It seems strange to be talking about weather events that peak in the summer, like tornadoes, while we still have massive winter storms impacting much of the Northeastern United States. However, now is typically when we start shifting our focus onto the weather incidents of the upcoming summer season. The end of February is when tornado season starts to ramp up, and will typically peak around mid-June.
In Mid-December, Senior Fire Liaison Doug Lannon and I spent a few days surveying the damage from the Woolsey Fire. We toured the 16 mile long fire area with the aim of digesting the fire’s destructive path from a fire behavior and investigative perspective. We were fortunate enough to gain access to a wide range of properties with a range of extent of impact from Bell Canyon all the way to homes right above the Malibu Coast. After a few days of surveying, a familiar story unfolded, yet another destructive and uncontrollable wind-driven Santa Ana fire in California. Read more
Specialists are calling the 2018 wildfire season part of another record-breaking year, specifically due to the property losses in California. They’re also predicting another detrimental 2019 wildfire season. Even though 2018 had less wildfires than 2017, the harm and size surpassed 2017 significantly. With megafires on the rise, companies need to reconsider their risk approach so they can confidently underwrite wildfire threats and proactively receive alerts to grow their portfolios and protect people.
2018 Hurricane Season Quick Stats
Each spring, several predictive services release their forecasts for the upcoming Hurricane Season, which officially runs June 1 – Nov 30. While named storms can form outside of this range, they are significantly weaker and rarely reach hurricane strength levels.
2018’s fire season was another record breaking year; in particular, California was absolutely devastated in terms of lives and property lost. According to the National Interagency Fire Center in 2018, 8,582,609 acres were burned by 55,911 different wildfire starts throughout the United States. In comparison to the 2017 fire season, there were 991,924 fewer acres burned in 2018, from 8,699 less starts than 2017. These statistics paint a picture that this past season was not as severe in terms of wildfires, this could not be further from the truth.
Wildfire seasons in the recent years have been some of the deadliest and most destructive that our nation has seen to date because of three human influenced factors. In the past thirty years, wildfire acreage has more than doubled, and not only have wildfires become more frequent, but they cover more ground, move at record-setting speeds and are more difficult to contain. With this increase in wildfire damage comes increasing suppression costs.
In many wildland areas, smoke can often be seen throughout the winter. More than likely, this is not due to uncontrolled wildfire, but rather prescribed fire, which are a fuels reduction method used when the weather is less conducive to catastrophic burns, allowing firefighters and crews to prepare for when wildfire season picks up again.
Looking Back at 2017-2018 Fire Seasons in California
In 2017 the state of California experienced a fire season that seemed to surpass any other in recent memory. This disastrous fire season was then exceeded in terms of lives lost, and destruction to property by the 2018 fire season. In October 2017, the Tubbs Fire took its place as the most destructive wildfire in California’s history by destroying 5,636 structures, and killing a total of 22 people. In the wake of this tragic event that befell the Northern Bay area communities, the people of California were wishfully thinking that the reappearance of these extreme fires would subside for an extended period of time. These optimistic thoughts were quickly given a reality check when the Camp Fire destroyed the community of Paradise, CA in the matter of hours. Fire officials continue to diligently complete the search for missing citizens, and damage inspections of the surrounding areas, the numbers below are current up to when this was published. As of right now the total number of destroyed structures is 18,804, which over triple the previous most destructive fires record. The death count for this incident is staggering as well with the current number being 85 human lives lost during this incident. The Thomas Fire in December was the second record setting fire of 2017, taking the position of most acres burned. This record was overtaken this year by the Ranch Fire, which burned 410,203 acres near Clearlake, CA. With these disturbing fires seemingly getting worse every year, what do the upcoming changes look like for the average homeowner in California?
For home insurance carriers, the State of California is being assessed as a risk versus gain analysis, on a geographic, case-by-case basis in relation wildfires. These companies are becoming more and more hesitant to expand into the more rural reaches of California. In some areas, certain home insurance carriers have resigned to no longer writing new business due to the extreme wildfire risk that has been becoming ever so prevalent in recent years. These same companies will be quietly removing their presence from these aforementioned areas by no longer renewing policies when the term of their legal obligation is up, at which point a non-renewal notice is issued. In efforts to account for the increase in economic losses that the insurance carries have, and will be seeing due to wildfire, there is no doubt that premium rates will be going up. These increases will be seen across the entirety of the state, but as you move into the more fire prone areas, otherwise known as the wildland urban interface, the rate at which the increase will occur will be more dramatic.
To protect the residents of California, the state legislature has passed a bill clarifying that catastrophic losses to insurance companies cannot be passed onto ratepayers in one large lump sum. What will eventually happen is, there will be a steady increase in yearly premiums over a number of years to assist with the companies trying to recoup from these devastating events. There is a similar process when a utility company is found to be the root cause of a wildfire.
When utility company’s equipment has been found to be the cause of a fire, these entities can be liable for shouldering the costs of fire suppression, damages to structures, and damages to other economic and natural resources as well. The amount of money that these factors add up too, can be quite staggering.
In the case of investor owned utility companies, such as Pacific Gas and Electric, how these costs are paid for is determined by the CUPC (California Public Utilities Commission). Since rates are fixed for publicly owned utility companies, the recoupment of the costs in relation to a fire have to be evaluated by the CUPC before the burden can be placed onto ratepayers. The CUPC evaluates the Utilities request to have the ratepayers absorb this cost by determining if the company has abided by acting “reasonably and prudently” in relation to the failure of their equipment. If the utility company is found to be negligent in anyway, this request to pass the financial burden onto the ratepayers would be declined.
The morning of November 30th, 2018, at 8:29 AM local time, a 7.0 magnitude earthquake shook the city of Anchorage, Alaska. The origin of the quake was 7 miles north of the city, resulting in the residents of Anchorage feeling the full intensity of this earthquake. Luckily, the epicenter was at a depth of 27 miles into the Earth’s crust. The depth of the origin allowed for the seismic energy of the earthquake to diminish slightly while making the 27-mile vertical journey before wreaking havoc on the surface.
Upon reaching the surface, the resulting damages included widespread power outages, severe damage to roadways and other transportation infrastructure, and internal damage to residential and commercial structures. Immediately after the quake hit, the USGS released figures that contained frightening numbers depicting the probability of economic losses. The figure below shows that, according to the USGS predicted losses, there is a 35 percent chance of damages ranging from $100 million – $1 billion. The data goes on to show that there is a 20 percent chance that the economic losses could very well total over one billion dollars!
Immediately after the quake and ongoing through this week, the area continues to be inundated with relentless aftershocks that still hold immense power. As of this morning, the area has been the recipient of over 2,700 aftershocks and tremors, ranging in magnitude from 1 up to 5. There is still potential for an aftershock to be nearly as powerful as the original incident itself, which would cause even more damage during the recovery process.
In 1964, Anchorage fell victim to a 9.2 magnitude quake that caused damage to such an extent that certain parts of the city were unrecognizable. This earthquake killed 15 people during the event and another 124 from the resultant tsunami. Only one earthquake in recorded history has been more powerful (9.5 magnitude in Chile 1960). In the wake of this devastating event, the changes to the building codes may have resulted in massive economic saves in relation to building loss during this most recent quake. One of the key ideas that resulted from the research in the aftermath of the 9.2 magnitude event was the concept of integrating ductility into modern architecture and design. Ductility is the ability to bend without breaking, which helps absorb some of the seismic motion during an earthquake. One way this could be achieved in the case of concrete structures would be ensuring the right amount of steel reinforcement is located in the correct areas of the structure. This is just one example of the engineering constructs resulting from the Earthquake Hazard Reduction Act of 1977, which was sparked by the enormous 1964 earthquake.
RedZone Senior Wildfire Liaison Doug Lannon attended The Thomas Fire Retrospective Report discussion was held at 5:30 pm on Wednesday, October 17th, 2018 at the Montecito Fire Protection District (FPD) Headquarters located at 595 San Ysidro Road in the community of Montecito, California. These are some key points that Doug took away from the discussion.
The presentation was sponsored by the Montecito FPD Board of Directors and Montecito Fire Chief Chip Hickman. The discussion was led and facilitated by Dr. Crystal Kolden, Director of the Pyrogeography Lab and Associate Professor of Fire Science for the University of Idaho, College of Natural Resources. Dr. Kolden presented the history of the community of Montecito’s Wildland Fire Program Policy, and actions from when it was first discussed after the devastating Painted Cave Fire which occurred in 1990 near Goleta, and was then instituted after the even more destructive Tunnel Fire which occurred in 1991 in the Oakland Hills. The program has been enthusiastically supported and continued to date by the Montecito FPD Board of Directors, the Montecito FPD personnel, and the Citizens of Montecito, due to a highly effective and efficient Community Fire Protection and Fire Prevention Education and Partnership Program. Dr. Kolden also discussed the types of mitigation strategies that have been successful in recent wildfires, both for individual homeowners and for communities.
Montecito was just one of several cities and communities that were threatened and received significant impact to residential and commercial properties during the 2017 Thomas Fire. However, compared to other communities impacted by the Thomas Fire, the community of Montecito suffered only a fraction of the damage that other communities suffered during the Thomas Fire. Montecito’s wildland fire program has spent the last 20 years developing a set of systems to combat the threat of wildfire. These systems include implementing new stringent building codes and architectural guidelines, creating a hazardous fuel treatment network across the northern portion of the community, developing a pre-attack plan to disseminate critical fire ground information to mutual aid resources, developing partnerships within the community and with adjacent agencies, and building a community education program that facilitates a positive working relationship with the community. These systems were successfully deployed to support structure defense actions by the more than 500 firefighters assigned to Montecito the morning of December 16th, 2017. The Community Education and Partnership Program include: defensible space surveys and inspections, neighborhood chipping days, preparedness planning, pre-attack zones and homes, voluntary and mandatory evacuation zones and trigger points, widening roads, hardening structures, and ornamental shrubbery around structures, etc. In part, due to the effectiveness of the systems, only minimal structure loss and damage occurred, but most importantly, no lives were lost or serious injuries occurred prior to and during the fire fight. A post-fire assessment found that the seven primary residences destroyed during the Thomas Fire lacked defensible space, lacked safe access due to narrow roads or no turnarounds for fire apparatus, were constructed of flammable construction materials, or were situated where gaps existed in the fuel treatment network. Forty other properties received varying degrees of damage to outbuildings, fencing, ornamental shrubbery, etc.
In retrospect, the Thomas Fire demonstrated how proactive actions implemented by the District and the community in the past 20 years contributed to the successful defense of the community during the Thomas Fire. Post-fire, Montecito still has unburned fuel in smaller enclaves within the community and within the 2008 Tea Fire and 2009 Jesusita Fire burn scars. These open space areas still have the potential to support smaller, more localized wildfires. Given the favorable climatic conditions of the Central Coast, over the next 10-20 years, vegetation in the footprint of the Thomas Fire will be able to support wildfire again. There is much opportunity for the District to use the Thomas Fire burned area to continue to expand and improve upon the existing fuel treatment network. Treating vegetation as it regrows will be less labor intensive and less costly than in the past. Leveraging community partnerships, improving the use of technology to support fire operations, modifying defensible space fire codes, and continuing the wildland fire safety and education of the community are critical steps for the District in the upcoming years as they prepare for the inevitable next wildfire. We know it’s coming, it’s just a matter of when!
(Excerpts for this story were taken from the Thomas Fire Retrospective Report produced by GEO Elements, LLC.)