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January 21, 2021

Dealing with pressures of debris flows

This is the second entry in a multi-part series about debris flows. Last week’s article related how Boulder Creek Fire Department (BCFD) Fire Chief Mark Bingham worked with local agencies to determine the potential for debris flows in his district, and built a dedicated training for his team. Read that entry in the Dec. 25 edition of the Press Banner or visit pressbanner.com.

  • Tony Nuńez, Editor

The San Lorenzo Valley is home to some hidden gems: businesses that fly under the radar and avoid fanfare in order to better focus on their mission. One such agency is Lee & Associates Rescue. Founded by Carl Levon Kustin, Lee & Associates provides specialized training in a variety of disciplines, including disaster response and confined space rescue. Kustin is a low-key, well-respected trainer who has responded to urban search and rescue incidents for nearly 40 years. Thanks to his reputation and a history of leadership in catastrophic settings, Kustin was the first person that Boulder Creek’s Fire Chief Mark Bingham contacted when the idea for a debris flow training was in its infancy. Kustin provided the trainers and the backing of other local emergency response teams, and together they drew up the course outline.

The class was a one-of-a-kind presentation. A documentarian live-streamed it through a private YouTube channel, and Bingham welcomed any fire or law agency to attend; everyone from the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office to Cal Fire to out-of-county fire agencies tuned into the feed. 

“These are the folks who will be providing mutual aid to us in the event of a debris flow,” Bingham said. “It was important for as many people as possible to attend.” 

The four-hour class was broken into two parts, with part two featuring a practical portion for those who wished to participate. With more than 60 in-person Santa Cruz County-based attendees arriving for the afternoon session, trainers broke participants into groups, one of which featured search dogs. 

“We had live-find and cadaver dogs, and that’s another element that our members aren’t used to. We have to search before we can rescue,” Bingham said. “In a structure fire situation, we’re so used to going straight into rescue. In this type of event, we have to search first—prioritize and triage needs—then rescue, and dogs are a critical part of that search component.” 

Debris flows in Montecito, Puerto Rico and Washington state used search dogs to find victims, so Bingham welcomed trainers and their dogs from Task Forces 2 and 3. The trainers explained how dogs would assist rescuers in finding victims to make sure first responders’ efforts are focused accordingly.

The training was free of charge to attendees and the instructors were not paid; they donated their time.

Bingham says the training will not be released to the public. The gruesome and upsetting nature of the information shared amongst experts was enough to trigger some fairly dramatic reactions in the classroom.

“We had one trainer who stood in front of us and just cried at the memory,” Bingham says. 

Residents, however, will have other means of being educated on the potential hazards: Santa Cruz County Office of Emergency Services worked with first responders to create and distribute information to locals throughout December, and there is extensive mapping and evacuation routes accessible online at bit.ly/3nZtWw6.

“The problem with showing residents what to look for in a debris flow or mudslide is, if they see it, that means they stayed too long,” Bingham said. “Every expert that has responded to these incidents says the number one way to minimize losses is to mandate evacuations. The goal is to not get residents so educated that they stick around, waiting to see it happen.”

Bingham says fires and debris flows move at completely different paces. The latter moves at roughly six times the pace of the former. 

“Debris flows don’t bend or stop, and at 35 miles per hour, they can take down trees, telephone poles and anything else in their path,” he said.

Bingham acknowledges that the biggest roadblock to keeping people safe will be evacuation fatigue. 

“Everyone was just told to pack up and leave in August due to the fire. Some may have felt they would have been better served if they weren’t forced from their home. They may have heard that some people stayed behind, and so next time, that’s what they’re going to do,” Bingham said. “The problem is debris flows aren’t like fires. They will pick up your house and toss it down the hill like a rag doll; if you’re in the house, you’re going with it, and you’ll be very tough to find. In Montecito, they were doing rescues up to 14 days later, but the last live victim the dogs found was seven days in.”

So when will officials determine it’s time to evacuate? A threshold has been established for pre-evacuation readiness. When rainfall hits 3/10 of an inch per half hour, and/or half an inch in one hour, those are trigger points. The warning will come out 48 hours ahead of an impending storm, and that will be established between county agencies, National Weather Service reports, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and local County flood control and geologists. While fires can be attacked and contained, debris flows can’t. When the call for an evacuation comes, everyone living in its path will be forced to leave—even first responders. There is no staying behind to save infrastructure or save homes. There is no staying behind to fight it, period, Bingham says. 

“Those [Watershed Emergency Response Teams] that provide the threat assessment do this all over the state. Not every fire results in this level of concern; this one got on their radar, and they identified our area as a high-risk environment,” Bingham said.

He continued: “There are some that may evacuate willingly, but will they after the fifth time? The 10th time? If they don’t go, when that mountain cuts loose with all that mass behind it, there is no saving them. It might not happen right away, but we have scientists and data saying there is a high probability of a massive debris flow.” 

Bingham says residents can expect Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s officers to notify them when it’s time to go; there won’t be a reverse 9-1-1 call until the event is imminent, and the chief doesn’t want residents waiting to get the call—especially since a debris flow can take out phone lines and cell towers. Residents, says Bingham, need to have their eyes and ears open.

While the district is having to invent new training, it has also had to reinvent its budget. 

“The fire was very costly for us,” Bingham said, “and we know this winter will be as well.” 

As for the directors of the fire district—the ones who control the purse strings—Bingham says they’ve been “amazing. They haven’t been given the recognition they’re due. Our district has had to do a lot to meet the industry standard for debris flow training, and the directors have been phenomenally supportive of every ask. BCFD would like FEMA to look at the class we created to see if it can become a standard training—the first-ever debris flow/mudflow awareness training course.” 

The course, Bingham says, went beyond rescue equipment and personal protective equipment. 

“It was also about mental health—how to prepare yourself, what to recognize, how to watch your fellow first responders. The post-traumatic incident response can be really hard on people. We have folks on our department that had to dig into kitchens after the Love Creek slide in 1982, and those images are seared into their memory. It’s important to recognize that asking for help isn’t a sign of weakness—none of us are John Wayne,” Bingham said.

Enter HeartMath, another under-the-radar Boulder Creek business that leapt in to help the department following the CZU fires. Public agencies tend to do the same type of post-critical incident debriefings to assist first responders with managing high emotions following a stressful event. HeartMath trainers improved upon this. 

“We’ve adopted and implemented a forward-thinking, progressive training program from their organization that helps with stress and anxiety management,” Bingham said.

By lowering blood pressure and reducing stress, Bingham says his “focus and filters” have benefited from the heart and mind resilience and recovery training, and his team of volunteers has been equally served by the organization’s techniques. 

“I can go from my heart pounding out of my chest to lowering my rate to slower than normal within minutes,” he said. 

The application of this training, he says, will come in handy when his team is experiencing the fight-or-flight emotions that accompany a traumatic event like recovery operations following a debris flow. BCFD is only the second fire department that’s ever undergone the training, and Bingham is grateful for HeartMath’s assistance. 

“They want to make sure that this fire department is 100% protected,” he said. “Our volunteers have all been positively impacted by the program, and it’s going to be especially helpful for a new volunteer who’s never encountered any kind of high-stakes scene.”

The message that Bingham wants to share with the public is one of progress and assurance. 

“It’s important that our community knows that we’re not sitting back and waiting for the next event,” he said. “We’ve been full speed ahead, and although we get a lot of inquiries from our residents, our office isn’t able to respond as quickly as we were pre-fire.” 

Bingham says his office became command central for all things CZU fire-related, and at one point his email was blasted with 500 new messages per day. 

“We have the right blend of folks here to make things happen,” he said.

Bingham says he’s learned a lot over the last four months, and that’s helped him envision how best to allocate resources for emergency responses. Bingham is watching the weather minute by minute, and says residents should have a ‘go-bag’ and be ready to move. There may be a few dress rehearsals, says Bingham, but “it’s OK to always be the bridesmaid, and never the bride.”

Next week: Cal Berkeley scientists and NASA engineers visit the fire zone.