Severe weather is upon us in the United States with damaging tornadoes hitting the southern states in late January and late February. One EF4 tornado also tore through Alabama and Georgia in early March, the worst of the roughly 100 reported tornado total so far in 2019. As we move into the spring and summer months, conditions historically become more volatile. Specifically from March to June, the highest chance of severe weather spreads north and east across the Plains, the Midwest, and Southeast. Like Hurricanes and Wildfires, Tornadoes have a peak season too.
The Great Galveston Storm of 1900
This barrier island along the gulf coast was home to millionaires and large elaborate mansions sprawling the coastline. The highest point of elevation being 8.7 feet above sea level, the community is ripe for devastation from a hurricane.
In the year 1900, this area was struck with a horrendous hurricane that would ultimately destroy the entirety of the community and kill an estimated 6,000 to 8,000 people.
When most people think of natural disasters, the first thing to come to mind is not likely flooding. However, flooding is the most common natural disaster. Flooding occurs in all 50 states, accounts for 40% of natural disasters, averages 5 billion dollars in damage each year, and claimed an average of 75 lives per year over the last 30 years.
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.
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.)
Think about sitting around a campfire. The fire emits a measurable level of heat, and the nearer you sit to it, the hotter the fire feels. If you are farther from the fire, the heat is less intense. This simple example can explain common earthquake measurements – magnitude and intensity – and what these earthquake scales mean.
Consider, once again, the campfire. This temperature is measurable and absolute. When an earthquake occurs, the Richter scale measures the magnitude of the earthquake at its epicenter. The Richter scale was developed in 1935 as a way to quantify the strength of earthquakes. It is a logarithmic scale based on the amplitude of the waves recorded by seismographs. A logarithmic scale means a magnitude increase of 1 relates to an energy increase by a factor of 10. An earthquake measuring a 4.0 on the Richter scale is 10 times as strong as a 3.0!
Modified Mercali Intensity Scale
Now, you know the closer to the campfire you sit, the hotter the flames feel on your skin. This generally holds true with earthquakes as well. Typically, the nearer the epicenter the stronger the ground shaking you would feel; however, there are other factors that affect the intensity of the earthquake you feel at your location. The type of earthquake, bedrock the shockwaves traveled through, and amplitude of the shockwaves from the earthquake are a few of these factors. The intensity you feel is measured on a scale called the Modified Mercali Intensity Scale (MMI). The MMI scale ranges from “Not Felt” and “Weak Shaking” up to “Violent” and “Extreme” with well-built structures suffering damage.
Other Scales Around the World
While the Richter scale is widely known and the MMI scale is used in the United States, there are other magnitude and intensity scales in use around the world. The Japanese Meteorological Agency uses a separate calculation for shallow earthquakes (depth < 60km) which has been shown to be reasonable when the magnitude is 4.5-7.5; however, this magnitude measurement has historically underestimated larger magnitude tremors. Additionally, Japan and Taiwan use the Shindo intensity scale which has significant correlation to the MMI scale. During the middle to late 20th century, the USSR, East Germany, and Czecholsovakia established and utilized the Medvedev-Sponheuer-Karnik scale (MSK) to evaluate shaking and effects from earthquakes. This scale was built upon in the 1990s by the European Seismological Commission as they shifted to implement the European Macroseismic Scale for European countries. The MSK scale continues to be employed in Russia, India, Israel, and the Commonwealth of Independent States.
You can read more about some of these other scales here:
JMA Shindo intensity scale: https://www.jma.go.jp/jma/en/Activities/inttable.html
Tsunamis are a scary and devastating natural phenomenon. On average, two damaging tsunamis occur globally each year. A major, devastating, ocean-wide tsunami occurs roughly every 15 years. To prevent catastrophic loss of life, many countries have independently or jointly developed tsunami early warning systems. Indonesia was hit with a massive earthquake and subsequent tsunami last month, and their warning system failed. To understand how these systems work and how they can fail, it is important to understand the causes of tsunamis. At the most basic, a tsunami is caused by a large, sudden motion on the seafloor. Earthquakes beneath or near the ocean most commonly cause this motion, but other potential causes include volcanic eruptions, underwater landslides, or even an above water landslide, such as a large piece of ice breaking off an iceberg or a meteor striking the ocean.
How Tsunami Early Warning Systems Work
Since a vast majority of tsunamis are caused by seismic activity on the seafloor, warning systems start with seismic monitoring. Sensors on the seafloor monitor for seismic activity caused by earthquakes and volcanoes. If a substantial seismic incident occurs, surface buoy sensors then monitor for changes in the sea level. Tsunami waves could be as shallow as three feet high, so these sensors are placed in an array to determine motion as well as height. These seafloor and surface buoy sensors send data to tsunami warning centers, which are staffed 24/7. The centers monitor the data, perform analysis, and quickly determine whether conditions are met to issue a tsunami warning alert. If an alert is sent, it goes to local radio and television, wireless emergency alerts, NOAA Weather Radio, and NOAA websites. Some tsunami threat areas might also issue warnings through sirens, text message alerts, and phone notifications.
What Failed in Indonesia?
On September 28, 2018, a 7.5 magnitude earthquake hit Sulawesi, Indonesia. A tsunami alert was briefly issued cautioning a possible tsunami of 0.5 meters, before a tsunami struck the city of Palu. The tsunami that hit was later estimated to be closer to 5 or 6 meters, causing widespread destruction and leading to over 7,000 people confirmed dead or never found. Another 10,000 people were reported injured.
“Indonesia built a network of buoys for detecting tsunamis, but due to lack of maintenance, the system is no longer operational”
Following the tsunami, officials in Indonesia faced heavy criticism for failing to warn the people of the severity of the incident, and several investigations were conducted into what failed within the system. As is common with system failures of this magnitude, several factors combined to bring about the failure.
Detection: Indonesia built a network of buoys for detecting tsunamis, but due to lack of maintenance, the system is no longer operational. Their closest tidal gauge was 125 miles away from Palu, and only recorded a 2.3 inch rise in water level. These tidal gauges are not primarily intended to detect tsunamis, since their sample rate is only every 15 minutes. Seismometers alone proved inadequate to predict the severity of the tsunami.
Warning: Cell phone towers in the area had already been damaged and were inoperable due to the earthquake that preempted the tsunami and many areas did not receive cell phone alerts. Palu was seen as a fairly protected city due to its deep bay and surrounding mountains. Due to this perceived natural protection, the beach regions were not equipped with warning sirens. The geography of this bay likely contributed to the severity of the tsunami instead of protecting the bay by funneling the water to a concentrated point, similar to how a narrowing river speeds up the flow.
Due to the limitations of the detection and warning systems in Indonesia, officials are stressing educating the public that any earthquake lasting longer than 20 seconds is a tsunami threat. If an earthquake occurs, they recommend getting to higher ground immediately and not waiting for a warning.
Mendocino Complex Fire Summary
The Ranch fire, which is being managed as a part of the Mendocino Complex, Started on July 27th on the north bound side of highway 20, east of Lake Mendocino. Fuels in this area consisted of grass, brush and Oak trees. The grasses along the highway led the fire rapidly becoming established and making a run upslope to the east. Due to winds in the area the first resources on scene were not able to catch this fire in its initial stages.
The Second fire being managed under the Mendocino Complex is the River Fire. The River Fire began on the east side of Old River Road, nearly 7 miles southeast of Ukiah, CA. Similar to the Ranch fire, the River Fire began in grasses and became rapidly established making a run up slope to the Southeast. The two incidents spread in a very similar manner for the first 3 days due to both fires burning in identical fuel types, and experiencing the same wind conditions during the initial attack phase. This is depicted very well in the fire progression map provided by the incident management team below.
Mendocino Complex as of August 16, 2018
The type-1 incident management team has been making significant progress with suppression efforts on these two fires. Currently the River fire remains with 48,920 acres burn and is 100 percent contained. The Ranch Fire has now surpassed the Thomas in acreage and claimed the title of California’s Largest Wildfire in recorded history. The Ranch Fire is currently 317,117 acres with 69 percent containment. The main influence of the Ranch Fire during the upcoming operational will be winds speeds. With the predominant winds coming from the west, the fire will continue push east. As these winds diminish this evening the primary driving factor of fire spread will switch to the local topography. This will likely change the direction of spread to the northeast. With the fire continuing to spread to the Northeast, there will be no shortage of fuel as it furthers its destruction of the Mendocino National Forest. Fire crews have constructed containment lines in this area and are preparing for a firing operation if the opportunity presents itself.
Mendocino Complex Fire Facts
- As of: August 16th, 2018
- Location: Clear Lake, CA
- Size: 366,037 acres
- Containment: 76%
- Fire Behavior: Moderate Fire spread through heavy timber and brush in steep, rugged terrain.
- Structures Threatened: 1025
- Structures Destroyed: 147 Residences/118 Other
- Structure Damaged: 13 Residences/ 23 Other
- Evacuations: Are in place
- Incident Page: http://www.fire.ca.gov/current_incidents/incidentdetails/Index/2175
- News Article: ABC 7