Lassen County Emergency Services Criticized

in Response to Nubieber Train Derailment

July 25, 2006
Copyright 2006,

News reports of the derailment at Nubieber stated residents of Nubieber were evacuated to Bieber Memorial Hall and that Highway 299 was closed during the incident. What was not reported is that although people were sent to the Memorial Hall in Bieber, there was nobody there to greet them or evaluate their condition and evacuees spent their time outside in the sun without food or offers of water for the duration. What was not mentioned is the fact that local residents were not contacted and advised about the evacuation until 11:15 AM, an hour and a half after the reported derailment and more than an hour after the Highway Patrol confirmed a propane leak.

Also not mentioned was the fact that that while law enforcement was being observed by the Postmaster at the Nubieber Post Office going door to door, she was not contacted by any official. Instead, Vikki Howell, Postmaster said she was first informed of the derailment by a friend who called from Lookout and then later called by Steve Manly, the Bieber Postmaster who advised her to lock up and evacuate. The Nubieber Post Office is one of the nearest buildings to the derail site no more than 1000 feet away.

It was reported that the Red Cross was notified and was preparing to respond. What was not reported is that no-one actually showed up.

The Bieber Memorial Hall was given to evacuees as the location of the evacuation site. There was nobody there to receive or greet them. Eugene Evans, caretaker and the only permanent employee at the site was not even notified that this was to be an evacuation center and learned about it when a friend told him at about 3 PM.

Ambulances were staged on both sides of the incident for several hours. The site of the Bieber stage was across the street from the CDF Fire Station down the street from the Memorial Hall, instead of at the Hall where they might actually be needed.

Although victims reported that police officers took the time to write down names and addresses of people at their homes, no attempt was made to create a list of evacuees and keep track of people or where they were. Some complained of dis-organization, lack of knowledge and outright rudeness on the part of law enforcement. June Loveland, an evacuee who was separated from her two sons described how her sons, when notified that they had to evacuate, and asked "how?" was answered by the officer "You got a bicycle?" Although one of her sons was severely burned in a house fire 10 years ago and is medically sensitive to heat, transportation was not offered and neighbors transported him.

Late in the afternoon, when this reporter found out that members of the press had been allowed into the area, I stopped a Highway Patrol Officer and asked if I would be allowed to go to the site to take pictures. I identified myself as a legitimate reporter and inquired if I could be allowed in. He informed me that I could not as I did not have "credentials". When I asked what is meant by credentials, he replied "Ya know credentials!" After explaining that I am a reporter for an internet newspaper, he said my website did not count. When I felt that he would not allow me in I asked for the name of his supervisor, his answer was "M L Brown" (the CHP commissioner in Sacramento) I said no, who is your boss, he again replied "M L Brown, and then drove away. This is one example of the rudeness of officers on scene, and this was long after officers were busy at the beginning of the incident.  I assure you, had I given answers as sarcastic while being questioned by him I'd be put in hand cuffs as un-cooperative.

In all fairness, not all police were unhelpful or rude. I did hear stories about officers who tried to help and went out of their way to obtain information but were unable to do so. June Loveland, while trying to locate her sons persuaded an officer to use his radio to get the phone number of the Memorial Hall but dispatchers were unable to do so.

When Highway 299 was closed, a detour through Lookout was established which although appropriate for car traffic caused much confusion and traffic jams as large trucks were detoured on an unpaved road. Some residents complained of dangerous driving and being run off the road on this detour while CHP officers were kept at the scene instead of traveling the route themselves to evaluate it. Also, Lookout Fire Department, who could have assisted, was never dispatched to help.

A town meeting was held in Nubieber to collect testimony from people who had been affected by the derailment. Attendees were asked to fill out forms which asked such things as how they were notified of the evacuation, how long after the incident it took to evacuate and if their instructions were clear. None had anything positive to say about how the incident was handled. Instead they complained about the inability to get necessary medications from their homes, the inability to get accurate information about where family members were and the inability to get accurate information about what was happening.

Although it is correct to keep an area evacuated for a length of time if there is any danger at all, it was quite obvious that the danger of fire or explosion was minimal. The reason for keeping the area closed was because of the extended length of time for an official Hazardous Materials team to arrive from Redding, and that they would arrive at about 5PM, this fact was not transmitted to people. Instead, officials simply came by the Memorial Hall at a little after 5PM and said it's OK to go home now.

It must be noted that local county district supervisor Brian Dahle did arrive at the Hall at about 4 PM to determine if food or shelter for evacuees might be needed if they had to spend the night.

This incident was very small in the amount of people affected and we are fortunate that it did not involve a toxic gas leak such as Chlorine or Ammonia which would require much more rapid notification of citizens. This incident only required the evacuation of less than 50 people, but it is an indication of how poorly our present response and planning are. This should be a wake up call. Can you imagine an incident in Big Valley involving 500? 

Planning for such an event must start soon by Lassen County. Planning must address the issues of rapid notification of citizens, sound evacuation plans with accounting for evacuees and public outreach which educate the public on disaster preparedness. This area has shown much volunteer citizen involvement and with simple support from the county, local citizens would be happy to supply needed services such as meal serving, manning telephones and helping to locate lost children.