A recent PBS documentary that aired in early May 2019 details accounts of California residents that fled for their lives during the 2018 fire season. It also extensively looks into extreme wildfire behavior, exploring how forestry practices, climate change, and physics play a role in fire activity.
The 2019 wildfire season is about to start. So far this year major fires have already igniting across Texas, Oklahoma, and the Southwest. As we move into the summer months, increasingly warm and dry conditions will continue to fuel the threat of wildfires. The National Inter-agency Fire Center released their fire potential outlook for summer months, predicting an above average fire season for all of the twelve western states making wildfire intelligence gathering even more essential. This foreboding outlook comes on the heels of another (2018) Fire Season that set multiple records.
Just as the Midwest United States is known as ‘Tornado Alley’ and earthquakes occur along fault lines more regularly than other locations, there are coastal areas at increased tsunami risk. As discussed previously, tsunamis are mostly caused by intense and sudden seafloor motion. While the first ideas to come to mind may be earthquakes and volcanoes (among others), the coastal areas most near these events are not necessarily the area(s) at highest risk.
New Regulations Forcing Compliance
California utility companies have been working to address their liability to the growing risk for massive wildfire events. The California Public Utilities Commission, CPUC, has stringent rules and guidelines for maintenance and mitigation, and has often held utility companies liable to the damages caused by their equipment starting fires. Senate Bill 901, named The Utility Wildfire Mitigation Plans Bill, outlines further requirements for utilities to provide the state with plans to prevent, combat, and respond to wildfires in their service territories. It allows for CPUC to review and modify these plans before the utility is allowed to adopt the plan. Read on to learn how these companies plan to combat this ever increasing threat. Read more
In Late February RedZone Software CEO Clark Woodward and COO Michael Flannery attended the Cat Risk Management Conference in Orlando, FL. The conference is hosted every year by the Reinsurance Association of America (RAA). The event brings leading global experts together to meet and discuss catastrophe risk management. Representatives from all across the industry were present, including: reinsurers, modeling companies, researchers, regulators, and academics. As the conference subtitle for 2019 indicates, attendees are invited to look toward “The Future of Catastrophe Management – 2020 and Beyond”! This is RedZone’s 2nd year in attendance featuring the RZRisk and RZExposure solutions we offer.
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
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.
With Lake County now holding the title of the largest fire in California’s recorded history, the Ranch Fire of the Mendocino Complex, it leaves one to wonder what exactly it is that’s producing the conditions for these enormous fires to thrive in this area. It has been estimated that in the last 5 years, over 55 percent of the surface area in Lake County has burned in wildfires. It has become an unfortunate understanding of the residents that have chosen to settle in this county that it is not if a big fire will occur, but rather, when will the next one occur. In regards to wildland fire, there are three main elements that are known to have the most impact on fire behavior: weather, topography, and fuels. Unfortunately for Lake County, the area has all three of these influential factors working against the fire regime of the area.
Lake County is located in the Coastal Range of northern California, on the west side of the Sacramento Valley. Lake County resides in a mid-altitude area that is high enough above sea level to be above the influence of the marine layer, but not high enough in the mountains to feel impacts of the cooler upper atmospheric air. In the center of the county rests Clear Lake, which is the lowest point in elevation throughout the entire area. Surrounding this geographic feature are seemingly endless mountains, hills, and valleys extending in every direction until they arrive in the northern reaches of the Mendocino National Forest. These areas of tremendous elevation variation are where fires tend to thrive. Fires are able to take advantage of these slopes to preheat the fuels up-slope from the fire, while simultaneously utilizing the convection column of hot gasses being funneled through these drainages to fuel the fire’s spread.
The local weather patterns of Lake County tend to have a negative impact on fire behavior in the area. During fire season, the predominate winds blow from the northwest, with the occasional shift coming from the northeast, bringing the warm and dry air from the northern portion of the Sacramento Valley into the area. On the extreme side of the spectrum are Foehn Wind events that cause extreme fire behavior when they occur. Foehn or “sundowner” winds bring hot, dry air into the area, with an uncharacteristic down-slope flow that allows fire to spread at unfathomable rates. When these events occur, fires can continue to burn actively through the night which is usually the time when fire behavior begins to moderate.
Lake County is relatively diverse in terms of the vegetation species throughout the county’s boundaries. Nearly every major fuel type that exists is contained within the county including grasslands, oak woodlands, brush, mixed conifer forests, and hardwood forests. Due to the wide spectrum of vegetation species here, fires can range from low intensity grass fires, to extremely high intensity forest fires. The map below depicts the vegetation classifications throughout the entire county. Starting in the southern areas of the county, the predominate fuel type is comprised of annual grasses and oak woodlands. As you move up in elevation on both the east and the western side of Clear Lake, the fuel type primarily changes to a chaparral-based fuel bed. Progressing further north into the Mendocino National Forest, the dominant fuel type changes once again to one of a heavy timber, mixed conifer, and hardwood forested area.
The reasons above are all variables in what seems to be a devastating half-decade of fire history for the Lake County region. The complicated wildfire situation in this area has been influenced by the recent years of drought, which has decreased the available moisture in the region, drying out the vegetation and furthering their susceptibility to fire. Lastly, Lake County has had an increase in residency due to increasing interest in the Napa/Sonoma Wine country. With more human influence comes the increased probability of fires igniting.
Insurance risk or Opportunity?
Will this information impact insurance companies when considering existing policies, writing future business, or even adjusting premium rates in this county? Does this amount of fire activity in such a small time frame deter insurance carriers from writing new business in these areas? These recently charred areas should be considered as an opportunity to obtain new clientele due to the diminished risk from wildfire in the upcoming years based off the lack of vegetation. Some factors to take into account would be the return interval rate of fire in each of these fuel types. This knowledge would give an estimation of how long that specific site will have before it is ready to burn if the new vegetation is the same species. For example, Chaparral brush which, is a large portion of Lake Counties fuel, has a highly variable fire return interval ranging from 10 to over 100 years. If properly managed an individual could easily keep fire from returning to the landscape for a long period of time. Another advantage of insuring homeowners in recent burn areas, is the opportunity to educate them with advice on how to manage the vegetation around their home as it begins to regrow. This would in turn, promote defensible space around the structure, and give the client a piece of mind that their insurance company cares for their home, while simultaneously protecting the insurers investment.