By Erin Gallup Public Information Officer, Headquarters
On Saturday, June 20, 2008, a severe thunderstorm sparked more than 2,000 lightning fires as the storm moved through Northern and Central California. More than 25,000 firefighters from across the state, nation and world, worked aggressively, strategically and exhaustively to suppress the incidents that ultimately burned nearly 1.2 million acres, claimed 15 lives and destroyed 511 structures.
But there were more than firefighters extinguishing the fires, supporting fire departments and disseminating information to the public. Hundreds of Caltrans personnel were called upon for help. And they answered the call.
They worked 16-hour days in temperatures more than 100 degrees with humidity and smoke as thick as putty. They cooperated with local, state and national organizations to protect and serve the public, steering motorists through the dense forests of Northern California on the remaining open roads. They collected data, provided it to the public in a multitude of ways, closed off unsafe areas and fought fires.
Caltrans Transportation Management Center staff worked around the clock to gather and disseminate key information regarding the constant closures and openings of state, county and city roads. Caltrans posted road closure information on changeable message signs, highway advisory radios, the Caltrans homepage and the Caltrans Highway Information Network (CHIN) telephone line.
Caltrans staff installed a closed circuit TV on a mountain peak above Shasta Lake to monitor the Motion Fire. They created a Web site called Weathershare to compile all weather information and predicted microclimates to help the public see what was going on and what could be expected in the days to come.
When Caltrans District 3 Director Jody Jones was evacuated from her Paradise home July 8, she parked her RV near her Marysville office. Jones said she worked during the five days she was evacuated to keep busy and to help during the state emergency that burned more than a million acres from Del Norte County to the southernmost edge of San Bernardino County.
President George W. Bush declared disasters in Shasta, Trinity, Plumas, Butte, Mendocino, Mariposa, Santa Clara, Santa Cruz, Monterey, Kern and Santa Barbara counties. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger declared that Humboldt and Inyo counties were also in a state of disaster to help provide federal aid to those affected by the fires.
Caltrans Director Will Kempton authorized seven emergency contracts with a value of $8.5 million for essential work related to the fires. Management teams worked to secure those emergency contracts, evaluate damages and organize contractors. Public information officers handled the barrage of inquiries from the media.
Three portable satellite communications trailers traveled to the fires to reinstate communication lines. Each Operational Area Satellite Information Systems (OASIS) program trailer provides 24 banks of telephone lines using a satellite system, data connections for computer equipment, radio communications, and live video streaming. Caltrans partners with the Office of Emergency Services to provide this vital service.
Caltrans rented extra changeable message signs, mowed brush in advance of fires and inspected trees in danger of falling. Department mechanics worked on fire equipment. Others performed safety inspections on equipment arriving from across the United States, Canada and New Zealand.
Caltrans personnel swiftly repaired emergency clean-up equipment and replaced charred guardrail posts and highway signs. The Department ordered and used hydro-seeders to address the massive erosion on hillsides and bought a number of catch basins to clean up debris from rain run-off. Recovery efforts included damage assessment, removal of destroyed highway elements and replacement of safety devices, signs, lighting- you name it.
“On Highway 36 (southeast of Redding) there was a big curve with 300 feet of guardrail just sitting on the ground because all the posts had burnt,” Caltrans District 2 Special Crews Supervisor Mike Farrar said of one of the many roads affected by the fires.
A number of highways were closed at one point due to the Lightning Complex fires. Those included state routes 299, 44, 70 and 36 in Northern California’s District 2 and Highway 1 in District 5 along the central coastline. Although California had turned into an inferno, Farrar said it was inspiring to see the dedication of his fellow employees.
“Everybody who worked for us got involved in one way or another,” Farrar said. “Caltrans employees got called in at all hours of the day and night, and they all responded and did whatever we asked of them. That made me really proud.”
CDF DC10 Photo provided by Caltrans District 5
Firefighter in 'Battling the Blaze' header is a CalFire Firefighter.
Photo provided by CalFire