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Old 01-14-2019, 7:05 AM
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Default Experiences with the Thomas Fire and subsequent Debris flow

I've been meaning to post in this thread for a while but have been busy with clean up so I have been waiting for some down time to post We were hit with the Thomas fire in Dec of 2017 and then were hit with the follow up debris flow in Jan of 2018. There is a lot of good information in this sun forum, but I'll add my experiences from the last year and what has transpired since the events of a year ago. I'll try to post periodically about various things as time permits but feel free to ask about anything that you might be interested in.

Things I'll try to go over are prep/planning, (what I did and what I would do differently), dealing with evacuations ( expect to be told you cannot go home for weeks not days), cleaning up, rebuilding, Gov help (the feds were great, the state/local govs sucked and continue to suck), running the Insurance gauntlet (I have USAA and they have been horrible, AIG, AAA, and Allstate really took care of business for their policy holders), and what you can expect from utilities (weeks for power/internet, land line over 3 months).

Please keep in mind this will be for my experience and observations based on what happened at my place and is only my opinion. Your experience will be dependent on your particular situation

FWIW, I posted a lessons learned in the off topic section after the fire and if you are interested, here is the link. The mods can decide if it might be better in this sub forum.

http://www.calguns.net/calgunforum/s...ht=thomas+fire

Last edited by toro1; 01-17-2019 at 6:45 AM..
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Old 01-14-2019, 7:21 AM
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Planning and prep for a fire-
As has been said often, clear around your structures. Fire personnel say they want at least 100' but clear more if you can. Also clear tree limbs to 6' off the deck to remove the "fire ladders". If possible plant plants with high water content around the house to provide a wet buffer. We also put out rainbirds around the property to saturate the ground. IT was clear from the burn lines that the areas where this was done was effective.

There are many document lists that have been posted of things to take and so I will not go into that as the existing lists are excellent. However, think about keeping copies of those docs in multiple locations. Safe deposit boxes, at work or where ever you think will be safe. Include in this a video of all of your belongings and structures. When going thru burned things you will forget what was there and it also provides a record for the insurance company.

If you are in a fire prone area, you should also think about different scenarios for your prep. For example, if the fire is coming from a long distance what will you do for final prep? It is different than if you are running for your life because it started at midnight close to your house. Also think about what you will do if you are away from your house when a fire starts and they close off your area. Know back ways to get to your house and we found using the kids/pets are still at the house and I need to bet there to evac them works wonders for getting through. I'll give more details on house prep in the next message later today.
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Old 01-16-2019, 7:54 AM
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House Prep- Everyone already knows that clearing around house is one of the most important things to do, but there are also other things that can be done to enhance the chances of survival for your house. If you have roof vents that are not the fire safe style, install 1/8" mesh metal screen over the openings. Also pre make covers that will cover the entire vent and if you have time install them. When the fire guys showed up in my driveway, the first thing they said was get the vent openings covered so I cut up cardboard and duct taped them They worked great but the cutting of the covers took time. Luckily I had time, but if you are rushed having them pre-cut would help.

If you have a good water supply, consider installing a 1 1/2" wharf head for the tankers to hook up to and get large signs to mark their location, and also buy some hoses and a good nozzle to attach to it for your own use. If you do this make sure you install a wharf head that has the correct threads or get an adapter. There are at least a couple of different thread standards in use and its worth checking what your local fire dept uses. Also understand where your water supply is coming from. If it is gravity feed, you will probably be OK (provided the source is fire proof), but if it is pumped realize when power is lost you will lose your source unless you have a generator. If you plan to use a generator make sure it is rated for at least 3X watts of what your pumps steady state wattage is. For startup, pumps draw a large amount of current and your generator will need to cover it. Also keep spare starter capacitors around as generator power is very dirty and can blow caps.

Don't store flammable things against the house including firewood or furniture. If you are home when things start happening, you can always move things, but keep in mind you may not be home and there will be no one to move the things away from the house in that scenario.

Along these lines, if you have time, consider moving some things out of buildings and into the open. I lost all of my tools and shop equipment when my shop burned, but I could have easily moved most of that outside and it would probably have survived. Of course I lived in an isolated area where I did not need to worry about thieves so this may not be an option for everyone.

As I stated above, if you can saturate the area around you home before the fire gets there, do it. Many people on this board say it doesn't matter, but we have seen it can help. The firefighters even commented to one of my neighbors that as the fire approached, they could tell the humidity level around the houses was better.

On a final note, if you live in a high fire area, consider getting the local Fire Dept Community Liaison to come out and give you an evaluation of your property. Around here they are happy to do it and they point out areas where you can improve. It is also a chance for them to become familiar with your property and understand where everything is located.

Last edited by toro1; 01-17-2019 at 5:23 AM..
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Old 01-16-2019, 8:31 AM
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Evacuations- You should plan in advance if you are going to stay or evacuate when the fire or order comes. If you plan to shelter in place, you better do your homework and understand what that really means as when the fire comes over the hill, it is a frightening sight. This is a decision everyone needs to make on their own but do not overestimate your capabilities. It can cost you your life! If you plan to evacuate, do not wait until the last minute as the roads may be packed and you may be overtaken by the fire.

I stayed throughout most of the fire activity except the night the fire came through when I relocated to a safe area within the evac zone and then returned in the morning . The reason I stayed was the fact that the people in charge will keep residents out after the fire for weeks, not days. Be realistic about your capabilities and do not stay if you really do not understand the entire situation you are in.

If you do evacuate, plan to be gone for weeks and not days as the powers in charge do not want you around. Also, be prepared to return to nothing, but hope your house is still there. This sounds harsh but it is the reality. 3 neighbors lost their houses in our neighborhood so understand it happens and be ready for it. If your house is still standing when you return, realize you will probably not have power, phone, internet, or any other conveniences. As part of your planning process make sure you will be able to provide yourself with the basic things required while utilities are restored. In our situation it took SCE ~12 days to restore power, water was back in ~ 2 weeks, internet was ~3 weeks, and phone was 4 months. Because phone took so long, most of us switched to internet phone connections. We ended up using our RV as our main power and water source until the utilities were restored.

Added in Edit-
A couple other things about evacuations. As you are deciding when to leave, detailed information about the fire's progress seems to be very difficult to find. The best sources we found were maps by various agencies that used VIIRS and MODIS (satellite sensors) data. There were numerous web sites that used their data and they were updating every 6 hours. Using these sites, we are able to track the fire spotting and knew when the hill over the ridge from our house was on fire.
If you choose not to evacuate realize you will probably need supplies to ride out the evacuation order. You may need to make a trip out of the evac zone for at least gas to run the generator. Make sure you know a back way into you area so you can continue to do what needs to be done. For me and the other neighbors that stayed, it became clear very quickly we needed to be there to minimize after fire damage and prepare for when the power came back on. Power lines were down, water was running through broken conduit into house walls and if we had not been there further damage would have been done to the affected houses.

Another thing to remember, while there are mandatory evacuations you will not receive mail. The USPS will not deliver and you will need to go to your local Post Office to pick things up. The lines will be long and things will be lost. We had many bills go missing and received late notices with late fees months after the mail service was restored. Luckily, every single company waived the late fees after we explained what had happened.

Last edited by toro1; 01-18-2019 at 6:10 AM.. Reason: formatting
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Old 01-16-2019, 12:15 PM
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Excellent write sir!
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Old 01-17-2019, 5:20 AM
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Clean Up-
After the fire comes through if you lost any buildings, you will need to do cleanup. Something that may be of interest if you find yourself in this situation.

For our property, all of our lost buildings we wooden so they burned to the ground leaving only things that were not flammable. This left a significant amount of heavy debris that needed to be disposed of. I contacted a local trash firm (Marborg) and they said if I had clean scarp metal, there would be no weight charge for hauling it away. Over the next month I filled 3 20' rolloffs with scrap metal. I was charged $3/day for rental of the rolloff and a nominal delivery/pick up fee for each roll off, but no weight charge. You just need to be careful to ensure it is only metal as if they find anything else in it, they will charge you the full weight fee.

One thing you might want to do before starting the cleanup is to buy a wheeled magnetic pick up device. Your property may be covered in nails and flats on your work vehicles suck. I cleaned the ground frequently but still had an occasional flat on my truck. I am still rolling the magnetioc pick through the affected places and finding nails and screws. Harbor freight has an inexpensive pick up for this.

Last edited by toro1; 01-17-2019 at 5:40 AM..
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Old 01-17-2019, 6:37 AM
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Insurance-
Just a quick explanation for those that might not know how it works when you have a loss. I didn't know the process and its a major PITA especially when you are trying to restore basic functionality to your property.

You should check what the Lawyers call Part B of your policy. This is the "other structures" portion and is usually a % of the house insured total. In talking to those Lawyers, they say at least 80% of people are under insured in this area. I know I was and it had created a major financial headache. Take a look at your policy and get estimates for replacing fences, walls, rockwork, plants and keep in mind that cleanup is also in the Part B. Once you know what it will take to replace things, you will know if your Part B is adequate. Remember you may not only have a fire cleanup, there may also be a mud cleanup later.

For personal loss items, the Insurance compoany will require a complete listing of everything you lost. The listing needs to include how old the item was and what the replacement cost would be. The Insurance company will then apply depreciation to the replacement cost and in theory write a check for everything. You can then use that money to start replacing things and submit receipts. The insurance company will then reimbursement you for your actual cost. Sounds easy in theory but I have had nothing but problems while my neighbors have seen the process work very well for them. I think it depends on who your insurance company as well as who your adjuster is.

Last edited by toro1; 01-17-2019 at 6:43 AM..
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Old 01-17-2019, 7:51 AM
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Thanks for taking the time to write this up toro1. Sorry to hear of the damage to your property. I know people who lost their home in Paradise.
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Old 01-18-2019, 6:05 AM
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Thanks for taking the time to write this up toro1. Sorry to hear of the damage to your property. I know people who lost their home in Paradise.
Thanks and while we did take a hit, there are others that were hit much harder. Three of our neighbors lost everything and a month after the fire 23 people died in the mud/debris flows. We actually feel pretty lucky to have had a house and guest cabin remain standing.

Last edited by toro1; 02-03-2019 at 7:09 AM..
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Old 01-18-2019, 6:18 AM
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Thank you for the nice, detailed write up. Glad you are o.k. and are able to write about it.
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Old 01-18-2019, 7:00 AM
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Last on the list for the Fire info is the Government "help" that will be coming.

First and foremost, a big Thank You to the boots on the ground guys and gals. These people are fantastic and work their tails off to protect the structures. We had people from every western state in our driveway and they were all very professional and knowledgeable. They were willing to discuss what was going on and very candid in their conversations. Unfortunately, after they leave you start to see a mixed bag of people showing up. I will break down the other Gov help by State/Local and Fed because they seem to have different goals.

Federal Help- For the most part the Feds that show up to help are truly there to help you. I did not talk to any FEMA people but my neighbors that did found them to be knowledgeable about available resources and would do what was needed to help people. I primarily interfaced with Dept of Ag folks and found them to be great. The USDA announced meetings to discuss available aid for Ag people (I grew Avocados) and so we signed up for site visits. After they showed up it became clear they could help with much more than just my orchard. They were well versed in land damage after fires and helped us understand what dangers were possible with the coming storms and made recommendations on how to prepare for possible mudslides.

One of the more interesting things they explained was how to gauge slide danger based on what flora was left on the hill. If there were still green plants on the hillside, the root structures were in good shape and slide risk was low. If there were burned plants visible above ground the roots may be compromised, but the seed pack was probably intact so the slide risk was higher, but plants would sprout quickly after rain. If the ground looked like a lunar landscape, it meant everything was dead including the seed pack. In these areas it would take years for the plants to return and stabilize the soil. Keep in mind these are generalities and future problems will depend on how much rain you receive. These folks also had recommendations on how to prepare the property so water and mud would flow around the house and minimize possible damage. I will not go into the specific details of the specific Ag programs available to commercial growers as that is somewhat specialized and probably not of general interest, but anyone interested can PM me. The Natural Resource Conservation Service (NCRS) of the USDA were the ones that helped understand the land condition risks, and they are good people.

State and Local Gov-Please keep in mind that what I am about to write is my opinion only and is for California and Santa Barbara County personnel that I dealt with.

From my and my neighbors experience, state and local people are not here to help. They arrive and the first thing they do is tell you what you cannot do, and what paperwork you need to proceed. If you don't believe me just watch the press conferences after disaster. The officials are quick to point out it is Global Warming's fault and talk about what we need to solve that while saying very little about what is being done to help the people affected by the event. They want to tour your property so they can determine how many roadblocks they can put in your way. We made every attempt to minimize contact with these folks including not letting them on the property and things have worked out pretty well. For those that were forced to interface with these County/State bureaucracies, it has not been easy. My recommendation is to move as quickly as possible on your cleanup and repairs so you can get as much as possible before this help shows up. Unfortunately, if you lost your house, this may not be an option.


Next up will be debris flow info. While the fire cleanup was relatively straight forward, clearing 3' of mud from around the house and infrastructure is tedious and took much more time. More later.

Last edited by toro1; 02-03-2019 at 7:13 AM..
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Old 01-19-2019, 7:31 AM
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Debris and Mud Flow-

A month after the Fire came through, we had a freak storm that dropped 2+ inches of rain in ~20 minutes. While we thought we were high enough in the hills to avoid slides, we were wrong. We ended up with~3' of mud against the house and 3' of mud and boulders covering key infrastructure locations. Luckily no mud got into the house so we dodged another bullet. We immediately got to work removing the mud next to the house so the watyer wouldn't seep through the stucco. It took 3 of us ~6 hours to remove it as I couldn't use my tractor because it would sink in. It was weeks before we were able to start removing the mud, but getting it away from the house quickly is very important. This is a situation where I am glad we did not evacuate as we would have ended up with water in the walls of our house because they did not let people back for a couple of weeks.

While I have a small tractor that could clear around the house, it was clear I would need something much bigger to clear the areas that were away from the house and covering the area where my water supply lines needed repair. Due to the size of the boulders that I had seen thrown around lower in the canyon, I knew it would be a while before we would be able to travel on the roads to get equipment, but I knew I needed a large backhoe. I called the local rental place and reserved one for 2 weeks out. It was a good thing I did as when I picked it up, there was a 6 week waiting list. If something like this happens to you, plan ahead and try to get in front of everyone else for whatever you might need. You can always cancel later.

One thing I would have liked to do but didn't have time for was spreading native seeds in the scorched area above our house. In my instance a month would not have been long enough to allow anything to take root, but if you have a fire in the late spring, summer, or fall, consider buying and spreading seeds. Local seed and feed shops stock these but they can be found cheaper on line. For reference, local prices prices for native sage for our area was $50/lb and a flower mix was $40/lb. On line prices were half of that. Just remember to avoid planting brush type plants in areas where you will need to clear later for future fire abatement.

Last edited by toro1; 01-19-2019 at 7:36 AM..
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Old 02-01-2019, 12:41 PM
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You should also have a plan for what to do in the event of a natural disaster. I was in Malibu for the duration of the Woolsey Fire and my "crazy prepper stuff" was able to get myself and several others through during the time of mandatory evacuation and hard closures of all routes in and out of the city. Once you left the area you couldn't get back in and local officials weren't letting the truck loads of supplies piled up at roadblocks through. Water was off for 4 days, power/internet/phone for 12, and cell coverage for weeks.

During a more widespread SHTF situation I would have made different decisions with the supplies on hand but knowing that life was "normal" outside of the evacuation area I was confident in how I decided to ration supplies to those who stayed to defend their homes and businesses.

Together our group saved dozens of homes and businesses using garden hoses, pumps, and pool water. None of us were starving or dehydrated while others were desperately waiting for supplies to come in by boat (until the Coast Guard and Sheriffs started patrolling the water and shut that down as well). I'll probably never eat Stroganoff again but that is a different story.
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Old 02-03-2019, 7:43 AM
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Since it is raining and I cannot be outside working, I'll add one final note about the aftermath of the debris flows. As bad as the fire aftermath was, if you have a bad debris flow, your life will be much worse. Roads will be damaged and blocked and you will be forced to improvise for extended periods of time. You will be on your own and you will need to figure out how to make things happen. While doing this you will need to deal with obstructionist local Gov agencies that have no real interest in helping.

For example;
After the debris flow hit we cleared 1.5 miles of public road to get down to the state highway. We waited over a week for the county to clear 1/2 mile of road so we could get to town and resupply. They finally did it and we went down to pick up food, pet food, gas, diesel, and water. The next day we started to go down to fully stock up and they had blocked all of the roads. They said if we left we would not be allowed to come back. I called our local Sherriff's office who was in charge and asked why and was told it was because the roads were impassable. I informed him we had used them the day before and he said it didn't matter and we should get out. Since the road was impassable they would send a helicopter to pick me, my family, and pets up. I reiterated to him we have driven to the store the day before and he said that couldn't have happened and told me the helicopter could be there in 45 minutes and asked where it should land. This is the mentality you will be dealing with.

For the year after the debris flow we have been forced to use a circuitous route to get in and out of our neighborhood and that route necks down to a single lane in 2 different places. All traffic including the equipment doing the cleanup use that single route and travel is compromised. It used to take ~10 minutes to get to the freeway, but during this time it could take up to 1/2 hr. Calls to county offices and local officials were never answered or returned and so the status quo prevailed for way to long.

Last week after a year the county finally re-opened 2 more roads into our area so we can move about more freely. I spoke with the local Caltrans reps during the course of the ongoing work and was told the county had stopped work on occasions for things like wanting a specific Architect to design the bridge railings, and having to wait for his availability. I was also told they did want commuter using the roads so they needed them closed to through traffic. As I have said throughout this, do not expect help from your local officials and in our case, they seemed to actually get in the way and didn't care about our issues.

On a final note, Good Luck to all that have to go through any of this. Do all that you can to prep up front, but be prepared to be surprised by things you never expected. Be ready to adapt, keep a sense of humor, keep your loved ones close and make sure you have a good supply of alcohol or your favorite beverages stocked. A couple of neighbors forgot about the alcohol and it cost them dearly when they visited the bar at our place.

Last edited by toro1; 02-03-2019 at 7:47 AM..
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Old 02-03-2019, 7:58 AM
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Originally Posted by toro1 View Post
On a final note, Good Luck to all that have to go through any of this. Do all that you can to prep up front, but be prepared to be surprised by things you never expected. Be ready to adapt, keep a sense of humor, keep your loved ones close and make sure you have a good supply of alcohol or your favorite beverages stocked. A couple of neighbors forgot about the alcohol and it cost them dearly when they visited the bar at our place.
Incredible thread, all the best to you and yours
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Old 02-03-2019, 10:42 PM
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Thank you Toro1 for your write up. There is nothing better than a well written first hand account after something like this. I remember you original posts (Dec. 2017) following the aftermath of the Thomas Fire and have made some adjustments in my own fire-disaster contingency planning based on your experiences.

Did you upgrade your backup generator like you mentioned doing previously? Have you added any other firefighting tools or infrastructure based on what you experienced? Any other changes made around the property to better resist fire or flood?

Thanks again for the great write up.
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Old 02-04-2019, 8:15 AM
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Thank you Toro1 for your write up. There is nothing better than a well written first hand account after something like this. I remember you original posts (Dec. 2017) following the aftermath of the Thomas Fire and have made some adjustments in my own fire-disaster contingency planning based on your experiences.

Did you upgrade your backup generator like you mentioned doing previously? Have you added any other firefighting tools or infrastructure based on what you experienced? Any other changes made around the property to better resist fire or flood?

Thanks again for the great write up.
A lot has changed since I did the original write up after the fire. The debris flow came through and created a major mess that has taken most of our energy and money for the past year and has stalled a lot of the fire work I wanted to do. We also moved to Az in the spring and only come back to work on things. Since this is no longer the main house, I have scaled back some things that I had planned to do.

I did not buy a bigger generator, but would if we were still living in the Cal. As of now I decided between using the 3KW portable and the 2.8KW in the RV we could meet most demands when at the house in Cal.
One of the things I wanted to do was to replace the burned water tanks with metal ones (the old ones were wood and plastic) but the cheapest metal tank I could find was over $45K. That was cost prohibitive as the mud cleanup has eaten up most of our reserves. I went with 2 5000 gallon plastic tanks and can probably build a fireproof structure around them for ~1/3 of what the metal tank would cost. However, that is not the current plan.

Fire hardening I have been doing-
I have started rebuilding some of the retaining walls and instead of wood I am using the rocks/boulders left by the debris flow. There are plenty of rocks so far but I may need to find additional ones as time goes on. I have redone 3 of the 9 walls so far.

The previous owner had routed water and electrical lines together and after the fire this led to water getting into the electrical conduit and being dumped into the wall at the house. This was due to the close proximity of the 2 lines where they daylighted. I have worked to ensure the lines are now separated by 20' where they daylight. I have also worked to ensure as much as possible is underground as possible through out what is left of the orchard. I also added a drain to one of my below ground electrical boxes to ensure there is no water buildup in it.

Flood hardening-
Most of my drain collection points were made from pressure treated wood and no longer exist. I have been clearing the area around the exit pipes (they were OK) to keep water flowing, but will use concrete to rebuild the basins. I have also added T posts at the entrance points for the big drains. The NRCS personnel explained the best way to do this so debris does not clog the intakes an they have worked great. During each storm I need to remove tree limbs and brush, but the drains have for the most part run clear during the storms.

Last edited by toro1; 02-04-2019 at 8:18 AM..
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Old 02-04-2019, 10:48 AM
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Thanks for updating. Your experience underscores how important it is to plan for something bad to happen so its impact will be minimized or be managed. Its too bad local government was so unresponsive to the needs of you and your neighbors.

Local government should have been your strongest ally. What a shame they distinguished themselves by being the most obstructive to your efforts to return to normalcy.
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Old 02-17-2019, 7:02 PM
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I was involved as a QC and APM for the Mud Slides following the Thomas Fire for two different basins...I've never realized the power of Nature till then.

Nothing can prepare you for that damage. Not even a moat that's 40 ft deep. If your in the hills after a fire and they say evacuate...you evacuate.
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Old 02-18-2019, 6:13 AM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by pacifico23 View Post
I was involved as a QC and APM for the Mud Slides following the Thomas Fire for two different basins...I've never realized the power of Nature till then.

Nothing can prepare you for that damage. Not even a moat that's 40 ft deep. If your in the hills after a fire and they say evacuate...you evacuate.
While I agree with your sentiment I do not agree with using an Evac order as your decision making criteria. The evac orders come from a person with no knowledge of anyone's personal situation. For the debris flow that killed 23 people in Montecito, there was no evac order for many of the people in harms way. After the initial debris flow, large swaths of people were told to evacuate that could not have been in danger because they were clearly above danger zones. Each person needs to take responsibility for themselves and their situation and make a decision based on that. I'm not finding fault with the people sending out the evac order, but trying to drive home the point don't rely on them because they cannot know everything.

That being said here are a couple of pics taken ~1.5 miles downstream from our house showing debris that was tossed around. They drive home Pacifico's point as they were taken ~.5 miles below a large debris dam that filled up and then allowed debris to go further downstream.

The rock in the center of the pic was ~3X the size of a VW Beetle. We are not sure where it came from, but it was not there before.

[IMG][/IMG]

This picture shows a bridge that stopped rocks and other debris from going further downstream. You cannot tell it is a bridge but if you look the sides of the roadway you can see the remnants of the railing. The 3 rocks in the picture are about 2X the size of a VW Beetle and the riverbed used to be ~25' below the bridge and was ~50' wide. When the water was flowing the water was hitting the rocks and going over the power lines in the picture. As can be seen from the size of the rocks, people and people in cars do not stand a chance if they are in the way.

[IMG][/IMG]

Last edited by toro1; 02-18-2019 at 6:34 AM..
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Old 02-18-2019, 6:25 AM
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Pacifico, thanks to you and all of your co workers for all that you did as it was a very bad situation. What is QC and APM? I'm not familiar with those acronyms.

Last edited by toro1; 02-18-2019 at 6:37 AM..
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