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.
In many wildland areas, smoke can often be seen throughout the winter. More than likely, this is not due to uncontrolled wildfire, but rather prescribed fire, which are a fuels reduction method used when the weather is less conducive to catastrophic burns, allowing firefighters and crews to prepare for when wildfire season picks up again.
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.)
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.
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. An unusually strong and persistent Santa Ana event was the largest factor in the spread of last year’s Thomas fire in Ventura (now second largest in size to Mendicino Complex). Much of Southern California experienced an on-and-off Santa Ana wind event for a little over two weeks, which contributed to the Thomas Fire burning a hot lap around Ojai and into Santa Barbara.
What Are Santa Ana Winds?
Typically Santa Ana air mass conditions are brought on by high pressure inland and lower pressure off the Pacific Coast which brings very hot and dry weather along with strong, down-slope winds. Santa Ana winds typically happen between September and May, in the winter months. We think this UCLA FAQ outlines Santa Anas the best. In the past, the critical fire weather conditions that accompany Santa Ana winds turn the typically dry chaparral of Southern California into explosive fuel. Some of the country’s costliest fires in history have taken place in these conditions.
The Outlook This Fall
Typically, a weather event occurs by mid-September that brings moisture to regions experiencing significant fire activity which allows for the western fire season to begin to decrease in activity. All signs point to a normal seasonal progression including a transition from ENSO Neutral conditions to El Niño, therefore such an event is expected. Most regions will exit the fire season at this point, but only a brief lull is expected across California before it enters its fall fire season by October and November. Given ongoing dryness in the fuels, the fall season may very well be robust across portions of the state. Fortunately for the drought situation, Meteorologists are expecting an El Niño cycle to begin affecting the area with rains by November. In the meantime, as the tropical air mass that has brought this summer’s rain gives way to autumn’s Pacific air mass, a few Santa Ana events should precede the El Nino’s wetting effect.
Mendocino Complex Fire Summary
The Ranch fire, which is being managed as a part of the Mendocino Complex, Started on July 27th on the north bound side of highway 20, east of Lake Mendocino. Fuels in this area consisted of grass, brush and Oak trees. The grasses along the highway led the fire rapidly becoming established and making a run upslope to the east. Due to winds in the area the first resources on scene were not able to catch this fire in its initial stages.
The Second fire being managed under the Mendocino Complex is the River Fire. The River Fire began on the east side of Old River Road, nearly 7 miles southeast of Ukiah, CA. Similar to the Ranch fire, the River Fire began in grasses and became rapidly established making a run up slope to the Southeast. The two incidents spread in a very similar manner for the first 3 days due to both fires burning in identical fuel types, and experiencing the same wind conditions during the initial attack phase. This is depicted very well in the fire progression map provided by the incident management team below.
Mendocino Complex as of August 16, 2018
The type-1 incident management team has been making significant progress with suppression efforts on these two fires. Currently the River fire remains with 48,920 acres burn and is 100 percent contained. The Ranch Fire has now surpassed the Thomas in acreage and claimed the title of California’s Largest Wildfire in recorded history. The Ranch Fire is currently 317,117 acres with 69 percent containment. The main influence of the Ranch Fire during the upcoming operational will be winds speeds. With the predominant winds coming from the west, the fire will continue push east. As these winds diminish this evening the primary driving factor of fire spread will switch to the local topography. This will likely change the direction of spread to the northeast. With the fire continuing to spread to the Northeast, there will be no shortage of fuel as it furthers its destruction of the Mendocino National Forest. Fire crews have constructed containment lines in this area and are preparing for a firing operation if the opportunity presents itself.
Mendocino Complex Fire Facts
- As of: August 16th, 2018
- Location: Clear Lake, CA
- Size: 366,037 acres
- Containment: 76%
- Fire Behavior: Moderate Fire spread through heavy timber and brush in steep, rugged terrain.
- Structures Threatened: 1025
- Structures Destroyed: 147 Residences/118 Other
- Structure Damaged: 13 Residences/ 23 Other
- Evacuations: Are in place
- Incident Page: http://www.fire.ca.gov/current_incidents/incidentdetails/Index/2175
- News Article: ABC 7
Drought Conditions Worsening in California
This time of year in Southern California lacks significant rainfall; with fire activity at its peak a common term heard is “fuel moisture”. A light year in terms of rainfall has allowed Southern California to fall back into a significant drought. The wetting rains of two winters ago seem a distant memory. While that winter helped the state’s dried up reservoirs the lack of wetting rains since the beginning of the year has impacted the region and state’s fuel moisture levels, exacerbating the wildfire situation.
What is Dead Fuel Moisture?
Drought means there is increased potential for significant wildfire due to dangerous levels of dead fuel moisture. As explained by NOAA, fuel moisture is a measure of the amount of water in a potential fuel, and is expressed as a percentage of the dry weight of that fuel. So if leaves and downed trees were completely dry in a given area, the fuel moisture level would be 0%.
When fuel moisture content is high, fires do not ignite readily, or at all, because most of the fire’s heat energy is used up trying to evaporate and drive water from the plant in order for it to burn. When the fuel moisture content is low (like in drought-stricken Southern California), fires start more easily and can spread rapidly as all of the heat energy goes directly into the burning flame itself. When drought is extreme and the fuel moisture content is less than 30%, that fuel is considered to be dead, giving us the “dead fuel moisture” designation.
Classifying Dead Fuel Moisture
The United States Forest Service which manages a nationwide fuel moisture index, classifies fuel moisture based on two metrics: fuel size and time lag.
- Fuel size refers to the actual physical dimensions of the fuel (i.e. the diameter of downed logs or branches).
- A fuel’s time lag classification is proportional to its diameter and is loosely defined as the time it would take for 2/3 of the dead fuel to respond to atmospheric moisture. For example, if a fuel had a “1-hour” time lag, one could expect its wildfire susceptibility to change after only 1 hour of humid weather. Fuels with 100- or 1000-hour time lags would be expected to be much less resistant to humidity.
Fuel moisture is dependent upon both environmental conditions (such as weather, local topography, and length of day) and vegetation characteristics. The smallest fuels most often take the least time to respond to atmospheric moisture, whereas larger fuels lose or gain moisture slowly over time.
The classifications of the Forest Services’s index (also known as NFDRS) are as follows:
Experiments, models, and post-fire studies have shown homes ignite during wildfires due to the condition of the home and its surroundings, up to 200′ from the foundation. The last couple of years, fire researchers have found more and more cases of homes burning down due to combustibles directly linked (first five feet) to the structure. Specifically, embers and small flames from low intensity surface fires are igniting adjacent combustibles which are, in turn, igniting homes. Therefore, the Home Ignition Zone receiving the most attention lately, is the area within 0-5 feet of the home.
First Five Feet Defined
The actual home, including roof and deck, along with the area within five feet of the zone makes up what the NFPA refers to as the “Immediate Zone”. According to the site, science has proven that this is the most important zone to take action on as it is the most vulnerable to embers and therefore home ignition. The group also provides a few suggestions for this zone which will help the survivability of a home during a wildfire event.
- Clean roofs and gutters of dead leaves, debris and pine needles that could catch embers.
- Replace or repair any loose or missing shingles or roof tiles to prevent ember penetration.
- Reduce embers that could pass through vents in the eaves by installing 1/8 inch metal mesh screening.
- Clean debris from exterior attic vents and install 1/8 inch metal mesh screening to reduce embers.
- Repair or replace damaged or loose window screens and any broken windows Screen or box-in areas below patios and decks with wire mesh to prevent debris and combustible materials from accumulating.
- Move any flammable material away from wall exteriors – mulch, flammable plants, leaves and needles, firewood piles – anything that can burn. Remove anything stored underneath decks or porches
With climate change becoming more prevalent in recent years, science has been looking for ways to examine how changes to the earth’s present and past environment will affect the way wildfires will burn in the future. Fire regimes are a great start for looking into how climate change will affect the behavior, occurrence, and characteristics of how wildfires burn. According to Firescience.gov, the definition of a fire regime is “In general a fire regime characterizes the spatial and temporal patterns and ecosystem impacts of fire on the landscape”. Many characteristics of the environment go into shaping the fire regime in any given area.
Fire Regime Factors
Of the many factors within the environment that come into play when creating fire regimes, there are two critical aspects that shape how fires burn the most. The first of these two crucial factors is the dominant vegetation type within the ecosystem. Chemically, fires need three ingredients to burn, oxygen, heat, and fuel (vegetation). Therefore, if any one of these is removed an ignition cannot occur. History tells us that the type of vegetation is a key factor because of how large the difference in fire behavior is between fuel types. A second major factor involved in formulating a fire regime for a certain area is climate. The local weather patterns in an area have a huge impact on how a fire will burn through the geographic region in question.
In the formation of these regimes, fire ecologists have used data regarding vegetation classifications pertaining to the dominant vegetation type in the area. This is combined with historical fire information such as, fire perimeters, and fire conditions to get an understanding of how fire acts within the landscape. Lastly, fire return interval rates are used to determine, on average, how long it will take to have a fire reoccur in a landscape that has burned.
Fire Regime Classification
Over the years fire ecologists have made many attempts at creating fire regimes for the United States using a variety of weighted combinations and factors similar to what was mentioned above. Recently, one group has emerged with the most thorough and up to date classifications of fire regimes. LANDFIRE has created a robust model that incorporates the historical aspect of past fires, and what is projected for the future of the landscape. This will provide a base platform for future research to see how wildfires occurrence, and characteristics are changing as the climate continues to change. Below is a map of the United States classified by each regions respective fire regime as well as, the legend that explains what each level of classification means for that specific area.
In many wildland areas, smoke can often be seen throughout the winter. More than likely, this is not due to uncontrolled wildfire, but rather prescribed fires that are started when the weather is less conducive to catastrophic burns, allowing firefighters and crews to prepare for when wildfire season picks up again.
A Rx fire (controlled pile burning) I helped ignite in Golden Hills near Tehachapi, CA
Prescribed fire is one of the most effective mitigation concepts for reducing the outbreak and spread of wildfires. SmokeyBear.com defines prescribed fire as the controlled application of fire by a team of fire experts under specified weather conditions that help restore health to fire-adapted environments. Prescribed fires can sometimes be confused with “backfiring” or “controlled burning” which typically refer to different types of prescribed and controlled fires. In many cases by safely reducing excessive amounts of brush, shrubs, and trees, prescribed burning can help reduce the catastrophic damage of wildfire on wildlands and surrounding communities.
In the Golden Hills photo above, the piling and burning of excess fuel was intended to make the fire road safer (this technique is sometimes called road brushing) and also to provide a fire break between Hwy 58 (a major thoroughfare) and the densely populated Golden Hills community.
A recent article by UC Berkeley News calls on more prescribed burns to help reduce the risk of large wildfires from the tree death epidemic across the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Dead trees in the region have left a huge dead fuel load across the area, and could feed massive fire with dangerous and unpredictable fire behavior when the hot and dry conditions return this summer. Prescribed fires, along with mechanical thinning and removing of trees, help reduce fuel loads enough to limit the risk of wildland fires spreading to nearby communities.
Read our past article about tree mortality to learn more here.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in January 2016 and was updated in January 2018