California battling wildfires and floods as it hones its disaster response

California is rolling out a textbook response to simultaneous floods in the south and wildfires in the north, backed up by a National Guard back to full strength at home.

Jonathan Alcorn/Reuters
A broken power pole is pictured on a road damaged by a mudflow triggered by flash floods in the San Bernardino National Forest community of Forest Falls, Calif., on Monday. Mudslides and flash floods that raged through Southern California mountains following heavy rains, leaving rescuers clearing blocked roads and residents cleaning up on Monday.

The twin perils of fires and floods are hitting both ends of California at the same time.

With at least 20 simultaneous wildfires burning in the north, prompting evacuations and a state-of-emergency declaration from Gov. Jerry Brown (D) on Saturday, flashflood warnings have been issued across several counties in the south.

No stranger to disaster, the state is responding with a studied coordination of local, state, federal and volunteer responders, including the resources of a National Guard that is back to full strength at home.

“I would tell you that, fortunately for us, we are drawing on decades of experience of dealing with floods, fires, mudslides – everything that could happen over 158,000 square miles of terrain from below sea level, to nearly three miles high,” says Kim Zagaris, fire and rescue chief at the Governor's Office of Emergency Services.

Should these conflagrations and floods not be contained by current personnel and equipment, the state has contingency plans, including multistate fire compacts in which neighboring states send resources and a National Guard in the rare position of having all 22,000 members inside the state, back from deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan.

No fewer than 74 local, state, and federal fire strike teams are already sharing strategy, tactics and resources, including 377 fire engines, 1,566 firefighters, and 14 Chinook, Blackhawk and Lakota helicopters, equipped with 660-gallon and 2,000-gallon water buckets to help fight the flames. Navy and Marine helicopters are being made available as well, Mr. Zagaris says.

CalFire, the state’s fire agency, is currently training 240 National Guard troops to become on-the-ground hand crews, learning how to use hoses, dig ditches, and scale steep terrain with equipment. 

California’s historic drought has not only expanded the firefighting season, but made fires harder to put out once they are started. “We now have the situation where embers are floating out to between a half-mile to a mile-and-a-half ahead of these fires,” says Zagaris.

"Fire behavior for the Oregon Gulch Fire was extreme with rapid rates of spread," said a statement posted on the official wildfire incident website. "The fire has moved east, deeper into Klamath County."

The scope of the wildfires is beyond the control of any one local government and thus will demand combined forces of various government entities to combat, Brown said in his Saturday proclamation.

Brown obtained a federal grant on Saturday to cover 75 percent of the cost to fight a wildfire that started in Oregon and crossed into California. The lightning-sparked Oregon Gulch fire destroyed at least three homes and was threatening about 270 structures on both sides of the border.

Meanwhile, a much-needed storm dumped four inches of rain in one hour into parched and steep terrain that stranded about 2,500 people in the San Bernardino area. Six-to-eight homes were deemed uninhabitable, and roads were blocked by several feet of rocks, mud, debris, and washed-away cars.

San Bernardino County Fire Capt. Josh Wilkins told Fox News that dozens of swift-water rescue teams and fire engines had been dispatched to remote areas. One creek, which had not run in the summer for two years, became a torrent of logs and rocks, spilling over its banks and across an adjacent road.

According to the National Weather Service, a single downpour dumped 3.5 inches of rain on Forest Falls, and nearly 5 inches on Mt. Baldy, one of the highest peaks in Southern California.

NWS also said that several other areas in the West have remained under flash flood watch. Heavy rains brought flooding to Albuquerque and other towns in eastern New Mexico. And flooding forced Las Vegas to close streets in its northwest section during the Monday morning commute. Phoenix, also, had to close a stretch of highway for eight hours after a cable line fell across it.

“We are not the only state that is dealing with both floods and fires at the moment,” says Zagaris. “It is making for a shared experience in more ways than one.”

Material from The Associated Press was used in this report.

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