As the Valley Fire Burned, Caltrans Crews Helped People and Animals to Safety
Charlie Fielder, Caltrans’ District 1 Director said that his agency worked with other agencies to help residents escape the path of the deadly Valley Fire.
“We’ve been an active member of the incident command in Lake County,” he explained.
“We set up roadblocks, assisted with evacuations and controlled access to the highways… We assisted people …trapped in there….It is a very emotional scene as you can imagine down there. We all are working together.”
The agency’s role during these types of emergencies, said Betsy Totten, a spokesperson for Caltrans in District 1, is also to “get the signs up, provide equipment and do our best to keep the roadway cleared for emergency personnel.”
Many Caltrans workers, she explained, worked long, dangerous hours as flames burned around them.
Totten said that during the fires that have swept northern California this year some crew members worked “24/7.”
Fielder agreed. He praised his work crews, “Maintenance is an integral part of our emergency response. They are our first responders on the ground…They assist the stranded motorist leaving the fires.”
During and immediately after the fires, Betsy Totten said, “[Caltrans crews] have to go out and mark cars that are blocking the road.” In some of the hardest hit areas, she said, the crews see terrible destruction.
“They found a horse that was dead by the road,” she explained.
As the fires are quenched, Totten says, Caltrans’ role shifts to assessing the damage and making sure the roads are safe for the public to begin using them again. The cost of the fires this year has been astronomical and will continue to climb. Caltrans estimates that repairs to the roads affected by the Valley Fire alone could reach over $15 million dollars.
As the crews begin making initial assessments, some of the areas are still burning, says Caltrans Director, Charlie Fielder. “Others are just like a wasteland.”
“A lot of guardrail posts are burned up,” Fielder noted. “Some culverts made from [plastic pipe] melted in the heat.
New signs need to be installed and vehicles cleared from the road. On one road in Lake County, an entire viaduct was severely compromised by the fires.
The Caltrans spokesperson spoke with admiration of the firefighters and other emergency personnel who she calls “incredible heroes.” But, she says, she is also extremely proud of her agency’s workers. She tells of long hours and personal sacrifice. Two Caltrans supervisors, she points out, went to Middletown after residents were forced to flee and “moved 4H animals–bought them feed out of their own pockets.”
“Working with these [Caltrans] men and women everyday, I believe they are unsung heroes of any emergency situation,” she said. “They are away from their families and…they are right there in the thick of it all. [They] don’t get hazard pay, they are not firefighters and they are not law enforcement but they are at these emergencies around the clock working just as hard.”
Note: The writer’s husband, father and grandfather work or worked at Caltrans.