RedZone Attends WUI Conference

Last week, a few of RedZone’s leaders attended the (Wildland Urban Interface) WUI Conference in Reno, NV. To kick it off, Pat Durland lead a featured course Sunday and Monday, teaching WUI mitigation techniques to a class of 40+ from all over the country. Pat prides himself on sharing the latest findings, lessons learned, and mitigation techniques each and every year. Mr. Durland touted the class as a success, citing a 40% increase in attendance from the previous year.

WUI Conference General Session area

Wildfire Urban Interface Conference in Reno, NV

WUI Conference: Day 1

The rest of RedZone and nationwide attendees arrived as the conference began Tuesday and ran through Thursday afternoon. The full conference opened with a General Session on the state of Wildland Fire from a policy perspective. CALFIRE Chief Ken Pimlott, the IAFC Head, and USDA Forest Service (USFS) Deputy Chief, Vicki Christiansen, spoke during the session. The group highlighted the trends seen in terms of growth for wildfire activity and spending as well as the decline in both personnel and budgets. It turns out that 2017 was the costliest year in USFS history with the 2.4 billion spent on last year (up from 1.6 billion in 2016). Chief Christiansen also suggested that a year-round fire season is the expectation of leadership at the USFS. Consequently, she stated, “Wildfire consumes the USFS budget.” Fortunately, their strategy to overcome this relies on further development of a separate fund to pay for the outlier, 1-2% of, fires whose wildfire suppression costs cause the majority of the disparity. In turn, the fund should help alleviate the strain on the shortfalls for the non-fire forestry programs (a $100 million deficit on average annually). Sounds like tough times monetarily.

October 2017 Northern California Fire Siege

Day Two began with the highlight of the conference for me, a detailed report on the October 2017 Northern California Fire Siege. Our team spent nearly two weeks following and responding to one of the worst wildfire catastrophes in human history. I followed the Sonoma fires’ every move that eerie night, so it was interesting to hear from the Santa Rosa Incident Commander on his experience that night on the ground. These fires have been covered well so here are a few things I learned from Chief Tony Gossner (Santa Rosa City Fire, Tubbs IC for Santa Rosa City).

  • On October 8th and 9th (2017) 172 different fires started, 21 of which went extended attack
  • 3,600 911 calls were received
  • Life Safety and Rescue were 100% priority for the first 12 hours
  • Tubbs fire travelled 12 nautical miles in 3+ hours
  • Learned a New term ‘mountain wave’, used to describe the wind pushing the fire down the mountain
  • 78 strike teams were requested before midnight
  • 150 elderly were left to shelter in place as evacuation of the facility became impossible, three engines were told “to not let this building burn”
  • “Sounded like a war zone” (hundreds of cars and propane tanks blew up)
  • There were more personnel than vehicles to respond, so firefighters used personal vehicles, rented vans, trucks, whatever they could get their hands on.
  • “One group actually cut a lock and stole one of Santa Rosa City’s Fire Engines” (Chief Gossner)
  • Alerting in the middle of the night was very ineffective

“One group actually cut a lock and stole one of Santa Rosa City’s Fire Engines” (Chief Gossner)

Other Seminars

We attended several other seminars during the next two days of the WUI conference. The next most relevant was an interesting discussion of the shortfalls of evacuation planning, terminology, and strategies for the different stages of an event. Lastly, Greg Miller, Chief of Gatlinburg fire then shared his department’s fight with the Chimney Tops 2 fire in late November of 2016. Similarly to the Tubbs fire, that fire devoured 2,501 structures in 8 hours due to another ‘mountain wave’ event. The deadly tale was yet another reminder that wind driven fires such as these are especially dangerous when they happen overnight.

wui quotes

Powerful quotes from Incident Commanders on two of the worst fire disasters in history

Napa Sonoma Fires

2017 Fire Season, A Short and Sweet Review

Fire Season in 2017 was yet another headline-filling wildfires across the US and North America. Data reported by the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) for the 2017 calendar year showed 66,131 total fires (+3,277 from 2016) and 9,781,062 (+4,365,941 from 2016) acres burned across the fifty states. In recent blog posts, we highlighted the two major wildfire events, which were the pinnacle of this fire season in terms of destruction and acreage burned. October’s Northern California Wildfires included the Tubbs Fire that burned the most structures (5,000+) in recorded history and the equally significant Thomas Fire (in Ventura/Santa Barbara) that burned the most acres in California history, in December!

2017 Fires

Major Fires from Fire Season 2017 reported by GEOMAC and NIFC

A Look Back at 2017 Fire Danger

Like most years, 2017 saw high fire danger transition across the country, coinciding with regional climate and conditions. High fire danger started in the Midwest and South in March and April, crept into the Southwest in May and June, moved into the Mountainous West and California by July, before finishing with the Southern Appalachians towards the end of the year. The nearly 10 million acres was the second most since NIFC began recording totals across the country. 2017 ranked higher in number of acres burned compared to the 10-year average.

2018 Early Fire Season Outlook

January:

La Niña conditions are likely to continue drying the southern third of the U.S., although occasional storms will bring some helpful moisture. Nonetheless, an elevated threat of large fires along the southern California coast will continue. Dry conditions in the Southwest and southern Plains will worsen but conditions in January are not likely to support much fire activity.

Feb/March:

Drying continues across the southern third of the U.S. Transition to early spring across the southern Plains will bring increasing wind events that could spread fire quickly across the dry grasslands of the southern Plains and the Southwest. The increased potential will spread across Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, eastern Colorado, southern Kansas, western Arkansas and Missouri, and southern Arizona by March. Increasing potential for dry, windy fronts in the northern Plains and poor snow cover could contribute to elevated risk of large fires across eastern Montana and western North Dakota in March. Persistent dryness and potential for offshore winds will keep an elevated threat in coastal southern California.

2018 early fire season

An early look at the Fire Danger in the first three months of 2018

Sources: NIFC, GEOMAC, Predictive Services

SmokeJumper Fire

Smokejumpers: Flying into the Danger Zone

Introduction

In the Wildland Firefighting community Smokejumpers are widely regarded as one of the most prestigious positions in the fire service. Smokejumpers are transported to fires in fixed wing aircraft, where they jump out at altitude and parachute down to the fire area. This seemingly wild process reduces response time to remote areas of the forest, and has allowed firefighters to access and attack fires long before heavy equipment could arrive. These seasoned firefighters utilize their vast fire knowledge, coupled with hand tools and chainsaws, to build a fire break around these newly sparked isolated incidents. Smokejumpers have a long history of fighting fire in some of the most secluded forested areas of the United States.

SmokeJumper Landing

Smokejumper landing in a very open, and safe landing zone.

History of the Smokejumpers

Beginning in 1917, the United States Forest Service has been utilizing aircraft as a tool for fighting wildland fires. The first experiments in aviation consisted of dropping containers filled with water onto established wildfires in the hopes of achieving extinguishment. Some of the containers tested in these initial drops consisted of, 5 gallon tin cans, paper bags, and 8 gallon oak beer kegs, all of which proved to be failures. In 1934, T.V Pearson proposed using the relatively new technology of parachutes as a means of transportation for firefighters to be dropped near inaccessible wildland fires. This idea was quickly rejected by the government after a few demonstration jumps. In 1939 attention returned again to T.V. Pearson’s idea of parachuting into a fire. During this year 60 jumps were made into rough terrain simulating what it would be like to parachute into a fire area. In 1940, a crew of 6 Smokejumpers was put together in Winthrop, Washington, and another crew of 6 was staffed flying out of Moose Creek, Idaho. These newly appointed Smokejumpers jumped 9 fires during this first season. The results were finally a success with these crews reaching an early containment on these incidents, saving an estimated 30,000 dollars in suppression costs and property damage. This estimation was triple the cost of the initial investment on the Smokejumping program. Since the success of the first season of the program, Smokejumpers have only become more refined and efficient in their tactics and strategies.

SmokeJumper

Smokejumper leaving the plane with parachute ready to deploy.

Uses and Tactics of the Smokejumpers

                             Today this aerial fire suppression force typically jumps with anywhere from 8 to 16 personnel to an incident. The aircraft is loaded with supplies for the Smokejumpers that are designed for these firefighters to be self-sufficient for anywhere from 48 to 72 hours. The aircraft is also staffed with a spotter, which is typically one or two individuals with extensive smoke jumping experience that plays a support role for the firefighters on the ground. The spotter remains in the aircraft after the Smokejumpers make the initial jump to the fire. The spotter then relays critical information about fire activity, weather conditions, and other pertinent information that the Smokejumpers rely on to do their job safely. Once the firefighters are on the ground, they form and carryout the same duties and roles as a hand crew. They use hand tools and chainsaws to remove fuel, such as vegetation and other combustible material, from the fire’s path.

The Smokejumping program has proven to be one of the most influential and impacting projects related to fighting fires in the wildland. By opening up access to some of the most distant fires in the earliest stages, these potentially devastating disasters have a better chance to be suppressed before they cause any damage to lives or property. As time goes on, Smokejumpers tactics, strategies, and equipment will continue to become more refined and efficient. The combination of some of the best fixed wing and rotary aircraft paired with an elite fire fighting crew remains the most cost effective way to combat fires in desolate areas.

Sources:

https://www.fs.fed.us/fire/aviation/av_library/sj_guide/02_history_of_smokejumping.pdf

https://www.fs.fed.us/blogs/smokejumpers-out-sky-and-fire

https://afs.ak.blm.gov/fireops/fire-operations/smokejumpers-training.php

https://www.fs.fed.us/fire/people/smokejumpers/national-sj-users-guide.pdf

 

Thomas Fire Set to Become Largest in CA History

UPDATE 01/03/18 @ 4:49 p.m. – The fire is now 92% contained at 281,893 acres.

Thomas Fire Summary

The Thomas Fire began in Ventura County just north of Santa Paula around 630pm on Monday December 4th. Under Red Flag and Santa Ana Conditions the fire quickly made a push along Hwy 150 to the south and parallel to Hwy126 to the west threatening Santa Paula and Ventura the first night. The fire continued its push west, crossing Hwy 33 and reaching the ocean at Hwy 101 shortly after. Over the course of the next week the fire slowly boxed in Ojai, eventually surrounding it, and pushed its way further west towards the Santa Barbara County line. By this time, the majority of the 1,330 structures impacted already had been. A few days later, the fire used a new round of overnight wind gusts to make a big run on the morning of Sunday Dec 9th, establishing itself above Carpinteria and Montecito. The following Saturday another round of morning winds forced the fire down into the fringe of Montecito, forcing a wall of engines into a several hour battle to push stall its progress. Luckily, by this time over 8,000 firefighters were assigned to the fire, and up to the task of suppression the big morning run. Thanks to their efforts, of the reported 1,300 homes threatened on Dec 16th, only 15 or so were impacted.

thomas progression

Thomas Fire’s progression from Dec 4th (green) through Dec 22nd (red)

Since that push, the fire’s progress has stalled and containment has increased to 65%. Still over the last 17 days, the fire is only 500 acres shy of topping the Cedar Fire for largest in California history. A burn operation is expected to add the acres needed with a few thousand more before all is said and done. Luckily, the firefighters necessary to see the fire out have been halved since the peak last week, but the suppression costs could eclipse last summer’s costly Soberanes fire in well short of the time. The full containment of the historic fire is not expected until after 2018 has begun.

Thomas Fire Major Developments:

  • Yesterday’s wind event produced 50 mph gusts, but fire activity remained minimal.
  • The firing operation was stalled yesterday due to high humidity and some snowfall. It was able to continue in the afternoon, and further firing is planned today for the Rose Valley area.
  • The fire area effectively endured two straight weeks of high to extreme fire weather conditions. Over that period, RH dropped as low as 3-5% and wind speeds were recorded over 60mph.
  • The fire is 500+ acres shy of passing 2003’s Cedar Fire for largest (in terms of acreage burned) in recorded California history.
  • Total fire suppression costs have ballooned to $170 million in just 17 days. It took last year’s Soberanes Fire twelve weeks to cost its total of $236 million.
top ten acres burned

Thomas Fire is 2nd all time in California’s history for acreage burned, but not for long.

Thomas Fire Facts:

  • Location: Fillmore all the way to Santa Barbara, both Santa Barbara and Ventura Counties
  • Size: 272,800 acres (as of 1/3/18 – 281,893)
  • Containment: 65% (as of 1/3/18 – 92%)
  • Fire Behavior: Light fire behavior with interior burning on the northern portions of the fire
  • 1,063 structures have been destroyed and 267 more have been damaged.
  • 18,000 Structures remain threatened.
  • All Mandatory Evacuations have been lifted.
top four ca fires

California’s four largest fires in history (update 01/03/18 : Thomas is now number 1)

Sources:

NIFC.GOV

CalFire Incident Page

Inciweb

Wikipedia – List of California Wildfires

Santa Ana Conditions This Week for Southern California

Red Flag Warning Possible through Saturday

The National Weather Service has issued a Red Flag Warning for Southern California beginning in the early AM hours on Monday through (at least) Friday 1200 PDT. The areas will experience a significant Santa Ana conditions with the strongest winds expected Monday night and Thursday night into Friday. Offshore winds will exacerbate the problem by drying the air and reducing humidity to the single digits. This will likely be the strongest and longest Santa Ana event we have seen in the 2017 season.

Around this time two years ago we discussed what the thresholds are for a Red Flag Warning in Southern California. In this case, the National Weather Service sees the region’s relative humidity ≤15%, with sustained winds ≥ 25 mph and/or frequent gusts ≥ 35 mph (duration of 6 hours or more). The early event projections have even stated this could extend into next weekend. Specifically, wildfire danger will be most critical in the mountains and valleys of Los Angeles and Ventura counties. The combination of Santa Ana winds, low humidity, warm temperatures, and dry fuels will increase the risk for the rapid spread of any new fire starts. In response for this week, extra strike teams, and brush engines have been strategically staged in case of a big wildfire ignition.

RFW stats

This week’s expected Red Flag Warning statistics

Areas Impacted by Santa Ana Conditions:

Ventura County Mountains, Orange County, Los Padres National Forest, Los Angeles County Mountains, Angeles National Forest, Santa Clarita Valley, Cleveland National Forest, and San Diego County.

Click for official Santa Ana Conditions information: Red Flag Warning

santa ana conditions Dec 4

This week’s Red Flag Warning covers Southern CA from Santa Barbara to the border

 

The Big Burn by Timothy Egan

Book Review: “The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America”

In The Big Burn, author Timothy Egan takes the reader through the beginning years of environmentalist and activist John Muir’s growing friendship with then Governor Teddy Roosevelt. The book builds by highlighting their growing, shared desire to preserve the frontier and forestlands of the West. During Roosevelt’s presidency, he leaned heavily on forester and politician Gifford Pinchot to manage and develop the nationally protected forestry lands. Pinchot, in turn, formed the US Forest Service, as we know it today. Egan provides in-depth historical accounts of the politics involved in the establishment of the protected areas and the fight against unregulated land clearing by logging companies.

 

President Teddy Roosevelt & Naturalist John Muir in 1903, Yosemite, CA.

President Teddy Roosevelt & Naturalist John Muir in 1903, Yosemite, CA.

As the story leads in to 1910, Egan sets the stage by depicting a newly established forestry service still developing its forestry management plan. Many areas had no trained or allocated firefighting groups. With little-to-no fire crew system in place, Egan tells how forest rangers would have to staff their crews with any able-bodied men in town when the need arose, oftentimes from the nearby saloon. The whole situation becomes harrowing when one day in late August, a wildfire began burning out of control in the Coeur d’Alene National Forest. In response, a ranger named Ed Pulaski, was sent with a 45 man crew to work a part of the fire and ended up forced to find shelter in a nearby mine. Pulaski knew the area, was familiar with fire behavior, and was determined to save his men, even giving up his horse to an older fire fighter so the man could keep up with the crew. Pulaski kept his men sheltered in the mining tunnel overnight until the fire passed, keeping some of the panicked men inside the tunnel by force at gunpoint. The next day, he famously led them out of the forest into the nearby town to the hospital. Included in Egan’s relating of the Big Burn, as it came to be called, are many first-hand accounts and photos that pull the reader even closer into the events that occurred in the Coeur d’Alene area. The August 1910 fire across portions of Idaho, Montana, and Washington burned approximately 3 million acres of logging and mining land – nearly the size of Connecticut.

Image of mining tunnel where Pulaski and his crew stayed overnight - now called the Pulaski Tunnel

Mining tunnel where Pulaski and his crew stayed overnight – now called the Pulaski Tunnel

This book is recommended for readers interested in the historical account of the Big Burn and the inspiration for the development of the US Forestry Service and National Park Service. It is easily readable and engaging while giving an incredibly detailed and laid out history of the events surrounding this fire. Readers familiar with the wildland fire fighting world may know Pulaski’s name from the Pulaski tool credited to him (and likely created after this incident due to the need shown for better firefighting tools) that is a national standard.

For more information:

Is Wildfire Modeling Behind the Times?

Wildfires are one of the most difficult natural disasters to model. Some argue wildfire modeling is 20 years behind hurricane modeling — and that’s not necessarily inaccurate. Hurricanes occur frequently, take several days to form and can be monitored via satellite. Hurricanes are also enormous and can be over 50 miles in radius. They are not obstructed by buildings and, while complex, are affected by fewer variables than wildfires.

Now, consider wildfires. A wildfire can start in seconds by a lightning strike or a dropped cigarette. Oftentimes, the source of ignition is concealed. A wildfire can smolder for days before significant smoke is reported and others can become destructive in a matter of minutes. Even a small burn — just a few acres — can destroy homes and other structures. On top of that, wildfires are affected by a myriad of factors from roads to fuel moisture and type to relative humidity. Sometimes, wildfires are so short-lived that these variables are not recorded; other times, a wildfire covers so many ecosystems that each area of the fire is impacted differently.

File:Propagation model wildfire.png

RedZone Improvements to Wildfire Modeling

Neither hurricane modeling nor wildfire modeling is an easy task. However, wildfires present so many distinct challenges that it’s difficult to even compare the two types of events. Fortunately, wildfire modeling has come a long way in recent years and we at RedZone have made it a priority to make wildfire modeling more accurate than ever before.

Take the Waldo Canyon Fire in Colorado, for example. A simplistic wildfire model didn’t account for many of the devastating factors that ultimately destroyed properties. One of these factors was ember showers, which caused homes to burn that were outside of the assumed danger zone. RedZone’s solutions, developed by expert wildfire analysts, take into account these lesser-known variables that can have devastating effects on properties during a wildfire. RedZone wildfire modeling also takes several scenarios into account at the same time. For example, it asks: If the wildfire goes in direction A, how far will it go? If the wildfire goes in direction B, how far will it go? And so on. By taking into account the likelihood and severity of every possible scenario, and every variable that goes with each, we are reaching a new standard for wildfire modeling.

RedZone looks at wildfire modeling from a loss-prevention perspective. Therefore, while a model might be good, if homes are unnecessarily destroyed, the model isn’t good enough. We’re developing wildfire modeling so it’s a standard, scientifically peer-reviewed model, which will prevent the loss of structures, homes and land. This model is mutually beneficial for both homeowners and insurance companies — and insurance companies would likely see an obvious and significant ROI increase from adopting it.

Case Study: Canyon 2 Fire in Anaheim Hills, California. October 9, 2017 – October 17, 2017

The first image shows what the model predicted the fire would do in 24 hours without suppression efforts as a factor. The second image shows the official fire perimeter a full week’s worth of active suppression efforts by both aircraft and hundreds of firefighters. In comparing the model against the final perimeter, you can see that fire suppression efforts were successful in stopping the fire at the eastern ridge line and along Highway 241. The difference is that the model predicted this wildland fuel area to have larger, rapid spread. The model did correctly predict the fire to jump Highway 241 and continue to burn aggressively to the south and west. Having our model results early in this incident could have helped decision makers visualize risk, prioritize response, and aid in evacuations due to the nature of the event.  All in all, the Canyon 2 Fire destroyed 25 homes and burned over 9,000 acres.

Canyon 2 Wildfire Model – first 24 hours of fire progression showing the fire’s extent without suppression

canyon2 final perimeter

Canyon 2 Final Fire Perimeter – shows the fire’s full progression with successful suppression efforts keeping it smaller than it could have been

 


Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in May 2017 and was updated in November 2017

New Film Highlights the Unsung Heroes of Wildland Firefighting

only the brave movie poster

© 2017 Sony Pictures Digital Productions Inc. All rights reserved.
Motion Picture © 2017 No Exit Film, LLC. All rights reserved.

2017 has brought devastating wildfires to much of the Western United States. Wyoming, Idaho, Oregon, and Washington all fared way worse than expected with more than 8 million acres consumed and hundreds of homes lost. California was the hardest hit, experiencing the deadliest and most destructive fires in the state’s history. The fires that tore through Northern California last month engulfed over 245,000 acres, destroyed some 8,000 structures, and caused the loss of life to more than 40 people. Much of country is fortunate to not experience wildfires of this scale and may find this level of devastation hard to comprehend. Fewer still understand the hard fought battle wildland firefighters wage to protect land, life, and structures.

No films in recent memory have told a compelling story of the unsung heroes of wildland firefighting. Short of news stories, audiences likely have little appreciation for the fury of a large wildfires moving like a tidal wave across the landscape. Most of the recent firefighting movies have focused on urban fire stations or have been laughable action films like Firestorm. In the wake of the historic 2017 wildfire season a movie now in theaters finally helps remedy that.

Only the Brave released by Columbia/Sony Pictures recounts the tale of a small group of wildland firefighters, the Granite Mountain Hotshots. The movie, based on an article in GQ titled No Exit, by Sean Flynn, focuses on the personal struggles of Superintendent Eric Marsh (Josh Brolin) and Brendan McDonough (Miles Teller), whose personal dramas act as a back drop to the formation of the Granite Mountain hotshots and the fires they battled across the country.

The Granite Mountain Hotshots started as a fuels mitigation crew for the city of Prescott before transitioning to a type 2 hand crew in 2004. After becoming frustrated about the crew’s role on numerous fires, Marsh fought for the team to earn an evaluation to become certified as a Hotshot crew. In 2008, after a lot of hard work and politicking the crew earned the distinction as the first municipal hotshot crew in the nation. Hotshots are small crews of elite wildland firefighters trained to fight fires directly in remote backcountry terrain with shovels, chainsaws, and limited support from other resources. Often working in steep rugged terrain with hot and dry conditions, they dig line, cut down trees and light back fires to help keep contain fires to a planned perimeter.

The first two thirds of the movie unfold around these events showing the arduous training, inherent dangers of firefighting, and the bonds it forms within the crew. Much of the story is told through the perspective of new recruit Brendan McDonough, a recovering drug addict who is given a second chance to build a new life for himself and his new born daughter. McDonough’s training allows the movie to tell a story that is not only engaging but is also informative and instructional.

Numerous scenes in the movie depict the crew digging line, clearing brush, and using drip torches and flares to start fires. Seeing firefighters using fire to fight fire is likely new to audiences inexperienced with wildland fire-fighting techniques. The movie shows how flares and drip torches allow firefighters to burn vegetation ahead of an incoming fire-front in order to establish a fire break that robs the approaching blaze of fuel that it needs to continue spreading. These fires can also be used to help steer the main fire or provide safety zones.

The film seamlessly blends some intense scenes of the crew with amazing special effects to highlight the enormity of wildfires and the challenges faced in trying to contain them. The director Joseph Kosinski avoids the normal pitfalls inherent in the typical macho-posturing movies and instead delivers a poignant story that is both emotional and respectful. Kosinski and the actors deliver a sincere portrayal of their real life counterparts along with their authentic camaraderie. Although there are some obvious Hollywood liberties taken, the film faithfully recreates the facts that matter most. Some of the scenes, like the human pyramid in front of the giant Juniper, were painstakingly recreated to pay homage to the now iconic photo of the crew celebrating the successful saving of the sacred Prescott tree during the Doce Fire.

I was refreshing to see that even as the film builds to its inevitable climax at Yarnell Hill, it stayed true to the story, adhering closely to official reports. For example, much of the dialogue is pulled straight from radio transcripts and the accounts from other firefighters on scene. Kosinki lays out the events of the Yarnell Hill Fire “as is” without attempting to try and invent motivations or answer questions that remain unanswered. The result is powerful and effective.

Only the Brave should give viewers a greater appreciation for the role played and the danger faced by wildland firefighters in the perennial battle to protect lives and land in the American West.

granite mountain fund

The Granite Mountain Fund drives donations to support firefighting as well as the towns and families connected to and impacted by hotshots and their work.

Napa Sonoma Fires

As the Napa and Sonoma Fires Unfolded

THE FIRST 24 HOURS

Santa Rosa Neighborhood damaged

A fallen flag re-hung the day after the fires burned through the neighborhoods of NE Santa Rosa

1130 Oct 8

For me, it was a typical Fall Sunday in America; highlighted by a one-year old’s birthday party and a big Packer win over the Cowboys. My arrival at home didn’t come until after 10 o’clock, in this case maybe fortunately, and the nightly peek at my work emails even later than that. On a typical Sunday night, my inbox might have some evening updates on fires or new reports of small, irrelevant starts. In this case, by 1130pm I already had twelve IPN emails and loads of tweets warning of the multiple starts. I was alarmed to see troubling terms like “high winds”, “evacuations”, and even “structure involvement” were being used for fires across multiple Northern California counties. I immediately flashed back to Gatlinburg TN, where lives and property were tragically lost in the middle of the night less than a year ago. I sprung into action, turning on fire radio and attempting to figure out exactly where all this activity fell on our map. For the first time in my five years with RedZone, I was headed to the office in the middle of the night to get a headstart on what was surely going to be a long couple days ahead dealing with the Napa Sonoma Fires.

0400 Oct 9

Not long after my colleague and I arrived, we knew what were hearing was really bad news. By 4 am we had about a dozen new large wildfire starts on our radar. Winds howling north of 50 mph were sending extreme fire behavior through the dry grass and oak terrain of several northern counties.  Butte had fires. Clearlake had a fire. Mendocino had fire. Sonoma had multiple fires. Napa was on fire. What’s worse, is, not only is it just wildfire chaos but it’s in the middle of the night. Due to strained resources and limited air reinforcements, fire crews focused all their energy on life-saving and evacuation activities rather than attempt any form of structure protection. As the morning wore on, the true impact to life and property was apparent as radio traffic was overwhelmed with calls of residents entrapped and flooded with eerily streamlined reports of structures ablaze. It was one of the worst things I’ve witnessed unfold, as I knew in my heart not everyone would get out alive.

1800 Oct 9

We spent a good part of late summer watching three major hurricanes devastate areas like Houston, Key West, and Puerto Rico. Something about this just seemed worse, probably the lack of warning and widespread destruction. By the time most of the country woke up, the Tubbs and Atlas Fires had already force-evacuated thousands leaving destroyed homes and commercial properties in its wake. In Santa Rosa, the fire actually crossed the 101 Highway through town. In Napa, a number of iconic wineries and high dollar properties were already devastated by the firestorm. What we saw was the result of a recipe for disaster. High winds with dry fuels and low RH; despite last winter’s drought-relieving rains, the excess fine fuels were ripe for the taking. The multiple starts knocked out cell towers and power across the area. Even as the day wore on and more and more resources arrived, all they could do was focus on evacuations, life-saving, and structure protection as the fires continued to burn uncontrolled.

napa sonoma fire progression

Napa Sonoma Fires progression from green on Oct 9 to dark red on Oct 18th

bark beetle tree

California Tree Mortality At An Unprecedented Level

Tree Mortality Overview

According to U.S. Forest Service study done in the summer of 2017, about 6.3 billion dead trees are still standing in 11 Western states, an increase of half a billion from five years ago. 103 million trees have died in California alone since 2010. So what’s happening to the trees? Well, established trees are normally fairly resilient to seasonal changes in their environment, but the last five years of drought in CA coupled with climate change impacts have imposed several stressors acting on the trees at the same time. Most native California trees are fairly resilient to drought, but a prolonged drought weakens the trees and exposes them to pests and disease that a healthier tree could normally fight off. A recent story by the CBS San Francisco discussed the situation in the Sierra National Forest with two Forestry experts there. They stated that there are more dead trees than live ones and will be dealing with the tree mortality there for many years to come.

Tree Mortality Danger

When a tree dies, its wood dries out and becomes very flammable.  When building a campfire, there’s a reason we use downed wood instead of chopping down live trees. Healthy, living trees have a relatively high moisture content.  This helps trees survive a wildfire and slows the progress of that wildfire. When tree death occurs from old age or other reasons, standing dead or fallen trees provide a large amount of dry fuel for wildfires, encouraging fire growth and hindering efforts to put it out. Not only are decomposing trees more flammable, they can also present a safety hazard to firefighters. Specifically, dead trees can fall during fires (which have resulted in deaths), and fallen trees can be an obstacle preventing vehicles and firefighters from reaching or escaping a wildfire.

bark beetle-caused tree mortality

Bark Beetle impact from 2012 US Forest Service report

What’s Happening to the Trees?

Established trees are fairly resilient to seasonal changes in their environment, so it is difficult to understand exactly what is causing so much tree death in California. Perhaps not surprisingly, several stressors have been acting on the trees at the same time.

Drought:

California saw a five-year historic drought that only just ended this last year. Most native California trees are fairly resilient to drought, but this prolonged drought weakened the trees and made them more susceptible to beetles and disease. Two deadly invaders that a healthier tree could normally fight off.

tree mortality in Julian

Tree death (brown trees) near Julian in San Diego County

Pests:

Tree bark is the main defense for trees against pests, disease, and fires. Bark beetles burrow into the bark and expose the trees to other pests or diseases, and can reduce their fire resiliency. Different types of bark beetles act as pests to different types of trees. The Pines and Conifers in the Sierra Nevada Mountains have been decimated by these beetles. Beetle-kill trees have been blamed for prolonging the firefight on the Beaver Creek Fire in Northern Colorado and also the Cedar Fire in California’s Southern Sierra Nevada Range. Tree deaths due to these beetles have been attributed to several major campaign fires across the west over the past few summers. The map above shows hard-hit beetle kill timber forests across the west (in red), which includes both the Cedar and Beaver Creek fire areas.

Disease:

The coast live oak trees have been exposed to Sudden Oak Death, which is caused by a non-native tree fungus. This fungus and other non-native diseases are responsible for an estimated 5 – 10 million oak tree deaths. Many dead trees were identified in the areas where the Soberanes fire near Big Sur is currently burning and have likely contributed (along with major drought) to its acreage eclipsing 100,000 this week.

Plans for Tree Death Prevention

Drought, pests, and disease all put stress on otherwise healthy trees.  When these stresses are combined, we can expect to see continued tree death at unprecedented scales. California has programs to both reduce the amount of tree death and to remove dead trees as a means of reducing fire danger.  Lately, resources have been too scarce to keep up with the levels of tree deaths plaguing the state. Learn more about the epidemic and what is being done to prevent further problems here.


Sources:

www.fs.fed.us

www.fire.ca.gov

www.yale.edu

The Denver Post

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in September 2016 and was updated in September 2017