Jessica Cejnar Andrews / Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2023 @ 12:41 p.m. / Emergencies, Fire

Del Norte County Official Frustrated By Delay In State Disaster Declaration For Smith River Complex; Oregon Governor Mobilizes Additional Firefighters, Equipment

A firefighter hoses down a smoldering tree on French Hill Road on Aug. 22. | Photo courtesy of Inciweb.

Del Norte County is still waiting on California Governor Gavin Newsom to issue a disaster declaration nearly two weeks after wildfires forced Pacific Power to cut off its electricity and Caltrans to close U.S. 199.

That disaster declaration is needed for the county to access federal dollars necessary to backfill what it’s spending on law enforcement patrol and to repair roads in the wildfire’s wake, District 3 Supervisor Chris Howard told the Wild Rivers Outpost. There’s also massive staffing costs that comes with having the county’s emergency operations center up and running, Howard said. But the county has to show they’ve met a minimum threshold before the governor declares a disaster, he said.

“In conversations with our (CalOES) liaison, Robin, who’s been attending a majority of our meetings, it’s $150,000,” Howard said. “There’s no question that we’ve reached that. We submitted our initial estimate last week to them and they had questions.”

The Smith River Complex has grown to 73,799 acres and is seven percent contained as of Tuesday, according to a U.S. Forest Service news release. Gasquet residents and those living along the U.S. 199 corridor between Slant Bridge Road to the Oregon border are unable to return to their homes.

Gasquet residents were forced to leave their community on Aug. 20, two days after Pacific Power de-energized its transmission line.

U.S. 199 remains closed in Del Norte County. At a community meeting on Monday, California Highway Patrol Lt. Pete Roach said tentative plans with Caltrans to escort motorists through the area twice daily had to be postponed due to fire activity in the O’Brien area.

A sawyer helps build fire lines north of the Kelly Fire near O'Brien. | Photo courtesy of Inciweb

In Oregon, Governor Tina Kotek invoked the Emergency Conflagration Act for the Smith River Complex, allowing the state fire marshal to send additional firefighters and equipment to protect life and property.

The Oregon State Fire Marshal’s Blue Incident Management Team assumed unified command of the Smith River Complex in Oregon at 8 a.m. Tuesday.

Residents on U.S. 199 from milepost marker 38 to the state line are unable to return to their homes, according to an update Tuesday. A Level 2 “Get Set” evacuation is in place for the O’Brien and Takilma areas.

Areas north to Cave Junction are under a Level 1 “Get Ready” evacuation order, according to the update via Inciweb.

A total of 2,780 personnel are fighting the fire on both sides of the state line.

In Del Norte County, the CalOES liaison working with local officials has requested an initial damage estimate. As a result, Roads Superintendent Richard Mello has ventured into the fire area to get photos of roads, bridges and other infrastructure that have some damage, County Administrative Officer Neal Lopez said.

“We’re still unable to get into most of the heavy fire activity areas,” he said.

According to Lopez, the state can determine whether fire activity will make the roads vulnerable to mudslides due to damage to the soil and calculate an initial estimate for hazardous tree removal. They would then take into consideration an estimate of mileage of roads impacted by the fire and calculate into an estimated cost.

But until the Roads Department can get an eye on the infrastructure, the cost to the county is a loose estimate at this point, Lopez said.

Lopez said Del Norte County will also calculate the cost of manning its emergency operations center as well as setting up toilets, fuel and lodgings for emergency responders. Staff overtime, shelter set up and operations, including the Disaster Animal Response Team taking care of people’s animals, will also factor into that cost calculation for the county, he said.

“Right now we’re just trying to compile that information,” Lopez said. “Vendors haven’t billed us yet and the state wants actual invoices.”

Howard said Mello got that information to the CalOES representative in Del Norte County on Monday. The District 3 supervisor said he expected a response from the governor’s office soon.

Despite the lack of a disaster declaration at the state level, CalOES has gotten help to Del Norte County due to involvement from State Sen. Mike McGuire, Howard said. This includes mutual aid between Pacific, Gas & Electric and Pacific Power.

“There are currently four crews here that man the power line corridors on the fire,” he said, adding that he toured the fire area on Sunday. “They’re a PG&E hot shot crew that was specifically manning the fire. I’ve just been super stoked to see them here. That made a big difference.”

CalOES also sent multiple fire engine crews to Del Norte County, Howard said. These have been stationed near Pioneer Road on Sunday and Monday helping with firing operations in the French Hill area down to the highway.

But, Howard said, the bigger concern is backfilling the monetary cost to Del Norte County, which will be massive.

“A county our size can’t handle a fire of this nature,” he said. “This is at least an estimated cost coming down now, but we’re looking at close to an $80 million fire right now. That’s the number we’re getting from CalOES.”

Lopez said determining an exact dollar figure Del Norte County has lost due to responding to the Smith River Complex is difficult.

Another cost to consider is the one Pacific Power incurred when they deployed several commercial-size generators to electrify Del Norte County after the fire forced them to de-energize its transmission line, Howard said. The utility is using 40,000 gallons of diesel to fuel those generators, he said.

“That is significantly more than the cost of bringing in power the traditional way,” he said.

There are two transmission lines serving Del Norte County that are both being impacted by the fire, said Pacific Power representative Simon Gutierrez. The lines serve roughly 13,000 customers.

The existing transmission lines were constructed in 1946 and 1956, Gutierrez said. One of the lines was rebuilt to accommodate higher voltages between 1977 and 1986 and have been maintained since then.

Since it de-energized those transmission lines, the utility has brought 81 commercial generators into Del Norte. According to Gutierrez, Pacific Power has never done this before.

"Pacific Power has used commercial generators to provide power to small substations during past extended outages, but never at this scale," he told the Outpost in an email Tuesday. "As of 8/28, the fuel usage for the generators is 246,761 gallons of diesel and 7,158 gallons of gasoline. The generators are averaging approximately 47,000 gallons every 24 hours."

According to Crescent City Manager Eric Wier, who spoke on behalf of the emergency operations center at a meeting with Gasquet residents on Monday, a 1 million kilowatt generator is ready to power that community once the evacuation order is lifted.

Another generator will be plugged into a substation near Patrick Creek, Wier said.

“I do feel confident about the system, but at the same token don’t go out and buy a month’s worth of food and restock your freezers,” he said, pointing out that a transformer problem shut down power in Klamath for a few hours on Monday. “Take this one step at a time.”

Pacific Power has roughly 45 people in Del Norte County to maintain its generators, which Wier referred to as eight individual power plants. There are also more generators on standby in case one needs to be taken out of service, Wier said.

A future concern for Del Norte County as it recovers from the Smith River Complex will be to address redundancy when it comes to electricity, Howard said. He noted that Tri Agency Economic Development Authority members Brian Stone and Wes White, who represent the Crescent City Harbor District, are looking into those issues as it relates to offshore wind energy development.

According to Gutierrez, Pacific Power has been exploring the possibility of re-establishing electricity service to Del Norte from Brookings for about a year and a half. However, additional planning studies between Coos Curry Electric and Pacific Power is needed to determine if that possibility is feasible.

A transmission line did once serve Del Norte County from Brookings, but because of population growth, that line wasn't able to support the load and was removed "per California regulatory requirements," Gutierrez said.

According to Chris Howard, Del Norte would need “a brand new service” from the Coos Curry Electric substation in Harbor to a Pacific Power substation in Smith River to have that redundancy.

“There’s a willingness for that on both sides of the border right now,” Howard said, adding that he’s been speaking with Curry County’s representative in the Oregon House of Representatives, Court Boice. “Curry County doesn’t have redundancy adn this solves the issue on both sides of the border. A cooperative agreement will allow that to occur in case these emergencies happen in the future.”


© 2024 Lost Coast Communications Contact: