transportation, power, water and wastewater utilities, and police and fire services while also allowing for defensible fire buffers around these centers.
Such buffers would give firefighters a better chance to defend neighborhoods and communities. These buffers could be parks, provide flood protection and stormwater treatment, and be true multibenefit community assets. If such areas exist already, I would encourage people to protect those as if they’re protecting something for their life. In summary, we should think about evolving our communities in ways that make them more resilient to flood, fires and earthquakes, because these events are part of our California life.
I think it’s difficult for those of us not directly affected by the fires to imagine the toll they’ve taken on your community. Could you give us a sense of how the community’s doing?
I would start by talking about the journeys I’ve seen people on. I managed the reentry centers serving people returning to their home sites for the first time after the Kincade Fire. One of the first things I noticed in people who’ve lost their homes was a sense of dignity, a sense of resilience and a persistence, that they know they’ll get through this.
I also hear from the people just who have just lost their homes describe their sense of relief that they’re fine and that the things they lost was just “stuff.” From the many friends who have lost homes in the 2017 fires, I know that this lost “stuff” takes on more importance in the months that follow. They are reminded of their loss in thousands of tiny ways such as when they’re looking for a scarf, or a tool, or a kitchen utensil, or a pair of shoes. I have heard them refer to such things as “used to haves” and are regular reminders of their losses from the fire. If I may, I would say the experiences from the fires have become part of us all and are now like threads that are woven into the tapestry of who we are.
Any thoughts that you’d be willing to share about how the fires might’ve changed your perspective personally?
It definitely has changed my perspective. It has increased my fear of the weather. The night the 2017 fires broke out, the strong hot wind was a little unnerving. These October winds now feel scary and bring on a “flight or fight” anxiety because we have to be ready for anything.
More importantly, it’s increased my appreciation for care and kindness for others and for how short and how precious life is. It has made me more intentional about being kind, open and understanding to others. I very humbly hope that the kindness and care we share can become important threads in the tapestry of who we are.