This Friday, May 4, 2018, aerial image released by the U.S. Geological Survey, at 12:46 p.m. HST, a column of robust, reddish-brown ash plume occurred after a magnitude 6.9 South Flank of Kīlauea earthquake shook the Big Island of Hawaii, Hawaii. The Kilauea volcano sent more lava into Hawaii communities Friday, a day after forcing more than 1,500 people to flee from their mountainside homes, and authorities detected high levels of sulfur gas that could threaten the elderly and people with breathing problems. (U.S. Geological Survey via AP)

Kilauea Volcano Continues to Erupt

The Kilauea Volcano on the Big Island of Hawaii erupted last week Thursday, May 3rd, breaking open rifts and opening lava vents. While Kilauea has been continuously active for the last 35 years, this recent episode occurred alongside a 6.9 earthquake. Nearby neighborhoods were evacuated as fissures began releasing lava that spread throughout Leilani Estates and Lanipuna Gardens.

This Friday, May 4, 2018, aerial image released by the U.S. Geological Survey, at 12:46 p.m. HST, a column of robust, reddish-brown ash plume occurred after a magnitude 6.9 South Flank of Kīlauea earthquake shook the Big Island of Hawaii, Hawaii. The Kilauea volcano sent more lava into Hawaii communities Friday, a day after forcing more than 1,500 people to flee from their mountainside homes, and authorities detected high levels of sulfur gas that could threaten the elderly and people with breathing problems. (U.S. Geological Survey via AP)

Kilauea Eruption – Friday, May 4, 2018, 12:46 p.m. HST (U.S. Geological Survey via AP)

Due to the rate that lava spreads compared to other typical natural disasters such as hurricanes or wildfire, people were able to safely leave their homes. Photos and videos show the progression of destruction through the neighborhood as the lava pushes through homes and new fires ignite. One homeowner had been working on a car on his property and was unable to move it out of the way, but the true loss — the R2D2 mailbox his daughter had made him for Christmas. The impact was caught in this time-lapse video.

Fissure locations under Leilani Estates

Fissure locations under Leilani Estates east of the main active crater

Confirmed losses from Kilauea

As of May 10th, 36 structures have been destroyed, mostly in the Leilani Estates area. Despite the overall ongoing spread of lava, scientists are now warning area residents that ballistic projectiles may be emitted in the next few weeks. This would occur as the lava sinks in the crater lake and interacts explosively with the groundwater. The “projectiles” could range in size from pebbles to boulders weighing several tons. With so many unpredictable dangers from these ballistic projectiles to poisonous gases of the lava and ash to earthquakes, homeowners who still have a home to return to will not be sleeping easily any time soon.

USGS is alerting nearby residents about the possibilities of ballistic rocks.

USGS is alerting nearby residents about the possibilities of ballistic rocks.

 

Read Further

  • http://www.hawaiinewsnow.com/story/38087728/new-kilauea-eruption-triggers-house-fires-as-hundreds-evacuate-area
  • https://www.cnn.com/2018/05/10/us/hawaii-kilauea-volcano/index.html
  • https://www.cnn.com/interactive/2018/05/us/hawaii-kilauea-volcano-eruption-cnnphotos/index.html
RedZone Disaster Intelligence

How Can Technology Assist Insurance Carriers With Disaster Moratoriums?

Have you ever wondered how home insurance companies deal with writing new policies in an ongoing disaster zone? Well the truthful answer is they don’t. For instance, when a large wildland fire is threatening homes or has the potential to, insurance carriers place a moratorium on the surrounding landscape. A moratorium is a temporary, but indefinite hold on writing any new home insurance policies within the blanket area that is declared. The purpose of this practice is to stop new customers who aren’t covered for fire, or other disaster related damages, from buying a policy right before the home is damaged. The problem is the geographic regions that are typically chosen for a moratorium are too large. The regions that are chosen usually include areas that are not threatened by the disaster in any way shape or form. This leaves an undesirable gap in business for both the insurers and possible policy holders. Here at RedZone we like to focus on utilizing technology coupled with expertise to solve complicated problems such as this one.

Wildfire

                With advances in current wildfire modeling, insurance companies can have a more precise understanding of what is taking place on the ground currently, as well as what is likely to take place in the upcoming hours of the fire. Wildfire modeling accounts for the essential driving factors behind a wildfire so it can accurately depict where the fire is heading. You can read more about the aspects taken into account in RedZone’s Wildfire model here. By using a wildfire model, insurance companies can reduce the size of the geographic areas that are placed under a moratorium. Then the carriers will have an understanding of where the fire will be moving. This benefits both parties involved in many ways. If a home is not covered for wildfire, and a fire breaks out near the home it may spark an interest for the homeowner to obtain coverage on their home for fire. If the area that the home is located in is under a moratorium, the homeowner will not be able to purchase a policy for that type of coverage.

Canyon 2 Wildfire Model – first 24 hours without suppression

canyon2 final perimeter

Canyon 2 Fire Perimeter – shows the fire’s extent in the first 48 hours with suppression

Hurricane

                In the case of hurricanes, insurance carriers are even more precautious about writing new business when a storm of hurricane magnitude is approaching. The process of putting a moratorium in place for a storm begins when the National Weather Service declares a low pressure system to be of a tropical storm magnitude. You can learn more about hurricane formation and power at RedZone’s Blog on Hurricanes Harvey and Irma. Insurance companies immediately put a moratorium into effect for the projected zones that will be impacted by the incoming storm. These areas range from zip codes to counties and even expanding to encompass entire states that could possibly be impacted by the storm. A large portion of homes that are located in a moratorium of that size will likely not be affected by flooding or wind damage from the storm.

One of the ways that GIS (Geographic Information Systems) can help with this problem is with a Digital Elevation Model (DEM) Dataset. When loaded into a GIS this data will depict what the terrain on the ground will look like. These elevation layers coupled with flood plain data would give an accurate depiction of the level of threat to a structure. What has to be taken into account is that each storm is different. The flood data chosen must accurately match the expected rainfall from the storm in the general location. One solution is to utilize the most severe flood data available, so that the estimations are on the safer side. Another factor that needs to be considered is the damage that occurs from wind during one of these events. GIS is capable of running buffers based on the projected storm path. A buffer coinciding with the relative wind speeds that are capable of damaging homes would be a safe way of creating more accurate moratorium zones during a hurricane. 

NOAA track Oct8

NOAA Potential Track Map issued Thursday Oct 10th, 8pm eastern

Source(s):

http://wiseinsurancegroup.com/insurance-moratoriums-binding-prohibitions/

https://www.insurancejournal.com/news/west/2017/12/18/474612.htm

https://www.jebrown.net/content/169/brush-fire-moratorium

http://velocityrisk.com/commercial-insurance/moratorium-policy

https://www.propertycasualty360.com/2016/10/06/how-the-insurance-industry-prepares-for-hurricanes/?slreturn=20180326132445

road closure thumbnail

Incoming Heavy Rains Increase Debris Flow Risk Yet Again

The National Weather Service (NWS), Los Angeles Office is warning the region that sustained heavy rains are incoming for the majority of the rest of the week. The beginning of the rain is set to arrive today (Tuesday) and last well into Thursday. The “atmospheric river” storm is expected to bring between 5 and 10 inches of rain in the foothills and mountains, significantly more total rainfall than the 1/9 debris flow, which brought between 3 and 6 inches to the region. The NWS says this storm is projected to have the heaviest rainfall and the longest duration of this winter storm season. “All models indicate high confidence in rainfall totals and the duration of the storm.”

Rainfall forecast through 3/26

National Weather Service Precipitation forecast for the Greater Los Angeles and Santa Barbara Areas through the weekend. Recent Fires are seen in black on the map as worry grows about debris flow potential.

Debris Flow Risk for Santa Barbara County Burn Areas

We caught Monday’s press conference from Emergency Officials with Santa Barbara County, who are stressing the seriousness of the renewed threat flooding and especially of debris flow.  Opening the discussion, Meteorologist, Mark Jackson warned, “A key worry with this storm is rainfall rates that can trigger debris flows. It’s not necessarily the total amount of rain that occurs; it’s how fast that rain falls.” Well, the latest meteorological models by the National Weather Service indicate that there is potential for rainfall intensity of between .5 to .75 inches per hour, which is enough to trigger debris flows at any time during the storm.

Recent Burn Areas tweet

NWS Los Angeles warning via tweet today that debris flows near recent fires are likely across the region

As a result, many residents downslope of Thomas and other fires in the region (seen as black in the map above & highlighted in the tweet below) have been evacuated or at least cautioned. Santa Barbara County is also managing and updating an evacuation map found here.  In addition, Rob Lewin, director of the Santa Barbara County Office of Emergency Management, warned the amount of rain and the intensity is enough to cause flooding even without the impact of the recent fires. “We could experience localized flooding and road closures which are not isolated to the burn areas. The threat of rock falls, mud slides and debris flow is high,” he noted.

“A key worry with this storm is rainfall rates that can trigger debris flows. It’s not necessarily the total amount of rain that occurs; it’s how fast that rain falls.” – Mark Jackson, NWS Meteorologist

Storm Facts:

  • Heaviest Rainfall for Ventura County to San Luis Obispo County is expected Wednesday afternoon to Thursday morning (March 21 – March 22)
  • Heaviest Rainfall for LA County is expected Thursday into Thursday Night (March 22)
  • Rainfall totals for the Coasts/Valleys will be 2-5 inches, for the Foothills/Mountains more like 5-10 inches.
  • Flash flooding and significant debris flows near recent burn scars are likely
  • Urban and small stream flooding expected
  • Slight chance of main stem river flooding
  • Road closures anticipated due to rock fall in the mountains
  • Residents in the Extreme and High Risks areas of Santa Barbara County are required to evacuate at noon on Tuesday (March 20)
  • Mandatory evacuations prompted for areas below the Thomas, Whittier, and Sherpa Fires

Sources:

National Weather Service

Santa Barbara County Emergency Services

KSBY News

Wildfire 101: United States Fire Regimes

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.

fire regimes 48 states

Lower 48 United states classified into fire regime zones.

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.

fire regime table

This table shows the characteristics behind the fire regime classifications listed on the map above.

Sources:

https://www.firescience.gov/projects/09-2-01-9/supdocs/09-2-01-9_Chapter_3_Fire_Regimes.pdf

https://www.landfire.gov/fireregime.php

https://www.fs.fed.us/database/feis/fire_regime_table/PNVG_fire_regime_table.html

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:

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

Takeaways from the Napa Sonoma Fire Siege

Earlier this week I published some thoughts about the first 24 hours of the October Napa Sonoma Fire Siege. The unprecedented destruction caused by these fires provoked many questions in the emergency world, insurance, and especially the public. We asked our Senior Fire Liaison Doug Lannon his  thoughts to questions regarding;  1) Why were so many homes lost, 2) Why are these fires different, and 3) Why did we see so many homes burn to the ground, but some trees next to homes are still standing?

Weather

Northern California and the North Bay had been in Red Flag Warning conditions for several consecutive weeks before the fires, and were still under a Red Flag Warning when the fires began.  A severe “Santa Ana” type Foehn wind event coupled with low Relative Humidity and dangerously low fuel moistures were a design for disaster under the circumstances.

  • The winds were coming out of the northeast sustained at 40 mph with gusts up to 75 mph
  • Relative Humidity was in the single digits (RH below 20%, more receptive to ignitions)
  • Hot 80 and 90 degree temperatures contributed to the fuel ignition temperature and fire spread
  • During the autumn months, the North Bay temperatures are cooler and many people leave their windows open, making their homes and businesses even susceptible to ember intrusion

Fuels

Following more than five years of drought, the area received almost three times the normal amount of rain last winter and spring, causing two to three times the amount of grass crop and light flashy fuels to grow, but not enough to raise the living fuel moistures in heavy brush and timber to recover completely.  Also tree mortality is at an all-time high in the North State.

  • Dead fuel moisture sticks were hovering between 1 and 2 (10 is maximum, below 5 is serious)
  • Living fuel moisture was at 57% (80% is serious and below 60% is critical), 240% is maximum
  • Light and flashy fuels were abundant and twice as tall and thick as in normal years
  • Moderate to heavy fuels (brush and oak woodland) were extremely dry and abundant
  • Some homes did not have adequate clearance of native vegetation around the structures
  • Many homes had good clearance from native vegetation, but were surrounded by combustible ornamental shrubbery which also contributed to the fire spread into structures
  • Predominate fuel was grass, brush, and oak woodland which can send heavy embers skyward
  • Oak trees, palm trees, and conifer trees will send burning material high up into the convection column and those hot embers can rain down causing new spot fires ahead of the main fire
  • During the autumn months, oak leaves fall off trees adding to the combustible ground litter which can contribute to ember storms (similar to last year’s Gatlinburg Fires)
  • In some cases, ornamental shrubbery planted around homes appeared to have been well irrigated, causing some plants and trees to survive while homes burned

Topography

The areas where the fires were burning are mountainous, fairly hilly and in some cases steep and rugged.  Most drainages on the west side of the mountain ranges in the area are in perfect alignment for a northeast wind to send the fires down into the valley areas to the southwest and into populated, urban, and commercial areas.  Many homes were built along ridgetops and in canyons and passes adjacent to heavily wooded areas.

santa rosa neighborhood damage from the Napa Sonoma Fire Siege

Digital Globe Imagery released October 14th, 2017 shows whole neighborhoods wiped out in northeast Santa Rosa by the Tubbs Fire.

National Fire Danger Rating System

NFDRS components were at the extreme and very critical levels with the Energy Release Components (ERCs) at the highest levels we have seen in the past 26 years (since ERCs have been monitored).  The ERCs for these fires were greater than 90%.  ERCs relate to the available energy (BTUs) per unit area (square foot) within the flaming front at the head of a fire.  Daily variations in ERCs are due to changes in moisture content of the various fuels present, both live and dead.  So this number represents the potential heat release per unit area in the flaming zone.  As live fuels cure and dead fuels dry, the ERC values get higher, providing a good reflection of drought conditions.  Ignition Components (IC) were hovering between 90% and 100%.  The IC numbers represent an estimate of the probability of ignition when embers are blown in the wind ahead of the main fire and are able to contact a receptive fuel bed, then each could result in a new fire.  An IC of 90% to 100% means that if 100 embers are blown in the wind and come in contact with a receptive fuel bed, than those embers will result in 90 to 100 new starts (spot fires).  Scientific research is showing that many of the above factors can be attributed to Climate Change or Global Warming.

Multiple Fires and Lack of Available Resources

Multiple fires ignited during an extreme wind event, resulting in fifteen major fires burning at one time in Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino, and Solano Counties.  This quickly overwhelmed local, State, and Federal firefighting resources that would normally be available to respond mutual aid to the area where the fires were burning.  The first fire (Tubbs) along Tubbs Lane near Calistoga was ignited at about 2230 hours on Sunday night and began burning rapidly to the southwest towards Santa Rosa.  As more fires ignited, many resources that were originally responding to the Tubbs Fire were diverted to other new fires.  This trend continued for almost twelve hours, resulting in insufficient resources being assigned to active fires burning in the North Bay, while other in-state and out-of-state resources began responding for mutual aid, but had long travel times.  At the same time, other major fires were igniting, one in Orange County and two in Butte County, further taxing the State’s Master Mutual Aid system.  The causes for these fires are still under investigation and have not been released, but rumor has it that downed powerlines, downed power poles, and downed trees into powerlines were largely responsible for causing several of the fires.

Ember Storms

Abundant light, flashy, heavy, and ground litter fuels (dead leaves off of trees, etc.) coupled with the very high winds began blowing burning embers into receptive fuel beds.  This phenomenon was definitely a major contributor to the rapid fire spread, creating spotting.  Many homes and commercial structures had combustible materials next to and in close proximity to the structures, allowing the many spot fires created by embers to spread into those structures.

Rapid Evacuations

The majority of the fires were ignited at nighttime or in the early morning hours, catching people asleep and in their beds.  In many cases the fires were rapidly encroaching on structures when people were awakened and made aware of the hazard, causing many people to evacuate with only the clothes they were wearing and without closing some doors, windows, garage doors, etc.  This left homes more susceptible to ember intrusion, causing some homes to burn from the inside out.

destructive fires list showing four additions from the Napa Sonoma Fire Siege

An updated (Nov 1, 2017) look at California’s 20 most destructive wildfires with four fires added (in red) from last month’s Napa Sonoma fire siege.

 

Written by: Douglas J. Lannon, Senior Fire Liaison, RedZone Disaster Intelligence, LLC.

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