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.
RedZone has highlighted five lesser-known areas where homeowners have increased wildfire risk
- Mid-slope areas
- Areas Adjacent to Wildland Fuels
- In the Ember Zone
- In Urban Canyons
- Proximity to Highway Grade
Mid-slope is an area commonly thought of as midway up a hillside, in this case, were using in terms of how it’s viewed in a wildfire-prone area. Homes are built and bought in these areas which are one of the least safe places to be during a wildfire. Typically, wildfires burn up a slope faster and more intensely than along flat ground. The steeper the slope the longer the flame lengths and faster-moving the fire. Any slope can potentially increase the amount of heat a structure will be subject to during a wildfire, enhancing wildfire risk.
Not only is a home in this area more at risk, fire-fighting operations there are increasingly dangerous as well. Just one example from a few years ago, a mid-slope fatality is now a lesson learned from the Coal Canyon Fire in Fall River County, South Dakota. Essentially, firefighting orders will not allow for crews to work mid-slope assignments above a fire without large defensible space or a barrier/structure. Due to the adherent wildfire risk, both Fire Prevention Divisions and Underwriting guidelines suggest an aggressive vegetation modification and maintenance plan if the home or business is located mid-slope or at the top of a steep slope. The insured must also be aware of building materials used, especially if the structure is set back less than 15 feet.
Adjacent to Wildland Fuels
It is well known that neighborhoods in or bordering the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI), have a greater risk for impact by wildfire. In depth studies have learned that within those neighborhoods, homes on the outskirts have a higher risk than those located more interior. One of the main reasons why homes bordering the natural vegetation are at a higher risk of ignition is the lack of any buffer between the structure and the surrounding vegetation. These homes are located in extremely close proximity to the natural vegetation of the surrounding area and, thus, vulnerable to more direct flame impingement. This effect is exacerbated if the individual property owner has not taken the time to prepare his or her land for the occurrence of a wildland fire threatening their property.
Conversely, homes within the development have defensive barriers surrounding them. The inner structures have roads separating them from the structures bordering the surrounding natural vegetation and topography. These interior homes also are more likely to have moisture-rich vegetation such as, lawns, gardens, and manicured brush, making for more difficult sources of ember ignition.
The Sage Fire, near Simi Valley, CA is a good example of the homes located on the outskirts of these neighborhoods being at higher risk than the ones located within. As the fire made a push upslope to the ridgeline, it also spread out following property barriers on the outskirts of the neighborhood. The homes bordering the flame front were at a very high risk of the fire finding an ignition source to endanger it. Homes deeper into the neighborhood were less vulnerable because of the barriers aforementioned and those provided by the outlying homes. In the case of the Sage fire, no homes were impacted due to a small fire break in the vegetation immediately bumping the properties.
In the Ember Zone
The “Ember Zone” can be defined as the area that could potentially have ember fall out due to a fire burning in the near vicinity. This zone can be up to a mile away from an active wildfire, depending on the size of the fire and wind speed. These embers are thrown from the fire and carried by the wind in the direction that it is blowing. If embers are hot enough and land in a receptive fuel bed, this can lead to an ignition of a spot fire ahead of the active fires edge. Spot fires caused by embers pose a threat because they sometimes go unnoticed for an extended period of time by fire personnel. This is especially the case when spot fires ignite at a distance away from the head of the fire. The longer the new start has to become established, the harder it is for firefighters to respond effectively to save structures in the path of the newly ignited spot fire.
Another way the Ember Zone can pose a threat to a homeowner would be the process of the embers being blown into uncovered vents on the home, or an ignition source located near or inside the home, resulting in a fire starting in the structure itself. An example of how the Ember Zone proved catastrophic is in the Waldo Canyon Fire near Colorado Springs, Colorado. This fire experienced a drastic wind shift during the second operational period. This wind shift threw embers upwards of half a mile in the direction of the structures located in Colorado Springs. 346 homes were lost in the tragic fire of 2012, some of these were a direct result of ember fall out. Others were lost because of their direct contact with the active fires edge.
In Urban Canyons
San Diego is known for its mix of wild canyons in between urban, even historic, developed neighborhoods. Most canyons have homes butting up adjacent to the canyon walls, due to San Diego’s unique mesa and valley/canyon landscape. These canyons offer convenient hiking trails and a natural landscape that is unique in an urban environment. They also provide heavy fuels, steep slopes, and human activity that lead to dangerous fires that often threaten homes. A relatively small wildfire can threaten many homes in these environments.
Examples of wildfires starting in urban canyons:
- Poinsettia Fire – Destroyed 22 homes and burned 400 acres. Fire started on a golf course and rapidly spread up the canyon.
- City Heights Fire – Less than 2 acres, but came within a few feet of homes within an hour of a fire being reported.
- Manzanita Canyon – Several instances of homeless cooking fires getting out of control in the canyon.
Proximity to Highway Grade
If you are considering buying a home near a highway grade, you may get a nice view but could also be at higher risk for wildfires. Steep highway grades add additional complexity and stress on vehicles. Traffic collisions, mechanical failure, electrical issues, and fuel system malfunctions can cause vehicle fires that can extend to vegetation as well. According to the National Fire Protection Association, there is an average of 152,000 vehicle fires per year in the United States. Poorly maintained vehicles, put under stress while climbing up or braking down grades, can break down. As the driver pulls over to the shoulder or off the road entirely, catalytic converters, brakes, dragging exhaust parts, or cigarette butts can ignite dry grasses along a highway. Also, improperly loaded trailers can drag chains; creating sparks that can ignite grasses as the vehicle passes by unknowingly. All of these things can happen at any point along a highway, but the added stress and heat generated by steep grades increases the likelihood of a fire starting and therefore wildfire risk.
Examples of large wildfires starting on major highways:
- Blue Cut – Highway 15 along the Cajon Pass. Destroyed 105 homes and burned over 36,000 acres.
- Springs Fire – Highway 101 along the Conejo Grade. Caused by an undetermined roadside ignition. Fire burned 15 homes but threatened 4,000 and burned 24,000 acres. The fire burned until it hit the coast.
- Grade Fire – Ridgewood Grade on Highway 101. Caused by a vehicle fire spreading to grass. Burned 900 acres.
Late June and early July added several new ignitions to a wildfire season that was already off to an ominous start. So far in 2018 major fires have already igniting across Texas, Oklahoma, and the Southwest. The recent heat wave that swept Red Flag fueled wildfires across the US resulting in evacuations and structure loss in Colorado, California, Utah, and As we move deeper 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.
A New Source for Wildfire Intelligence
Understanding the need for real-time wildfire intelligence, a conversation started between group of devout users and former moderators. This group came together to revive a forum that once popular among the fire community. For a variety of reasons they ultimately decided it was best to spin-off a new website. This new website, branded wildfireintel.org, was created as a non-profit with the mission to create a free public forum for discussing “topics important to the fire community”. Relevant subjects include fire related “incidents, jobs, industry, safety, and health”.
Recent Fire Activity Drives Traffic and Additional Users to the Website
Although it’s still in the initial stages of development, wildfireintel.org is up and running and gaining traction. WildfireIntel.org is quickly becoming a trusted source for accurate, real-time information. Recent fire activity is helping increase traffic to the forum, with the last 30 days adding over 200 new users and almost a million page views. Knowing that forums survive by the active participation of its users the founders of the website are encouraging the fire community to continue to contribute to the site. The founders hope that with increased participation an “active and sustainable wildfire community” will again foster and provide much need wildfire intelligence. For more information, please visit the wildfireintel.org website and/or become more involved by registering.
Over the last thirty years, the length of wildfire season has increased by nearly 20% around the world. In California, the idea of wildfire ‘season’ is nearly laughable as large growth, damaging wildfires happen year-round on a regular basis now. While wildfires can happen just about anywhere, the western US States are usually at greater risk for experiencing wildfires. Higher rates result from this increased risk and, in some areas, the insurance companies may not offer coverage at all.
Why is wildfire coverage important?
As approximately one-third of homes in the United States are in the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI), insurance companies are updating what is and is not covered in cases of wildfire. Insurance companies may factor in wildfire history in the area, home construction materials, vegetation, and topography, for example. In a few of the highest risk areas in the country, some insurance companies have opted to avoid writing policy coverage at all!
When structuring your policy, be sure to ask questions to know what is covered and how you are protected in case of wildfire. Policies may cover additional living expenses (ALE, in case damages or loss make your home uninhabitable), fire department service charges, or repairs and debris removal after a covered loss. There may be an additional option for fire insurance specifically for your non-primary residence. Different carriers offer different protections and add-ons, so be sure to know what you need.
What property features are considered?
Vegetation, alone, on your property isn’t necessarily a cause for concern. Insurers will typically take into account the location and type, as well as density, of the surrounding vegetation. Fire stations and hydrants near your home alleviate some levels of risk as there are preventative resources near the home should a wildfire emergency occur. Topographical features could play heavily on your potential extra costs. If you live in or near notable high risk areas, such as a canyon or the deep woods, additional insurance charges may be added to cover the increased risk to your home from wildfire. Roof type, along with eaves and siding materials, may also play a factor. For example, a wood roof (even if treated) is at much higher risk of catching fire from embers than a clay tile roof.
Homeowners can ensure they maintain significant defensible space that can help slow or stop a wildfire from spreading to your home and property.
Can I do anything to help protect myself?
Do not be discouraged! There are steps you can take to help make your home more fire-resistant. Programs like the Wildfire Partners Program out of Boulder County, Colorado, give homeowners a property assessment with specific tips, updates, landscaping, and removals that decrease their risk to a wildfire. Additionally, some insurance companies have specialists that perform consultations and provide the homeowner a report with recommended improvements to eaves, patios and decks, roofs, and vegetation. In areas with high wildfire risk, insurance companies may require this kind of consultation and follow up work in order to authorize writing the policy. As always, be your own advocate, and take the first steps to giving your home the best chance of survival from a wildfire. However, if you choose to live in a high wildfire risk area, be prepared to pay a bit higher premium to have proper insurance coverage in case of a destructive wildfire.
The legal battles begin as California still reels and begins to recover from what became the worst fire season in living memory last year. CalFire released a report on the first of several fire investigations from 2017’s northern California fire “siege”. The investigation specifically covers the four fires in Butte and Nevada Counties: La Porte, McCourtney, Lobo, and Honey fires. Investigators determined that tree branches coming into contact with power lines caused all four fires. In three of the fires, with La Porte being the exception, CalFire found Pacific Gas and Electric in violation of Public Resources Code section 4293, which concerns tree clearance management along power lines.
The ramifications of these and future investigations could end in big payouts by Pacific Gas and Electric for structure losses caused by the fires. The Napa/Sonoma Fire Siege, which included about 170 individual fire starts, caused an estimated $15 billion in damages. If Pacific Gas and Electric is found responsible for the fire starts, they could be on the hook for a large chunk of those damages. Property law can get pretty tricky when dealing with privately run public utilities. In the past, utility companies were able to pass the cost of damages along to ratepayers as part of providing service, but a recent case with San Diego Gas and Electric may put an end to this practice.
Historical Precedent: San Diego Gas and Electric
Regulators, investors, insurers, and homeowner victims are closely following the now decade-long legal process following three massive fires in San Diego County in 2007. The Witch, Guejito, and Rice fires together destroyed 1,300 homes and left San Diego Gas and Electric (SDG&E) with a $2.4 billion bill. The utility company and its insurers already paid the damage claims, but SDG&E is trying to recoup about $379 million of its losses through a structured increase in the ratepayer bill over 6 years. They argued that the wind event was unprecedented and so severe that the fires could not have been avoided. The California Public Utilities Commission disagreed and rejected the plan, stating that SDG&E was not a prudent manager of its infrastructure. CPUC was clear in their statements that their decision does not represent SDG&E’s current wildfire management. SDG&E has since invested heavily in wildfire planning, intelligence, and response.
The positive changes at SDG&E are precisely the reason that the California Public Utilities Commission does not want to allow utilities to pass the damages to the ratepayers. It would disincentivize the utility companies to invest in better wildfire prevention.
Investors worry that the SDG&E decision will set a precedent to determine if PG&E will be held liable and if they can force ratepayers to cover the cost. Whether Pacific Gas and Electric will be found responsible for a majority of the losses in the larger Napa/Sonoma fires is still unclear. Even if they are found liable, who will pay?
The 2018 wildfire season is already off to a strong 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 an oft dubbed “unprecedented” 2017 wildfire season that shattered multiple records.
A Trusted Source Lost
2017 thrust the threat of wildfires back into the public spotlight. Numerous fires across the United States grabbed nationwide media attention but none more than the two most significant California fires; The October Fire Siege in Napa/Sonoma and the Thomas Fire in the Ventura/Santa Barbara area. With broadcast and social media flooding in, one trusted source of wildfire intelligence was surprisingly absent from the conversation. Without notice, during the late season chaos of the Thomas fire, the WildlandFire.com forum was taken offline and all the data was lost.
What was WildlandFire.com?
WildlandFire.com was conceived in the early nineties as a way to provide, “a quick, reliable system to allow firefighters and other employees (and their families) the ability to voice their thoughts, ideas, experiences, or even ask a few simple questions.”. By the late nineties the forum gained traction, soon becoming a trusted source within the firefighting community.
Wildfire Intelligence Forum
Understanding the essential role this type of web forum plays, a conversation started on how to revive the website. A group of “devout users and former moderators” ultimately decided it was best to spin-off a new website. This new website, branded wildfireintel.org, was created as a non-profit with the mission to create a forum for discussing “topics important to the fire community”. Relevant subjects include fire related “incidents, jobs, industry, safety, and health”.
For More Information and How to Register
Although it’s still in the initial stages of development, wildfireintel.org is now up and running. Knowing that forums survive by the active participation of its users the founders of the website are encouraging the fire community to contribute to the site. The founders hope that with increased participation an “active and sustainable wildfire community” will again foster. For more information, please visit the wildfireintel.org website and/or become more involved by registering.