Firestorm!

Gasper A. Chifici, P.E., Vice President and Division Manager, PBS&J, Encinitas, California
Chandra Wallar, Assistant Director, San Diego County Department of Public Works

"FIRESTORM!" This was the headline that screamed from the front page of the October 27, 2003 edition of the San Diego North County Times. The headline for the next day was "UNIMAGINABLE"—and it was. What began as three small fires fueled by draught, disease-ridden trees and Santa Ana winds, grew at alarming rate, at times consuming more than 100 acres per minute. Flames rose to 300 feet. Rural lands and homes just evaporated. Nearly 400,000 acres were burned, more than 2,400 homes were destroyed, and 16 lives were lost in San Diego County.

Virtually everyone in San Diego County was affected. Smoke and ash were everywhere. Breathing was often difficult. The trauma of the event was overwhelming. With everyone still reeling from this disaster, the San Diego County Department of Public Works realized that the hazardous ash and debris left by the fires threatened to contaminate the County's water reservoirs, which provide drinking water to more than two million people. It was imperative to remove fire debris immediately.

Thus began a highly successful partnership in solving an environmental problem that was time-sensitive and fraught with logistical challenges: steep and narrow roadways, high numbers of uninsured and underinsured property owners, nearby drinking water reservoirs, federal and state politics, and serious health, safety, and environmental risks.

San Diego fire debris removal project
Working with the San Diego County Department of Public Works, PBS&J began management of the County's debris removal plan on January 6, 2004. The amount of debris to be removed was monumental, estimated by local agencies to be between 35 and 100 tons of debris per property.

PBS&J developed successful operational plans that identified and prioritized high-risk areas, coordinated with volunteer organizations, communicated important information to property owners, quickly procured removal contractors, and utilized high-tech tools to manage the more than 2,400 impacted parcels. All loose debris was removed within eight months of the wildfires.

The cleanup begins
While the ashes were still smoldering from the fires that began in late October 2003, the County enlisted the staff of the Department of Public Works Recycling and Watershed Protection Programs and implemented a "Public Bin Program." The purpose of this program was to provide a means for residents and volunteer groups to dispose of fire debris cleared from the affected properties. Several waste companies were immediately contracted to provide and place large (40 cubic yard) public bins, as directed by the County.

With its own resources stretched to the limit, the County quickly determined that it needed to supplement its staff with a consultant experienced in handling large magnitude disaster cleanup efforts. A Request for Proposals with a very short response time was issued, followed days later by interviews and presentations from short-listed firms. PBS&J was awarded the contract, with the County's expectation that experienced staff would be mobilized within a week. Less than a week later, PBS&J had experienced field and office staff operating out of its San Diego/Kearny Mesa office on the ground and running.

Under the direction of a dedicated team of County DPW staff, the PBS&J National Risk and Emergency Management Division and the PBS&J California Construction Services Division assumed control of the County's "Public Bin Program" as a first order of business. This required implementing a process to locate and track all bins already in the system, and scheduling the delivery and pickup of public bins as requested by volunteer groups and affected homeowners.

The County quickly determined that a Public Bin Program alone would not remove all of the hazardous debris quickly enough to avoid serious health and environmental consequences. In early December 2003, the County decided to initiate an additional program to assist property owners in removing fire debris and ash. The Private Property Debris Removal Program provided competitively-procured contractors to enter properties as directed by the PBS&J Program Manager, remove all eligible burn debris, and properly dispose of the debris at designated landfills or recycling centers. Separate collection programs were established for burned vehicles and for propane and other fuel tanks. The Private Property Debris Removal Program was provided without cost to property owners lacking insurance funds for debris removal.

As the cleanup progressed, it became apparent that some properties contained burn debris for which no one had come forward to request assistance in clearing. Because the contaminated ash posed a long-term threat to the public health, it was necessary that the County take proactive action to abate these properties, whether or not requested or given explicit permission by the property owners involved to do so.

On these properties the County implemented what was referred to as the "Abatement" phase of the program. Properties to be abated were identified in several ways. Field staff working on the Public Bin Program and the Private Property Debris Removal Program visibly identified properties in areas in which they were already working. The County had previously used employees with GPS units to identify all burned properties throughout the County. Using that database, PBS&J's field staff was able to identify which of the properties had not yet been cleared.

Details of the dirty work
PBS&J managed the demolition and debris removal contractors who removed and disposed of debris from public and private properties. The debris removal management efforts included overseeing the loading, removal, and disposal of fire-related debris, much of which was contaminated, along with using a GIS-based system to monitor claims, cleanup activities, and overall progress. Digital photographs were archived to create a visual record of the damages and recovery efforts.

PBS&J field monitors were responsible for directing the debris removal contractors to the correct locations, checking to ensure cleanup was performed in accordance with the agreement, and that the materials were properly disposed. The physical size of the County and the locations of the affected properties made each day a challenge. Drive time to some of the remote sites, such as Julian, was so long that several field monitors were relocated and housed at the site to improve their work efficiency. Field monitors were equipped with current aerial maps, cell phones and pickup trucks—some with 4-wheel drives—as some of the home sites to be cleared were in steep and remote terrain that was difficult to access.

This aggressive debris removal program also required, in accordance with FEMA guidelines, evaluation of insurance proceeds to determine potential reimbursement to the County by homeowners for the cost of the removal. Working with property owners, insurance companies, and FEMA, PBS&J helped process claims for insurance and FEMA reimbursements.

High-tech tools
PBS&J's Information Solutions Division (IS) brought a cadre of tools to aid in managing the large amounts of data involved. The IS team's tasks included GIS mapping, digital data acquisition, database creation and management, and technology implementation services to support the entire Debris Removal Project Team. The IS team acted in a support role to facilitate the data storage, entry, modification and reporting tasks of the Private Property Debris Removal and Public Bin management teams. The overall goal of the IS team was to facilitate the digital documentation of internal project activities and communications in real time to deliver a comprehensive digital database to the County.

The approach to Information Technology Support was to apply existing information technology methodologies and tools established within the PBS&J Emergency Management Division as a basis for the implementation of the San Diego program. One of the tools is referred to as "DROMS," an acronym that stands for "Debris Removal Operations Management System." "SDDROMS" (San Diego DROMS) is a web-based application used to document and track each load of fire debris. It is designed to allow access from any computer with Internet access, enabling PBS&J to enter and retrieve the debris data from any location. The County was provided a login and password to enter the system and be able to view the most up-to-date debris data.

GIS mapping and integration services were incorporated to support both the daily program activities and web-based management tools. Integration of the Hotline, desktop mapping, and website mapping were achieved through relational database techniques. These tools and techniques included GIS data acquisition; base mapping and ArcGIS project setup; periodic field map books; reporting and project status maps; GIS data creation/modification, such as bin locations, burned structures, road annotation, project grids, and ArcMap Server (dynamic internet mapping).

To assist the field monitors, an ArcPAD field application was created based on the ArcGIS base map project. GIS-enabled ArcPAD allowed field inspectors to review parcel and aerial information to more efficiently collect data in the field. Laptop computers were fitted with GPS receivers for PBS&J field crews, and the application was distributed to County staff.

Volunteer groups pull together
No single volunteer organization had the resources to provide the amount of help their neighbors needed—so they all pulled together. One of the most active organizations during and after the fires was "SDIVOAD," the San Diego and Imperial Counties Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster. It is comprised of more than 50 local organizations, all having a role in responding to County citizens in the time of need. They provided food, shelter, clothing, counseling, legal advice, insurance assistance, financial aid, and other services—including helping with debris removal.

PBS&J and County staff participated in the SDIVOAD meetings, advising the group on the status of cleanup efforts, and exchanging information regarding who needed assistance in clearing their property. GIS maps containing parcel data and cleanup status were provided free of charge to volunteer groups in various areas to aid the groups in contacting their neighbors to offer assistance. The Hotline (see below) was also used from the very start to connect residents in need with volunteer groups working in their area.

Effective communications is the key
The magnitude of the problem was unprecedented and, at times, overwhelming. Constant communication between the County team and the Program Manager was key to its unqualified success. Daily meetings were conducted in PBS&J's Kearny Mesa office—the Operations Center for the effort. Housed there were Hotline Operators, IS Team, Project and Deputy Project Manager, Insurance Specialist, Field Operations Staff, and various support personnel. Twice-weekly summary reports were provided to top County managers, and real-time information was immediately and continuously available on the website. At these daily meetings, priorities were established for the next day, action items with deadlines were assigned to the appropriate party, and the latest data gathered was presented and reviewed.

Who to call for help?
At the very start of the cleanup effort, the County converted its County-staffed citizen hotline for erosion problems into a combination fire debris/erosion control hotline. PBS&J promptly assumed operation of the County fire debris hotline, establishing a logging and tracking system for calls and utilizing hotline operators who had been hired and trained by the County for this program. During the course of the cleanup, hotline operators received, and took action on, more than 3,000 calls related to the program—an average of more than 25 calls per day.

Recycle whatever possible
By including DPW Recycling staff in debris removal operations, the County made certain that every effort was made to salvage as much of the recyclable materials as possible during the entire cleanup operation. Separate bins were provided for recyclable materials including metal, concrete, and white goods. So effective was the recycling effort that, of the total 19,650 tons of debris removed from the affected properties by the end of the program, 5,496 tons were successfully recycled—an amazing 28 percent of the total debris removed!

Summary
The County, partnering with PBS&J, successfully developed solid operational plans that identified and prioritized high risk areas, coordinated with volunteer organizations, communicated important information to property owners, quickly procured removal contractors, and utilized high-tech tools to manage the more than 2,400 impacted parcels. As a result of these efforts, an environmental nightmare failed to become a reality. All loose debris was removed within eight months of the wildfires. Creeks, rivers, and potable water reservoirs were protected from the contamination of easily transportable ash. Area residents, wildlife and vegetation will recover more quickly from the devastation of the firestorm as a result of these debris removal programs.

Armed with the information gained and plans made during this recovery effort, we more fully understand the environmental impacts associated with wildfires, and are better prepared to quickly launch effective, efficient debris removal and community aid programs. As noted in the County of San Diego Mission Statement: "The noblest motive is the public good."

The follow-up
As the work on the Fire Debris Removal Management Project came to an end, the County continued its proactive approach to preventing future fires. Part of that approach is to rid the County, to the extent that it is practicable to do so, of all dead, dying, and diseased trees that would serve as fuel for future fires. Trees that have been stressed over the years due to drought and the recent fires are particularly vulnerable to Bark Beetle infestation. These damaging insects are about the size of a grain of rice, exist in many varieties, and are able to infest a stressed tree and kill it in short order. The most effective preventive measure against Bark Beetle infestation is to keep the trees healthy—the beetle generally doesn't harm an otherwise healthy tree.

Thus the County began a Fire Prevention Tree Removal effort. Through a competitive RFQ process, the County once again selected PBS&J as Contracts Manager to assist the County in managing this fuel reduction project. Complementing the PBS&J team was a professional forester, licensed by the State of California, and subcontracted by PBS&J. Also included were an archeologist and a biologist, helping to ensure that the tree removal was conducted in an environmentally sensitive manner.

The County plans to remove approximately 175,000 trees during this effort. At least ten separate tree removal contracts of between $1 million and $2 million each will be issued—and some have already begun. Each contractor employs from two to three tree-cutting crews or more, and has strict time limits in which to complete the work. PBS&J assigns a field monitor to each of the contractors' crews. In addition to monitoring the contractors' progress, PBS&J, along with its environmental partners, also monitors the adherence to the California Forest Practice Act, and interacts with citizens to provide information and address concerns.

  A satellite photo of the fires in southern California

As a first order of business, the County forces and the PBS&J team partnered to begin the tedious and challenging process of identifying, marking, and counting all of the dead, dying, and diseased (DDD) trees in the areas of unincorporated San Diego County that were considered "Priority One" areas—those which would present a clear danger to homes and businesses. These high-priority areas were then broken into parcels of sizes that would be manageable for a tree removal contractor.

The County conducted a prequalification process and short-listed several tree removal contractors who had proven themselves capable and qualified to work on such a project. These contractors would then participate in a "reverse auction" by which they would competitively bid on each of the tree removal contracts offered by the County. As contracts were awarded and the tree removal process began, PBS&J field monitors and foresters were onsite to make certain that the contractors fulfilled their obligations, and that they did so in a manner that protected the environment. All trees removed by the contractors must be "beneficially reused." Beneficial reuse includes chipping to leave a mulch layer for protection against erosion; harvesting trees that are suitable for lumber products; cutting and providing firewood; using the wood for fuel at a cogeneration facility; and other such uses.

At the time of this writing, several tree removal contracts are underway, with more planned for the near future. In this manner, the County of San Diego, with help from PBS&J and its other partners, is doing everything it can to prevent another occurrence of the October 2003 firestorms.

Gasper A. Chifici, P.E., can be reached at (760) 753-1120 or at gachifici@pbsj.com; Chandra Wallar can be reached at (858) 694-2125 or at Chandra.Wallar@sdcounty.ca.gov.