Southern California Fires Have Wide Ranging Impact

The recent wildfires in my home county of Orange in California remind me of the frailty of our environment, our infrastructure and of our life on this planet.

by Fritz Egger

The recent wildfires in my home county of Orange in California remind me of the frailty of our environment, our infrastructure and of our life on this planet. Natural disasters impart a major impact on everything standing in their way, including water and wastewater infrastructure. This impact is not always well publicized – yet water supplies are critical to fighting fires, and water and wastewater service is vital for allowing residents to return home.

The series of blazes, which at one time stretched from Ventura County to south of the U.S.-Mexico border, will go down as among the most destructive in recent California history. The fires destroyed more than 2,800 structures. They charred more than 500,000 acres – an area more than double the size of New York City – while killing seven people and injuring 113 firefighters and 26 civilians.

The hardest hit area was San Diego County. Local utilities continue to face great difficulty and will do so for quite some time. The town of Ramona, whose 36,000 residents were all evacuated at one point, struggled mightily to bring potable water to its residents. A pressure loss in a Poway pumping station resulted in possible contamination, so a bottled water only directive remained in effect for days. The Red Cross and National Guard were instrumental in setting up bottled water distribution points and sustaining the population with drinking water.

The Olivenhain Municipal Water District, which serves an area including the hard hit Rancho Bernardo, saw one third of its service area charred and further damaged as a result of strong Santa Ana wind conditions. According to George Briest, Engineering Manager, a lot had been learned from the 2003 Cedar fire and a great deal of infrastructure has been put in place since. However, a pump station and several communications facilities were in the burn zone and sustained damage in this most recent event. Power outages resulted in communication difficulties.

The most significant unanticipated problem occurred during the three-day period in which the majority of the district’s residents were forced to evacuate their homes. As a result, the wastewater treatment plant saw drastically reduced flow during this time, causing severe changes in operational characteristics. At one point, the staff even considered buying pet food and putting it in the flow to keep the plant’s bacteria from starving. Fortunately, the situation was stabilized and has now returned to normal.

Currently, many challenges remain. First and foremost, resources are diverted as many staff members are absent from work - busy putting their own lives back together. The district is planning to apply to FEMA for funds to replace damaged equipment and operational plans on how to proceed in the future are being developed. Briest said, “Most of California is a wildlife interface area. We must plan for this type of event because it will occur again.”

From my own experiences, I have gained significantly greater appreciation for the rapid response by firefighters and by our local utilities. Skilled professional firefighters were successful in halting the approach of Orange County’s Santiago Fire flames one half mile and one small ridge from my own home. Our neighborhood was awed by the skill and precision of all those involved, including pilots refilling their water-dropping helicopters in the shallow Oso Reservoir directly behind our development, at an amazing rate of one chopper every 30 seconds.

The after effects of the blaze and the lunar type landscape that remains are nothing short of startling. Countless burn areas in Portola Hills, Foothill Ranch and Santiago Canyon show charring within mere feet of residential property lines, schools and businesses.

Safeguarding our population and property, as well as recovery efforts, truly require a team effort. We have seen the best of mankind in the past two weeks. Resilient California citizens, dedicated local utilities, law enforcement and firefighters were at their best in overcoming this catastrophe.

About the author:

Fritz Egger is Director of International Operations at JWC Environmental, a manufacturer of stormwater and wastewater equipment based in Costa Mesa, CA. Fritz is chair of WWEMA’s Global Competitiveness Committee and serves on its Board of Directors.

More in Infrastructure Funding