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California Fire, Utility Officials Make Preparations to Protect Infrastructure

August 26, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Jeffrey Brown talks to Capt. Mike Mohler of the California Dept. of Forestry and Fire Protection and Harlan Kelly of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission about the challenges of battling the wildfire near Yosemite and keeping regional water and power supplies safe.
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TRANSCRIPT

JEFFREY BROWN:  And we get two updates on the situation this evening from officials dealing with the fire, first, Captain Mike Mohler. He’s the public information officer with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, and has been in the Rim fire area since Thursday. I talked to him a short time ago.

Captain Mohler, thanks for joining us.

We hear about slightly more containment today. What does that mean? What’s your assessment of the latest situation?

CAPT. MIKE MOHLER, California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection: Well, yes we’re up to 15 percent contain on the Rim fire.

What that means to us right now is, yes, we have increased our containment, but this is a 150,000-acre fire. We have had extreme weather conditions. So, we still have a difficult firefight in front of us.

JEFFREY BROWN:  What are the biggest problems that the firefighters are facing at this point?

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MIKE MOHLER: Well, right now, we are experiencing extreme wind shifts.

What is happening is, this fire is building up into what we would call almost a column which creates erratic winds. Not only that, but we have very dry fuel moistures, critical fuel moistures, and also the steep rocky terrain that makes it difficult to get our firefighters on the ground in some of these areas.

JEFFREY BROWN:  Are these kinds of things, are you going to predict them to get ahead of it or you just have to react as they happen?

MIKE MOHLER: Well, you know what? We do look at the weather.

That’s a key factor in us fighting these fires. But Mother Nature, we have to work with her. We have to adjust. And we have do, do that on a daily basis with our operations, which is we have to be dynamic and ready for these fire fronts.

And we do predict it. And that’s what — we go out in front of it, place containment lines, what we call contingency plans, and hopefully we are ready when that fire comes to us.

JEFFREY BROWN:  What kind of resources do you have? Do you have enough in terms of equipment and firefighters themselves?

MIKE MOHLER: We do.

This fire not only is the number one fire in the state of California, but it is also the number one fire in the nation. So resource orders are come to the Rim fire. We have about 4,000 ground troops and several aerial resources, not only helicopters, but also fixed-wing. And we have also activated the California National Guard, who is a big resource for us in fighting these fires.

JEFFREY BROWN:  Tell us about protecting the power and water sources. How do you go about doing that?

MIKE MOHLER: Well, we’re working very closely — the incident command team from the U.S. Forest Service is working very closely with the city of San Diego public utilities, also with the city of San Diego Fire Department.

But I can tell you that that is a very important structure and infrastructure, so firefighters and crews are out there protecting that area.

JEFFREY BROWN:  There were reports late today that the fire is getting quite close to the reservoir.

MIKE MOHLER: That is correct.

But, in anticipation of that fire, again, we have put in what we call dozer lines, hand crew lines. We have also surrounded that with engine companies in preparation for that fire front. We have been monitoring it since the start of this fire, and we will continue to monitor it and protect that critical infrastructure for the city of San Francisco.

JEFFREY BROWN:  I think this summer with a lot of fires, everybody has been aware of safety, especially what happened in Arizona. What kind of — does that change the way you fight fires now?

MIKE MOHLER: Well, yes.

The tragedy in Prescott, Arizona, it weighs heavy on all the firefighters out here. Yes, safety is our priority concern. Escape routes, safety zones — all these people out here are trained professionals. Do we look at those type of incidents and learn from them? Absolutely. And we will. That is going to be an extensive investigation.

But I can tell you, heavy hearts out here. We have even taken a moment of silence here at the Rim fire to remember those firefighters. But, yes, it’s in the back of our minds and we have to monitor that on a daily basis.

JEFFREY BROWN:  What about the other — another thing that’s being closely watched is those major sequoia groves. What kind of steps or prevention measures are you taking?

 

MIKE MOHLER: Well, the National Park Service has a very aggressive fire team and fire preparation.

They have evacuated those groves, and they also have protection measures, not only sprinklers, but they have prepared and prepped around those groves. I know that obviously Yosemite is not only a national treasure, but a worldwide treasure, that that is an important part not only for the command team from the U.S. Forest Service, but also the National Park Service, to protect those sequoia groves.

JEFFREY BROWN:  And, briefly, do you know any more about the cause of this at this point?

MIKE MOHLER: I do not know the cause. Right now, we have it under investigation and it’s an ongoing investigation as we speak.

JEFFREY BROWN:  But for you in terms of historical perspective, this is pretty serious?

MIKE MOHLER: It’s very serious.

This community throughout this area, not only Yosemite, but all the communities involved, they are not foreign to wildfire. This area has a lot of fire history. These communities are prepared with home clearance, defensible space. They have seen this before.

But this is one of the largest fires in California history, and unfortunately right now it continues to grow. But with the troops that we have, we hope to turn the corner on this quickly, but, again, we’re cautiously optimistic, dynamic situation.

JEFFREY BROWN:  All right, Captain Mike Mohler, thanks so much and good luck to everyone out there.

And now to the general manager of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, Harlan Kelly.

Mr. Kelly, thanks for joining us. I know you were also out by the fire area today. What is your assessment of the current situation?

HARLAN KELLY, San Francisco Public Utilities Commission: Yes, I was just out there earlier today.

Where I was, was at Moccasin, which is a town about 45 miles away from the face of our Hetch Hetchy Dam. I tell you, I definitely want to give the women and men out there fighting the fires a lot of respect and whatever support we can do for those brave men and women out there fighting the fires.

Also, I wanted to really focus on our staff to really focus on our infrastructure, and really look at assessing our infrastructure, when we are able to get in and examine our water lines, and also our power lines.

JEFFREY BROWN:  Well, tell us a little bit about that. What kind of problems are you having with the power stations right now?

HARLAN KELLY: Well, currently, there are two power stations that are not up and running. We have one. Typically, we produce about 160 megawatts of power to meet the municipal load in San Francisco.

And, currently, we have one power station which is producing about 50 megawatts. So, for the balance, we are working with a bank that we have with another utilities company, Pacific Gas and Electric, where when we have excess power, we put it in the bank. We’re now withdrawing that now, and then we go onto the spot market and purchase power.

So, as of Monday, from Monday until today, we spent about $600,000 in additional power purchases.

JEFFREY BROWN:  And with the reservoir, the issue is contamination. Right? So, what kind of steps can you take to prevent that at this point because the fire is getting quite close to that reservoir?

HARLAN KELLY: Yes, so I just wanted to make sure that we are clear that we feel very comfortable that we’re being able to deliver clean, fresh water, high-quality water like we always have done.

What we’re concerned about is the future impact of the water from the ash that will fall into our reservoirs. And so what we’re doing is we’re looking at contingency plans. And so currently one of the contingency plans that we are currently doing is, we are taking more of the water out of the reservoir and we are putting it into local storage, because, right now, the turbidity is the same as it was before the fire.

Turbidity is a measure of cloudiness. And so, right now, we feel very comfortable and confident to bring that water into our local reservoirs. And if the turbidity exceeds that, then we will start treating the water from our Hetchy system, which we typically do not have to do.

JEFFREY BROWN:  Just very briefly, if you would, so how vulnerable is the city of San Francisco to something that happens hundreds of miles away?

HARLAN KELLY: Well, we have a large water source. It is 85 percent of 2.6 million citizens that enjoy our Hetchy water. And so we wanted to do everything that we can in our powers to protect our water source.

But the bottom line is, right now, we are providing water, safe drinking water to all our citizens of San Francisco and the Bay Area.

JEFFREY BROWN:  Harlan Kelly, thanks so much and good luck.

HARLAN KELLY: Thank you very much.