Calif. Wildfire Fight a Model of Emergency Response

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A giant wildfire torched 25,000 acres of brush northeast of Los Angeles last week, but the flames claimed only a few homes and no lives. Many disaster relief experts consider California's emergency response system a model for the rest of the nation.


This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

It's wildfire season out West. Three fires are burning now in the southern part of California. Last week, a fire outside Los Angeles went through nearly 25,000 acres, but only three homes were lost and nobody was injured. It was luck, experts say, but also a lot of planning that's making California a model for the nation. NPR's Carrie Kahn reports.

CARRIE KAHN reporting:

It was about three in the morning last Thursday when sheriff deputies pounded on the door of Bob Rosenzweig's Ventura County home.

Mr. BOB ROSENZWEIG (Ventura, California, Resident): And they said, `You've got about 15 minutes and you need to get out.' So immediately, you know, you pack up what you can. We got our dog and our wedding album and left and headed off to my parents' in Tarzana.

KAHN: Rosenzweig was one of hundreds of residents evacuated over 48 hours last week as the wildfires spread over two counties and through dozens of densely packed suburban subdivisions. By the time he was retelling his story to a reporter later that day, Rosenzweig and his family and the dog were already back home.

Mr. ROSENZWEIG: What's amazing is how these firefighters, with how close it is to our home, can protect the homes--it's shocking to me how they do it.

KAHN: Residents weren't the only ones commending firefighters' quick control of the blaze. Politicians lined up at press conferences to congratulate officials. Even the media piled on the praise. Los Angeles County Fire Chief P. Michael Freeman says a lot went right in fighting the fire. Foremost, the winds died down and cooler weather prevailed. But he says from the evacuations to setting up a unified command, everyone followed the plans.

Chief P. MICHAEL FREEMAN (Fire Chief, Los Angeles County Fire Department): That means that we come together at a common point, we make joint decisions, and we develop one plan of action, and then we executed in a unified way.

KAHN: Executing disaster plans has become California's forte, says Eric Lamoureux of the state's Office of Emergency Services, so much so that federal planners are now using California's standardized emergency system as the model for the nation. Lamoureux says the key to the system's success is getting all emergency personnel trained exactly the same way.

Mr. ERIC LAMOUREUX (Office of Emergency Services, California): No matter what community they've come from, they can integrate into an emergency and they're speaking with the same terminology that the commanders of the incident are using. They operate with the same operating systems and same understanding of how to deal with that particular emergency.

KAHN: In California, that means taking care of the basics, like making sure emergency responders from different agencies can always talk to each other, something that was a major problem in New Orleans dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. LA County Fire Chief Freeman says every year without fail he's dealing with another California natural disaster and getting another chance to learn from his mistakes. He says first responders in other parts of the country have to find ways to practice.

Chief FREEMAN: To attempt to teach and to train first responders in various agencies in incident command without some realistic practical exercise, to me, is like trying to teach somebody how to ride a bike by reading a book.

KAHN: Even with all its practice, California doesn't have a perfect record. The response to a major fire in San Diego two years ago, a blaze that claimed more than 2,000 houses and 14 lives, was found severely lacking. That disaster was claimed on scarce resources and bad communication, two missteps that officials say were not repeated during last week's fire. Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Los Angeles.

CHADWICK: DAY TO DAY continues just ahead. Stay with us. I'm Alex Chadwick.

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