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Thomas fire precursor to debris flow

The Thomas fire burns near a home in Montecito in mid-December, leaving another charred hillside that ultimately led to the catastrophic 1/9 Debris Flow. The Board of Supervisors will hear a report Tuesday about how Santa Barbara County responded to the twin disasters.

An analysis of how Santa Barbara County responded to the Thomas fire and 1/9 Debris Flow, along with recommendations for improving performance should another such disaster hit, will be delivered to the Board of Supervisors when it meets Tuesday.

The meeting is scheduled to start at 9 a.m. in the Supervisors Hearing Room on the fourth floor of the County Administration Building at 105 E. Anapamu St. in Santa Barbara.

Supervisors are also scheduled to consider awarding $25,000 in Community Development Block Grant funds to Good Samaritan Bridgehouse Shelter to replace the Lompoc facility’s leach field.

The Coastal Commission’s certification of the Local Coastal Program amendment for the Gaviota Coast Plan, with modifications, and financing for the Tajiguas Resource Recovery Project are also on the board’s agenda.

Santa Barbara County’s response to the twin disasters in December 2017 and January 2018 was particularly strong in seven areas, according to the Thomas Fire and 1/9 Debris Flow After-Action Report and Improvement Plan.

The report was prepared under the leadership of project manager Katie Freeman, who also led development of the 2015 Refugio Oil Spill After-Action Report.

Creating the report involved a review of County Emergency Operations Center documentation, focus group meetings with more than a dozen county departments and divisions in addition to partner agencies and one-on-one meetings with various individuals.

The resulting analysis found seven areas of particular strength in the county’s response, but it also identified five areas where the county could improve the way it deals with disasters in the future.

SB County strong

Strengths included information sharing through the County Joint Information Center via many channels, including comprehensive Spanish translation, with 440 informational updates provided on the county website and feeding enough information to local news media to allow 24-hour coverage.

The report noted that during the Thomas fire, from Dec. 6 through 26, approximately 575,000 users viewed the county website 2.2 million times, leading it to be continually ranked by Google among the top five worldwide information sources on the fire.

Producing maps that were timely and relevant for both public and operational needs was another strength cited in the report, which said those produced early in the fire provided evacuation information to the general public.

Maps evolved over the course of the disasters to not only provide emergency information to the public but also support operational decisions in the Emergency Operations Center.

The map to provide evacuation information to the general public for the Thomas fire has received almost 5.54 million views since it was launched, according to the report.

Another strength was using a call center to support public safety, provide information and increase situational awareness within the Emergency Operations Center, where the call center was located.

As the disaster evolved from efforts to recover from the Thomas fire to a potential response to a debris flow, the county engaged in timely planning and preparedness efforts, including clearing debris basins and developing a 72-hour plan for a debris flow.

The report also found the county’s use of volunteers and mutual-aid assistance represented a valuable resource in supporting evacuation shelters, local assistance centers, the call center and disaster recovery centers.

The Community Emergency Response Team, Listos and Voluntary Organizations Active in Disasters were particularly singled out.

Another strength was support at multiple locations from the Behavioral Wellness Department, which brought together 13 provider organizations to create the Community Wellness Team.

The team provided immediate crisis response as well as short- and long-term counseling to promote mental, spiritual and emotional health, the report said.

The report also cited the Public Health Department for its robust response, including issuing public health emergency declarations and air quality warnings.

Public Health staff was active in the Emergency Operations Center, animal evacuations, ocean water testing, hazardous materials removal, mask distribution and triage at evacuation sites.

They also provided medical staff and equipment in shelters, transportation and shelter for individuals in licensed care facilities and transportation for people unable to evacuate independently and for essential medical personnel.

Room to improve

Recommendations for improving the county’s disaster response included formalizing and socializing evacuation planning — that is, assembling the decision-making process for debris flow evacuations into a single document, standardizing evacuation terminology across the operations area and with adjoining counties and providing annual training on terminology.

The report also recommended improving emergency information and warnings by making ReadySBC the source for emergency information, streamlining public information procedures and disseminating information across multiple platforms.

Increasing collaboration with local government partners was another recommendation, which could be accomplished by embedding personnel from those departments in the Emergency Operations Center.

Enhancing the county’s ability to respond to a sustained activation of the Emergency Operations Center and increasing the county’s capability to recover from a major disaster were the two final areas cited for improvement.

To enhance the ability to respond, the report recommended training all disaster service workers in the Standardized Emergency Management and National Incident Management systems and equipping the Emergency Operations Center to shelter and care for disaster service workers during extended activation of the center.

Recommendations for improving recovery capabilities include appointing a recovery unit leader early in an incident and, before disaster strikes, developing recovery plans and identifying sites for evacuation and local assistance centers.

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