Camp Fire: Personal Account of an SAP Evaluator

Ian Merker, AIA, architect with Rainforth Grau Architects in Sacramento, has been advocating for SAP training for some time. Merker himself was one of the first SAP evaluators on the scene in Paradise, Calif., to assess the damages of the historic Camp Fire. Below is a detailed account of what he experienced, along with a slide show of photos he generously provided.

2018 Camp Fire – Ian Merker, AIA
Photo © Ian Merker

I became an SAP Evaluator because it’s my ethical duty to protect the health, safety, and welfare of the public. In the case of a disaster, local building officials are overwhelmed with the volume of building inspections to be performed. Because architects are qualified to perform rapid evaluations of structures in these events, we are a resource to building officials who need to exponentially increase their staff to review structures as quickly as possible, so that homes and businesses are up and running again. In Paradise, the public was not permitted to return to the disaster area until the evaluations were complete, as the health, safety, and welfare of the people is compromised while they are under evacuation.

This was my first deployment and I have never seen anything like it before. I was deployed with a group of other architects and engineers. We checked into the Emergency Operations Center in the morning and afternoon and had cots to sleep in at a vacated Highway Patrol office nearby. We brought our own safety gear and bedding. They provided three meals a day, plenty of water and snacks, and dust masks if needed. This evaluation was done with digital tablets and GIS data. Over the course of three days, my survey partner and I logged upwards of 700 structures. The work was slowed by the rains but speeded up by the sheer devastation. A “red tag”, or unsafe building is clearly identified from far away, as there was no more than a footprint of ash and maybe a precarious chimney stack. There was a level of excitement when finding a “green tag” building. A “green tag” structure may be minimally damaged or have temporary hazards, but is otherwise considered safe to occupy. Away from the main roads, the green tags were few but the structures were relatively unscathed. In some cases, the trees were so badly burned that a safe building becomes unsafe because of its surroundings. The fire discriminated. There was no apparent rhyme or reason why one neighboring house stands clear and the next one is completely gone. There were melted garden hoses strewn about- evidence of the futile efforts to calm the flames. I saw baked apples on an apple tree. Car tire rims melted into sublime ribbons of silver. Warped toys left in a driveway. Empty wheelchairs in the parking lot of senior housing.

It was tough to see people’s homes and livelihoods wiped away. However, being part of providing the opportunity for the community to come back and pick up the pieces outweighed those thoughts. On the last day of the deployment, the chief building inspector asked if we could stay another day, as there were many evaluations not yet completed. Most of the group volunteered to stay longer, but I had to get back. Our office is starting work on a temporary classroom campus for Paradise students.

I encourage all architects to take the SAP training. We can do the work, and we make a difference with our help. It’s not a glamorous job and can be disturbing, but consider who you would want to call upon if your home or business was forced to be evacuated and you couldn’t return until it was evaluated. It’s the right thing to do for our communities.

Click for more photos:

2018 Camp Fire - All photos © Ian Merker

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