Thursday, October 18 , 2018, 6:30 pm | Fair 69º


Gap Fire Forum Puts Community Focus on Preparedness

In the first in a series of community meetings, local officials discuss preparations for upcoming winter rains.

Local, state and federal officials lined up to talk to the community at San Marcos High School on Thursday evening about winter preparations in the wake of the Gap Fire.

The panel consisted of members of the U.S. Forest Service, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service, the National Weather Service as well as Santa Barbara County’s sheriff, public works and fire departments and Goleta’s Community Services Department. Chief Michael Harris of the county Office of Emergency Services moderated the discussion.

The group discussed their various roles as emergency responders in the Gap Fire, from the front lines to the suburbs.

“Did everything go flawlessy? No, no they didn’t. We’d be the first one to tell you there were things we could have done better,” Santa Barbara County Fire Chief Geoff Banks said. The Sheriff’s Department however, successfully evacuate 1,400 residents from their homes and 250 inmates from the medium security “Honor Farm” facility at the height of the blaze. The Gap Fire burned almost 9,500 acres in the foothills north of the Goleta Valley. The joint effort, the panel said, was largely successful.

What could have been improved, according to speakers and the audience, was the emergency public information system. Residents complained about the lack of information from local sources.

“I’m here to say that from our perspective, news and information was very slow coming out of the county during the Gap Fire,” said Cathy Murillo, news and public affairs director at KCSB radio. Other residents aired their concerns about access to evacuated homes, and the effectiveness of hydromulch.

The rains this winter are expected to send about 300,000 cubic yards of sediment into the creeks, along with debris from burned out watersheds. Flooding is expected, and the county has been deep in preparations installing debris racks and excavating sediments basins and removing debris. The work is about half done, county Public Works Director Tom Fayram said.

Meanwhile, the city of Goleta will be modifying the culverts in its creeks to allow for higher flows.

The U.S. Forest Service will perform aerial hydromulching on its lands to prevent erosion.

Since the Gap Fire, there have been steps taken by local agencies to improve the public emergency information system, a system that will be crucial as early as the first winter rains, including websites, reverse notification calls through the 9-1-1 system, and radio and cell phone communication. Even so, said Eric Boldt of the National Weather, people should be more weather-savvy for themselves. Flash flooding, he said, is the No. 1 reason people lose their lives in severe weather.

“I want everyone in the room to pretend they’re a midwesterner,” he said, recommending the use of a weather radio to monitor the rains.

Other pro-active measures local residents were encouraged to take included procuring sandbags and storing up to three days worth of supplies.

“Do you have a family disaster plan?” Harris asked. “Think about the ways you can get in and get out.”

Residents, particularly those in the places that have historically flooded, including those in Old Town Goleta and in the Winchester Canyon neighborhood, were strongly advised to take out flood insurance.

“We don’t get to put floods out,” said Jana Critchfield, a flood insurance specialist from FEMA. “They go till they’re done, and then they stop.”

Owners of land that has been affected by the fire are encouraged to contact NCRS for possible assistance with conservation assistance to prepare their properties and prevent erosion.

Thursday’s forum was the first of several planned meetings to discuss winter preparations in the area. The next one will be from 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. Sept. 23 at Goleta Valley Junior High School, and another from 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. Oct. 2 at the Goleta Valley Community Center. Meeting times for people who live and work in the Winchester Canyon area and along the Hollister Avenue area have yet to be decided.

Noozhawk staff writer Sonia Fernandez can be reached at [email protected]

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