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Make sure we don’t overlook lessons from fire

Our View
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Residents and business owners who saw their lives forever changed by the 49 Fire returned Tuesday to witness the deadly recipe of weather, wind and flame that ripped through their North Auburn neighborhoods Sunday. Some found their homes fully intact, an oasis in a desert of scorched trees and earth. Many sifted through charred remains, looking for any memento that might provide a memory to build on. Some found nothing but ash, burned debris and the uncertainty of what comes next. Once the shock and grief of Sunday’s firestorm subsides, only time will heal the physical and emotional scars that will last with the North Auburn community affected by this disaster. But such healing – a graceful blend of compassion, cooperation and action – must begin now, with urgency and leadership from every corner of the community. Law enforcement and firefighters acted heroically throughout the crisis, and continue to provide front-line protection against fire and foul play. As they search for clues to determine the origin of the fire, they must balance sensitivity with the public’s right to know, dispelling any widely circulated rumors about the fire’s cause. Meanwhile, at the nearby Placer County government complex, supervisors and department heads should be meeting around the clock to review their response to this tragedy, what worked and what didn’t, and what improvements will be made to the emergency response plan. The county’s local assistance center, a “one-stop” location that opened Tuesday, is a good step. Bringing together myriad county, state and federal agencies, as well as emergency support organizations like the American Red Cross, should help direct residents and business owners toward recovery in an efficient manner. Many of our neighbors have lost everything, including vital public records and documents that prove their home ownership, their ability to drive and vote, their tax payment histories and much, much more. If the center can help assure fire victims that they don’t have to worry about such mundane facts, that assurance will go a long way in the rebuilding of lives. Conversely, county officials should look critically at their emergency communications plan – especially the automated phone evacuation program that confused local residents throughout the afternoon and evening Sunday. Several residents from as far away as Clipper Gap and Newcastle – five to seven miles from the fire – received evacuation calls, while some nearby residents did not. And as of Tuesday afternoon, the county’s Web site was embarrassingly absent of emergency information. The Office of Emergency Services page refers viewers back to the county home page, which lists only two press releases about the fire – one for the local assistance center and the other for Tuesday’s community meeting. Click on the link “Current Emergency Information,” and the following statement appears: “The Placer County Emergency Operations Center is not active at this time because there is no emergency response in which Placer County is significantly involved. The county will post current official information about emergencies on this web page when the county is involved in the response.” If this isn’t an emergency that would activate the Emergency Operations Center, what emergency would? Supervisors should call for an immediate, third-party review of the county’s response, with the intention of an improved communications and mobilization plan in the future. Helping the community cope and heal isn’t just government’s responsibility, and businesses and community groups should look for partnerships to raise needed funds and services for victims. Service clubs such as Kiwanis, Lions, Rotary and Soroptimist should come together, potentially through a large fundraiser or service project. Once the burned properties have been released by fire investigators, “Project North Auburn” could begin with a large community cleanup of the fire debris. Service, youth and church groups could join the effort, helping clear brush, limbs and dead trees on other properties without defensible space. The wounds are still fresh, but the healing has already begun. Let’s all play a role in the recovery.