A fast-growing, wind-driven fire sparked near Yarnell Road off Interstate 210 just north of Sylmar in northern Los Angeles around 2100 PST Thursday night. By late Thursday it was less than 100 acres burning parallel to the 210 Freeway. Overnight, the fire grew to more than 4,000 acres jumping both the I-5 and I-210, burning into neighborhoods. The western branch of the fire got established near the I-5 and began burning westerly through medium to heavy brush threatening thousands of homes in the Porter Ranch and Granada Hills areas. The original fire or eastern branch has backed upslope with topography and is growing to the north and east above Sylmar. At least 25 homes were damaged reported in the morning press conference. 1,000 firefighters are working the fire, along with numerous helicopters and air resources. Additional resources will be implemented with the daylight, including 2 super scoopers. Angeles National Forest officials are in a unified command with Los Angeles City and Los Angeles County fire departments.
Fall Means Santa Ana Winds
Annually, the onset of the fall and winter seasons brings the highest chance for Southern California’s famed Santa Ana winds. Historically, the worst fires in Southern California in terms of speed of growth and destruction are linked to these hot, dry wind events. The last two years, a strong and persistent Santa Ana event was a major player in the spread of both 2017’s Thomas fire in Ventura and Santa Barbara and last year’s Woolsey Fire in Malibu.
August 5th, 2019 marked the 70th year anniversary for the Mann Gulch Fire and tragedy. The fire was discovered on August 5th, 1949 after being started by lightning the night before. 15 firefighters jumped into the fire area to try an keep it small, but and were overtaken by the fire when a change in winds caused the canyon to “blow-up” with them in it. The event killed the district ranger and 12 of the 15 firefighters not long after they arrived on the scene.
June 2019 marked the 20th year anniversary for Operation Santa Ana. Doug Lannon, a retired Cal Fire Assistant Chief from the San Bernardino Unit and current Senior Wildfire Liaison for RedZone, served as the keynote speaker to kick off the training event for this year’s inspection assignments at the Southern California Edison Inc. Training and Educational Facility.
With the duties assigned to fire agencies becoming more daunting as the population continues to grow, and climatic conditions favor worse fire behavior, the service has adopted GIS as a means to combat these ever changing factors. In this blog, I briefly touch on some of the aspect that GIS software programs have been implemented in the fire service to help mitigate some of the issues related to the disasters they face on a daily basis.
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.
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
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.
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.)