Government Fleet Top News

Behind the Scenes During California’s Thomas Fire

February 16, 2018

Fire threatened vehicles on this slope behind City Hall; Police personnel helped move the vehicles. Photo courtesy of City of Ventura
Fire threatened vehicles on this slope behind City Hall; Police personnel helped move the vehicles. Photo courtesy of City of Ventura

Starting Dec. 4, 2017, the Thomas wildfire burned 281,893 acres in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties in Southern California. It destroyed 1,063 structures and damaged 280 others before being fully contained more than a month later, on Jan. 12.

City of Ventura Fleet and Facilities Manager Mary Joyce Ivers, CPFP, was called to the emergency operations center (EOC) the night the fires began. She talks about her fleet department’s experience and response during the fire.

Q: How did fleet respond to the fire?

A: I am so proud of our fleet and city team, who worked tirelessly during the fire.

After I arrived at the emergency operations center around 10 p.m., our fleet mechanics Robert Winman and Tim Wolverton came in to help fuel emergency generators and provide support. They worked all through the night, and they put out a few small fires during their fueling routes. We had a shift change, and the other mechanics took over the duty of fueling six emergency generators continuously for the week.

At about 11 p.m. that evening, the police commander asked for all the keys to the city vehicles parked at City Hall. The back slope was engulfed, and the fire was headed to the parking lot where about 10 city vehicles park. Thankfully, I remembered the vehicle numbers and called Silvia Medrano, our fleet accounting technician who had stayed at the fleet shop to work after making sure her family was safe, to grab all the keys for vehicles numbered under 100 and take to Police to move the cars. Fleet staff assisted police personnel with moving all the vehicles away from the burning slope.

A John Deere Gator burned inside a storage box. Photo courtesy of City of Ventura
A John Deere Gator burned inside a storage box. Photo courtesy of City of Ventura

Q: Were you concerned about fuel availability during the fire?

A: That night, our fuel levels were about half full. I called the fuel supplier, who responded that the fuel ordered that day would be there in a couple of days. I said, "Have you seen the news? I need fuel now." The company got deliveries of fuel within a few hours in the middle of the night and continuously kept us filled for the week. We also had a fuel truck and driver on-site to deliver fuel to the critical sites with generators. We fueled more than 3,100 gallons for mutual aid fire apparatus in the first few days. The city consumed almost 13,000 gallons of fuel in six days, and our average monthly fuel usage is 20,000 gallons!

Within the first few hours, Fire Command requested the mutual aid agencies be fueled at the maintenance yard until they were set up at the base camp at the fairgrounds. After Silvia and her young family were evacuated, she worked all night long to help fuel the fire trucks. Barbara McCormack, our management analyst, joined us the next morning. Bryan Daniels, our designated fuel contractor and electrician, was called in Tuesday morning to repair a slow pump. He stayed and assisted all day cleaning fire truck windows.

We provided food, water, and Gatorade to the firefighters who were getting fuel after working the fire. Their faces were black with soot and some needed eye wash.

Q: How did your vehicles fare?

A: We have a compliant preventive maintenance program, so no vehicles had mechanical issues or breakdowns during the fire response. We are performing additional safety inspections and replaced the cabin air filters in Police, Fire, Public Works, Parks and Water vehicles. We will be performing inspection services of emergency generators to ensure their continuous reliability.

As for damages, we had one Seagrave engine windshield damaged, and it was replaced. A John Deere Gator burned inside a storage box. Hydraulic hoses to a water pump burned, a roll-off truck body was damaged, and a trailer that was located at a hillside water site was damaged. We estimate approximately $30,000 in damages.

A trailer is shown with fire damage.Photo courtesy of City of Ventura
A trailer is shown with fire damage.Photo courtesy of City of Ventura

Q: Is fleet still working on post-fire work? Can you provide an update? 

A: We are supporting fueling of some emergency generators as well as preventive maintenance.

Q: What have you learned from this experience?

A: Make sure your family is safe and report to work. Have a strong partnership with the fuel supplier and great preventive maintenance programs for all vehicles and equipment. Have two-way radios and a good contact list for employees and contractors readily available. We’ll soon be acquiring a fuel program that will give us access to real-time fuel levels, so any fleet personnel can log in and view it — we won’t have to call Sylvia for this anymore!

Q: Do you have any additional comments?

A: I am so proud of our dedicated and committed fleet team! Public Works employees are first responders! Fleet and all the maintenance yard staff knew what needed to be done and worked in very smoky conditions the first few days. I was at the EOC and not at the yard to direct the work, and the staff showed great initiative and care. NAPA IBS provided safety and personal protective equipment all throughout the response.

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