My name is Clark Custodio and I am a retired Deputy Fire Chief with over 35
years of service with the City of Santa Clara Fire Department. During part of my
career I was also the city’s Emergency Preparedness Coordinator. I have had
numerous experiences in both capacities and have attended both the National
Fire Academy and the Emergency Management Institute.
Why did this fire happen?
All the factors that make a vegetation fire grow into a dangerous fire that
threatens nearby homes were present.
1. There was a strong wind that quickly spread the fire
2. There was plenty of fuel composed of extremely dry vegetation
3. It was a day with a high temperature
4. The humidity was very low
5. The area where the fire started and the areas it later spread to, all faced
and were preheated by the afternoon sun
6. The topography channeled the fire and this raised its intensity
7. The fire spread into the city was aided by the type of combustible roof
construction that some of the houses had
8. The type and plants and landscaping present in the neighborhood
9. The lack of removing dry vegetation by the state from their jurisdiction
How effective was the management of the entire fire scene?
Among firefighters the greatest compliment one can pay another is, “You made a
great stop.” This certainly was the case at both the Washington Fire on the west
side of I-5 and the Oak Knoll Fire on the east side.
The Washington Fire was a first a grass fire that threatened the properties to the
south. The threatened properties can be considered to be high value ones and
in particular the businesses that employ a substantial number of employees. If
these businesses had been burned out similar to what happened to some of the
houses at the Oak Knoll Fire there would have been a lot of citizens without their1
livelihood and a substantial loss of tax revenue to the city. The Washington Fire
Incident Commander Fire Captain Dave Sheppard recognized this fact and the
actions he took to protect these properties were successful. The fire was
extinguished and did not spread into or among the properties that were being
protected. There were no injuries or deaths to any citizen.
Unfortunately the high and gusty winds caused the fire to spread across the
Interstate and this started a separate fire. The Washington Fire Command Staff
quickly recognized this and they quickly divided the fire situation into two
separate fire incidents, The Washington Fire and the Oak Knoll Fire. Resources
were quickly sent across the interstate and into the Oak Knoll district, and they
started operations to safely evacuate the citizens and stop the fire.
The Oak Knoll Fire management used by Fire Chief John Karns can be
characterized as having clearly stated objectives, which were to be achieved,
and highly effective coordination with the Air Operations that were part of the fire
attack. The use of the helicopters making direct water drops on the fire were a
key component for the successful extinguishments of the fire. There were no
injuries or deaths to the citizenry, and the houses destroyed by fire were confined
to those already on fire when the fire department personnel arrived on Oak Knoll
Oak Knoll Fire Incident Commander Karns also recognized the need for many
more fire resources and they were promptly summoned. The mutual aid system
worked. 16 fire departments supplied not only engine companies but also
overhead staff for the many ICS command and management functions that were
needed for effective operations. Taking many of the administrative tasks off the
direct responsibilities of the Incident Commander greatly increases his or her
Other City Departments and Resources
The Police Department deserves a lot of credit for the prompt evacuation of
residents whose homes went up in flames. They later secured the area from
curious onlookers. The initial evacuation process also had assistance from fire
department staff and an AFN employee.
It is a common occurrence that many people are drawn to a major fire either to
gawk and/or to offer assistance. The Police Department isolated the devastated
area effectively and there were not reports of any criminal activity in the Oak
was beneficial at the Oak Knoll Neighborhood debriefing held on Sept. 1, 2010.
A significant number of residents were in the anger stage of grief and they
wanted someone to punish and/or from who to receive compensation for their
Public Information and Communications
This was a very newsworthy event in our community. Based on my research into
disaster response and recovery I realize how important it is to inform the public of
what happened, why it happened, what steps are being taken to recover, and
what the plans and actions being undertaken to lessen the possibility of a repeat.
I am impressed how the news media have reported on the fires and its aftermath.
I am sure that much of its effectiveness can be attributed to the work of the
Public Information work done by the fire department and other city staff
members. These types of actions certainly can and do forestall wild rumors that
can result in dire consequences if they are not quickly addressed with accurate
Post Fire Actions
The actions taken by the city immediately after the fire are commendable. These
actions built upon the favorable opinion generated by the emergency responders
allowed the public to learn of the existing needs of the city for fire protection.
These actions included the Public Information effort to inform the public on the
latest developments. The Oak Knoll Neighborhood debriefing certainly defused
any ill founded rumors and allowed the citizens to express their gratitude,
opinions, and questions.
Oak Knoll Neighborhood Debriefing
I attended this debriefing and it was a very successful affair. I heard from two
separate attendees that it was a worthwhile presentation. In addition to fire
department other city staff, there were members from the City Council in
attendance as was the Mayor. The Mayor did a good job as moderator and in
keeping the event on track, synthesizing the questions, and making sure that the
questions were answered. Not all questions could be answered during this event
but there was a promise to follow-up. I hope that this happens.
EOC Management by and for the City Administrator
The City Manager for Santa Clara has stated that she would like to have a mini-
EOC set up in her staff conference room so that she could monitor the situation
like the Washington and Oak Knoll fires. She felt that it would give her up to date
information and make the management of the situation much flexible and
adaptable to her needs. Ashland could evaluate a similar concept.
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