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News & Press: President's Message

December President's Message

Saturday, December 1, 2018  
Posted by: Tim Hart
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I was born and raised in Southern California, and I remember in school we would have two safety drills every year: one for earthquakes and one for fires. Even then, the threat of fires was a fact of life for all Californians, which we were reminded of every time the Santa Ana winds came up.  I am still reminded of this every time I drive through the Berkeley Hills and see the barren hillsides left behind from the 1991 Oakland firestorm. The scars from that fire are still present 27 years later, not only the physical scars on the hillsides but also the emotional scars in all those who lost their homes.

The recent fires that have affected our state have grown larger in size, casualties, and impact on our communities. Just in the last year, we have seen four fires that have set records for the largest and deadliest fires in California’s history: the Tubbs Fire in the North Bay, the Thomas Fire in Southern California, the Mendocino Complex fire near Redding, and now the Camp Fire that has destroyed the city of Paradise and much of Butte County. At the same time, these fires have had an impact beyond just those who lived in these areas. Some of us know someone who lost their home to fire, and all of us in the Bay Area have had to deal with the smoke and ash from this year’s Camp Fire as well as from last year’s North Bay fires.

The news reports from the Camp Fire have been shocking, just as the reports from the Tubbs Fire last year were. Entire neighborhoods have been destroyed. Charred remains of vehicles are strewn on the roadways. The number of people who have died or are missing continues to climb. Evacuees are living in tents in parking lots or sleeping in cots in crowded shelters, thankful to be alive but worried about what the future holds for them. I cannot help but wonder how I would feel if I were in this situation. A large fire could just as easily destroy my house as it did theirs. It also leads me to think about how we as structural engineers could help those in need after a fire and help prevent such tragedies from happening again.

This past week CalOES activated the Safety Assessment Program and called for volunteer engineers from Northern and Central California to assess damaged structures in Paradise. Our sister organization SEAOCC worked with CalOES on the activation and notified CalOES of their willingness to assist in assessment programs. I urge those of you are able to volunteer to do so. I also urge all of you to take an ATC-20 training course and become certified as a Disaster Service Worker. Our SEAONC Disaster and Emergency Services Committee is currently preparing a new ATC-20 training course for early next year.

Soon after last year’s North Bay fires, the SEAONC Resilience Committee formed a task group to study the fires and their impact on the local community. Their goal is to understand if and how structural engineers can have a role in mitigating the risk of wildland fire and in the community’s recovery from those fires. The committee is looking for more volunteers to participate in this effort. If you are interested in joining you can either sign up for the committee on the SEAONC web site or contact the committee chair Jonathan Buckalew.

At the recent SEAOC Convention, the SEAOC Board agreed to the proposal from Past President Janah Risha to form a new ad-hoc committee on fire hazards. This committee will explore how structural engineers can address wildfire risks, including analyzing methods for fire damage assessment, applying lessons learned from earthquake response, and studying ways that SEAOC can aid our members and colleagues when they have been ordered to evacuate or when they have lost their homes and businesses from fire. The committee’s first meeting was on November 26 but there is still time to join in this effort. You can sign up by contacting the SEAOC Office and letting them know that you are interested.

Finally, there are several relief agencies and organizations that have set up funds for wildfire recovery that you can donate to, including the North Valley Community Foundation, who has set up a fund to assist evacuation shelters for the Camp Fire. This fund will transition to support of long term recovery from the fire. Information on the fund and donations can be found here.

In this season of giving I ask you all to consider giving your talents and resources to those in need. I wish you all a happy and safe holiday season.
 

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