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California Residents Say They Need More Information On Previous Wildfires To Prepare


Warm summer temperatures have Californians again bracing for wildfires. In order to better prepare, residents of the city of Ventura say they need a clearer picture of exactly what went wrong with the water supply during the destructive Thomas Fire in 2017. Reporter Stephanie O'Neill has the story.

STEPHANIE O'NEILL, BYLINE: Native Californian Leslie Ogden has seen her share of wildfires. But never did the retired schoolteacher dream one would roar into her own neighborhood, as happened on the night of December 4, 2017.

LESLIE OGDEN: On the curve of this street as you come in, one of the houses across the street was in full flame. And it was sending a river, probably 10 yards wide, of embers across the street. It was this river of fire.

O'NEILL: Having just dropped off the family dog and a car at friend's, Ogden was on foot. She was hiking her way back to join her husband and nephew who stayed behind to defend the family home.

OGDEN: And as I turned the corner, I realized four of the five houses across the street from us were all on fire.

O'NEILL: For several hours, the trio worked to save their home and others from also burning down. Armed with garden hoses, they extinguished spot fires on rooftops, on decks and in the dense shrubbery around the houses. But then the water stopped flowing.

STEVE BENNETT: I was getting reports from people calling me saying - what's going on? The water's out.

O'NEILL: That's Ogden's husband Steve Bennett. He's a Ventura County supervisor whose district includes the city of Ventura. He says residents in the east end of town, where the Thomas Fire initially entered the city, were among the first to contact him.

BENNETT: They didn't have water pretty early in the fire.

O'NEILL: In the months after the wildfire, which was caused by powerlines, Bennett told his constituents to hang tight, that an after incident report by government agencies countywide was underway and would include details about what happened in Ventura. But the city of Ventura, which lost more than 500 homes - far more than any other jurisdiction - refused to participate, Bennett says.

BENNETT: Only after I raised the issue at the 11-month mark did the city announce that they were doing their own after-incident report.

O'NEILL: That city report, published four months later, also failed to answer Bennett's questions about the water situation during the fire - among them, how much water was in the city's supply tanks when the nighttime fire started?

BENNETT: If that water level was at 10% and we ran out, well, then we say, OK; the solution is to have the water level higher.

O'NEILL: In Ventura's hillside neighborhoods, like many others statewide, the water supply is pump-driven into hilltop tanks. And the refilling of those tanks usually happens at night, when the electricity is less expensive. In neighboring Los Angeles, officials immediately fill the tanks whenever the National Weather Service issues warnings for extreme fire danger. Bennett and other residents want to know whether their city takes similar precautions. But city officials won't say and have denied several public records requests that seek this and other answers.

BENNETT: People are making big decisions about - how safe will they be in the future? Should they build water tanks in their own backyards? And they need to be able to understand what went wrong and what's being done to fix it.

O'NEILL: Bennett now has filed a lawsuit - as a Ventura resident - to compel the city to comply with his request for public records. The city, meantime, says it doesn't comment on pending litigation. Ventura resident Rick Ray, who also has been asking city leaders for answers after his water ran dry during the firefight, says all of this leaves him frustrated and worried.

RICK RAY: I don't think anyone can really feel safe in the city when you don't have any public officials willing to go on the record about what our new policies are, based on what the policies were that failed.

O'NEILL: The matter's now in the hands of the Ventura County Superior Court, which is expected to decide the issue within six months.

For NPR News, I'm Stephanie O'Neill in Ventura, Calif.

(SOUNDBITE OF STAN FOREBEE'S "MOON AT NOON") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Stephanie O'Neill