Public Safety

County Deploys Mutual Aid Emergency Workers to Fires

When fierce wildfires devastated parts of Northern California and the state of Washington in recent months, five San Diego County employees deployed to assist with emergency operations in a couple of the hardest hit areas.

The employees from four departments all brought experience from working during emergency incidents in San Diego County and provided help through what’s known as mutual aid. The way it works is a County or City assists other areas when they are overwhelmed with a disaster. In turn, that County or City can ask for help when it is needed for another disaster.

While firefighters often provide mutual aid assistance on the front lines, these five County employees all assisted in Emergency Operations Centers or fire incident command centers.

Last month, three County employees traveled to Lake County to assist with the Valley Fire response: Bennett Cummings from the Office of Emergency Services, Sarah Gordon from the Public Safety Group Executive Office and José A. Álvarez from the Communications Office. The Valley Fire, which burned more than 76,000 acres across Lake, Napa and Sonoma Counties, is considered the third most destructive fire in the state to date this year. The fire destroyed nearly 2,000 structures, including nearly 1,300 homes. By comparison, the 2003 Cedar Fire in San Diego County is considered the second most destructive wildfire — and remains the largest wildfire — in state history.

Cummings, a Senior Emergency Services Coordinator, worked in the Lake County Emergency Operations Center (EOC) in Lakeport as a liaison for the Local Assistance Center in the Middletown community. This center offered recovery resources for affected residents. Later, he helped Lake County outline a transitional recovery plan and coordinated among several San Diego County departments, state emergency officials and Lake County staff to provide information on a variety of public health and recovery best practices San Diego identified in the aftermath of its major fires.

“This is the largest disaster I have been involved with,” said Cummings. “It was a very good experience. I’m already applying some lessons learned to my work.”

Meanwhile, Gordon, a Public Safety Group staff officer, and Álvarez , a communications specialist, deployed to the Valley Fire for five days to work in the public information unit in Lakeport. Both used social media, the Lake County’s news and recovery website, and traditional media to get information to affected residents. Their professionalism and leadership skills led to both being asked to stay an extra day to oversee operations of the communications unit.

“The 12-hour shifts were a bit long but very rewarding because the information we were sharing with fire survivors was connecting them to resources that helped them restore a bit of order as they began to rebuild their lives,” said Álvarez .

In Washington State, Stephen Rea, the assistant director of the County’s Office of Emergency Services, served three weeks on a San Diego Urban Incident Management Team for the North Star and Tunk Block wildfires, the largest in that state’s history. The San Diego team’s deployment was the first time an All-Hazard Incident Management Team had been ordered through the national ordering system through the U.S. Forest Service. The 15-member team also included fire department members from San Diego Fire-Rescue, Heartland Fire & Rescue, Coronado and Carlsbad.

Rea worked as a liaison officer in charge of relaying information between his team and the Fairchild Air Force Base in Spokane where they first reported and then at the Northstar Fire in the town of Nespelem. In this assignment, Rea would drive around the fire’s perimeter every day talking with city Emergency Operations Center directors as well as tribal leaders and community officials who had concerns to share with the fire incident commanders.

“Coming from the emergency operations center side, I can now use what I learned when I’m on the other side of the fence and I have to interact with an emergency management team that has come to San Diego to help with a local disaster,” Rea said.

     RELATED: County Fire Mapper Brings Expertise to California Firefights

San Diego County Fire Authority GIS Information Specialist Matt Turner deployed twice to work on wildfires in Northern California. He assisted with fire mapping for nearly two weeks last month at the Butte Fire in Amador and Calaveras counties. Previously in August, Turner served for two weeks on the Rocky and Jerusalem wildfires, both of which affected Lake, Yolo and Colusa counties. On both assignments, he created critical maps that showed specific situations such as the fire progression, perimeter and fire operations, among others.

All five were honored Tuesday with a Board of Supervisors proclamation recognizing their work.

Yvette Urrea Moe is a communications specialist with the County of San Diego Communications Office. Contact