Tulare County readies emergency response ahead of winter

The Tulare County Office of Emergency Services prepares its emergency response plans ahead of the winter season after residents saw historic floods earlier this year

(Rigo Moran)
(Rigo Moran)
Serena Bettis
Published November 7, 2023  • 
4:00 pm

TULARE COUNTY – After Californians experienced historic flooding throughout the state during the last wet season, Tulare County officials are getting out ahead of the current to keep residents afloat with a downpouring of information and resources.

Jennifer Fawkes, representative for the Tulare County Board of Supervisors, said departments across the county have started to outline and coordinate their emergency response plans to be ready to act in the event of potential flooding. Although the flooding seen in the spring has been characterized as a once-in-a-lifetime event, Fawkes said the county can never be too prepared, especially as residents are still recovering from damage caused earlier this year. 

“We are preparing no matter what,” Fawkes said. “Because you just don’t know exactly what’s going to happen, our best bet is to be as prepared as possible.”

During the last wet season, Tulare County saw such extreme winter storms it declared a state of emergency just a few weeks into 2023. Record snowfall in the Sierra Nevada mountains combined with copious amounts of rain in the Central Valley resulted in the flooding of the Kaweah River along with irrigation ditches, canals and roadways throughout the county. 

Flooding severely impacted residents in Three Rivers, Woodlake, Lindsay and Springville, according to previous reporting by The Sun-Gazette, and led to the reemergence of Tulare Lake near Corcoran in Kings County. Damage caused by flooding also resulted in millions of dollars in repair needs throughout the San Joaquin Valley. 

Charlie Norman, fire chief for the Tulare County Fire Department, said what the county saw in the spring was unlike anything he’s experienced before. 

“This (was) kind of one of those 50- to 100-year floods, where it was impacting all of our resources,” Norman said. “The difference between these big fires and these big floods, is usually the fire only impacts a small geographic area. … This was occupying all 4,800 square miles of our county.”

Even still, Norman said the county saw no fatalities or serious injuries resulting from the floods and successfully conducted hundreds of rescues, mostly involving individuals who drove their vehicles down closed roadways inundated with flood water.

Approaching this winter, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has reported a 33-50% chance of the Tulare County area seeing more precipitation than usual due to El Niño conditions observed over the equatorial Pacific Ocean. While that does not necessarily indicate that there will be similar — or any — flooding this winter, county and state agencies want to be ready just in case.

To prepare for whatever may be down-stream, Fawkes said county officials are working with the Tulare County Office of Emergency Services (OES) to look at what the timeline could be for activating the emergency operations center, identify vulnerabilities in county infrastructure that can be addressed right now and set up emergency response systems so they can be ready to go in a moment’s notice.

This includes having pre-planned places for people to go in the event of evacuations, cleaning up old information from emergency communications websites and conducting outreach to residents so they know where to find emergency alerts and other information.

From an operational standpoint, Norman said the fire department has sandbags ready to deploy at 12 of its 26 stations, has pallets of sandbags “staged strategically around the county” and is concentrating attention on areas where there were ditch or canal breaches last season. 

Norman recommended individuals prepare a go-bag in case they need to leave their homes unexpectedly, just as with any natural disaster, and should also have supplies for up to 72 hours in the event that they are stuck in their area. Additionally, he cautioned that people should check the credibility of where they are getting their emergency information and should not panic in the event of an evacuation order.

Otherwise, one of the best things residents can do to prepare is to sign up for AlertTC notifications, know the flood risks in the area around their homes and workplaces and plan ahead for what they would do in the event of an emergency. 

Fawkes said keeping up with emergency notifications is the most important thing residents should do and emphasized that AlertTC notifications only work if someone’s phone is on, charged and with them. She added that emergency updates are also distributed among Tulare County social media pages, and Facebook is a good place to receive up-to-date information on emergency conditions and notifications throughout the county. 

Not only should people be prepared to receive emergency information, Fawkes said, they need to be “ready to react to that information.”

Emergency information and preparedness suggestions are available on the Tulare County OES website and the County of Tulare Facebook page. Fawkes said the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services (Cal OES) is also working with the county to prepare emergency preparedness information and provide updates on recovery efforts; residents can look out for those resources later this month.

Serena Bettis
General Assignment Reporter