DOC Team Receives Prestigious CAL FIRE Award for Work with Thomas Fire

Several of our staff were recently awarded by CAL FIRE for Superior Accomplishment for their emergency post-fire mapping efforts during the tragic Thomas fire and ensuing mudslide in Montecito last year.

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The Thomas fire started on December 4, 2017. It ignited on the south-facing hillslopes along State Route 150 above Santa Paula, and burned west and north through Ojai, Casitas Springs, Ojala, La Conchita, Mussel Shoals, the city of Ventura, and eastern Ventura county; and later into Carpinteria, Montecito, and the southwestern portion of Santa Barbara County including the city of Santa Barbara.

Over five weeks, 281,893 acres burned, and 1,063 structures were destroyed.

Then-Governor Brown issued an Emergency Proclamation for Ventura County on December 5, 2017, and for Santa Barbara County on December 7, 2017. The President declared a State of Emergency soon after.

While the massive fire burned, seven California Geological Survey (CGS) and one Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources staff members were dispatched to the impacted area as part of a CAL FIRE-led Watershed Emergency Response Team (WERT) to rapidly assess post-fire hazards, including debris flows and flooding that could affect lives and property. Two of the CGS staff members were assigned to provide GIS support from Sacramento.

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The Thomas fire WERT had only a few days to begin its assessment of the fire damage before a catastrophic storm blew in on January 9, 2018.

As the mapping and assessment began, a significant storm forecast loomed toward the burned area, threatening the safety of the impacted community and on-scene teams. WERT worked overnight performing critical mapping work, rushing to beat the impending danger.

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The team developed an assessment of potential flooding and debris flow hazards that could result from a storm that promised to deliver up to one inch of rain per hour.

WERT’s damage forecast map was distributed to local authorities – a tool that helped formulate evacuation plans about 30 hours before the main storm hit the area.

“Each of these team members worked tirelessly to assess hazards to lives and property after this devastating fire,” Acting State Geologist Bill Short noted.

“They worked in difficult conditions and maintained the utmost professionalism as they approached this difficult task. They provided critical information that is currently supporting recovery and mitigation efforts.”

The storm initiated several catastrophic debris flows within and adjacent to Montecito and Carpinteria on January 9, 2018.

Over 20 debris flows occurred in all, involving more than 1.3 million cubic yards of debris covering 1.5 square miles or roughly 640 football fields.

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The WERT’s warnings to Santa Barbara County officials were instrumental in the evacuations issued saving hundreds of lives. While tragically, 23 deaths were recorded, the critical work conducted by the inter-agency WERT significantly reduced the loss of life.

The WERT continued its field evaluations after the horrific storm and completed its task on January 17, 2018.

For their efforts, CAL FIRE awarded the Thomas fire WERT the prestigious and highly competitive Superior Accomplishment Partnership Award at its annual awards ceremony in January 2019.

Congratulations Thomas Post-Fire Assessment Team!

Team members included Jeremy Lancaster, Jacob Lee, David Longstreth, Pete Roffers, Solomon McCrea, Eleanor Spangler, Kevin Doherty, Patrick Brand, Brian Swanson, and John Oswald of CGS, and Blake Foreshee of DOGGR.*

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*In addition to DOC staff, the Thomas fire WERT also consisted of California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, the Department of Water Resources, the Regional Water Quality Board, and local county personnel with expertise in hydrology and geology.

It’s also important to mention that at DOC’s own awards celebration, another CGS team was recognized for similar efforts. The Montecito Post-Debris Flow Assessment team was tasked with helping assess the impact of the mudslides and recognized for its efforts with a Gold Superior Accomplishment Award.

Congratulations to:

Montecito Post Debris-Flow Assessment Team: Don Lindsay, Janis Hernandez, Michael DeFrisco, Brian Swanson, and Brian Olson.

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Great work by all involved, we are proud to work alongside you!

*Cover photo credit: CNN George Rose/Getty Images

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