Disaster plan

In many ways, Butte County is safer than the rest of the state. We don’t have to worry so much about terrorists, tsunamis, hurricanes or strong earthquakes. Yet there are risks, and the man in charge of identifying and preparing for those risks in Butte County said that, while officials are doing everything they can to make people safe, it is really up to the people themselves to prepare for disasters.

“People ask me what one single aspect of emergency preparedness makes the biggest difference,” said county Emergency Services Officer John Gulserian at the Oct. 25 Board of Supervisors meeting. “The biggest key is citizen preparedness.”

To that end, Gulserian urged all county residents to come up with a family preparedness plan and to put together a disaster kit including enough food and water to last at least 72 hours.

“If everyone needs help at once, we’d have to prioritize,” Gulserian said in a phone interview. “If everyone at least has water, that’s one thing we don’t have to worry about.”

Gulserian, who is in the process of updating the county’s disaster plans, said that the worst scenarios the county will likely face are fires on the Ridge and flooding along low-lying watersheds.

“Fire, if it happened on the Ridge or upper Ridge, would affect the most people in the county,” he said. “On the urban-wild-land interface you’ve got a lot of fuel to burn.”

Supervisor Kim Yamaguchi noted that the Ridge lacks a safe escape route.

“We’ve been working on improving that route,” he said, noting that besides having to plan for fires, an earthquake on Magalia Dam could also bring devastation. “If Magalia Dam did go out 100 percent, or if we had a fire, there are only a few roads out of there.”

Owing to a state order based on the dam’s likelihood to fail in a substantial earthquake, the water behind Magalia Dam is kept very low. But since the dam also serves as the main road between the upper and lower Ridge, any break in the dam would cause huge problems for upper Ridge residents.

In the lowlands, flooding is the most present danger, especially in the areas around Big Chico Creek, as well as near Rock Creek and Keefer Slough. In 1997, floods caused more than $1.3 million in Chico, according to insurance claims following that year’s El Nino-induced winter storms.

Probably the worst plausible scenario the county faces would be a sudden bursting of the Oroville Dam. If that happened, Gulserian said, the county seat would be in trouble.

“We’d be under 100 feet of water in that first wave,” he said, quickly adding, “I’m almost absolutely sure that’s not going to happen. If there were any problem, we’d have some warning and we’d be able to evacuate.”

The county has been upgrading its emergency response capabilities since the terrorist attacks of 2001. Since then, various agencies have scored $2.7 million in grants from the federal Homeland Security Department. Those funds have gone to purchasing, among other items, hidden cameras for Chico Police Department, a search and rescue vehicle for the sheriff’s department and two soon-to-arrive “tactical response vehicles” to be used by the Chico police/sheriff’s joint Special Enforcement and Response Team (SERT).

Gulserian’s office has also overseen a series of disaster drills, which he said were helping to get the various law enforcement and rescue personnel used to working together. But again, he stressed, the best kind of preparedness is the kind that starts at home. Gulserian said the county has already signed up and trained 42 volunteers to act in so-called Community Response Teams. Those who wish to volunteer can call Gulserian at 538-7373.