Grand jury addresses Rim Fire

Chris Caskey, The Union Democrat

A Tuolumne County agency set up to handle emergencies carried out its duties well during last year's devastating Rim Fire, though the incident highlighted communication issues that need to be fixed, according to the county's annual grand jury report.

The grand jury released its 2013-14 report on Tuesday, with the citizen panel focusing much of its efforts on the wildfire that raged for 10 weeks in the remote Tuolumne River canyon system.

The report detailed the Office of Emergency Services' response to the 402-square-mile Rim Fire and its role in supporting the firefighting effort. At its peak, that effort involved dozens of organizations, multiple evacuation efforts, animal recovery efforts, thousands of firefighters and more, with the emergency office serving as an organizer, informer and go-between through much of the incident.

The U.S. Forest Service has said the fire was started by a hunter's campfire, though questions remain among local leaders about its cause and early response. The grand jury did not look into the cause or any federal agency's response to the fire, as it has no jurisdiction or authority to do so, according to the report.

The Office of Emergency Services is made up of members from the county Board of Supervisors and Office of Administration. The grand jury's review is largely favorable, applauding the emergency coordinators for preparedness, thorough protocols and cooperation among fire and emergency agencies.

"The level of cooperation within the (county) and the way multiple departments worked together during the Rim Fire was impressive," the report states.

However, the grand jury did find in the investigations that multiple communication issues surfaced during the firefighting effort and response that should be addressed.

According to the report, the emergency office coordinated twice-daily meetings for agencies to share information but did not use available video conferencing that could have allowed some to participate who were not physically present, like Mariposa County.

The report also pointed out that cell phone service at the county's emergency center on Stryker Court east of Sonora was inconsistent, suggesting a booster be installed at the location.

In the report, the grand jury called for improvements to the county's "reverse-911 system," which informs residents by phone of emergency situations and was used during the fire for evacuations. That system only contacted land lines attached to physical property addresses, which caused some problems.

"Consequently, people who only use cell phones or who had second homes in the area were not notified," the report stated.

The county has since set up a registry for residents and property owners to list phone numbers at which they should be contacted in an emergency.

For the complete story, see today's edition of The Union Democrat.

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