In Mid-December, Senior Fire Liaison Doug Lannon and I spent a few days surveying the damage from the Woolsey Fire. We toured the 16 mile long fire area with the aim of digesting the fire’s destructive path from a fire behavior and investigative perspective. We were fortunate enough to gain access to a wide range of properties with a range of extent of impact from Bell Canyon all the way to homes right above the Malibu Coast. After a few days of surveying, a familiar story unfolded, yet another destructive and uncontrollable wind-driven Santa Ana fire in California. Read more
2018’s fire season was another record breaking year; in particular, California was absolutely devastated in terms of lives and property lost. According to the National Interagency Fire Center in 2018, 8,582,609 acres were burned by 55,911 different wildfire starts throughout the United States. In comparison to the 2017 fire season, there were 991,924 fewer acres burned in 2018, from 8,699 less starts than 2017. These statistics paint a picture that this past season was not as severe in terms of wildfires, this could not be further from the truth.
RedZone Senior Wildfire Liaison Doug Lannon attended The Thomas Fire Retrospective Report discussion was held at 5:30 pm on Wednesday, October 17th, 2018 at the Montecito Fire Protection District (FPD) Headquarters located at 595 San Ysidro Road in the community of Montecito, California. These are some key points that Doug took away from the discussion.
The presentation was sponsored by the Montecito FPD Board of Directors and Montecito Fire Chief Chip Hickman. The discussion was led and facilitated by Dr. Crystal Kolden, Director of the Pyrogeography Lab and Associate Professor of Fire Science for the University of Idaho, College of Natural Resources. Dr. Kolden presented the history of the community of Montecito’s Wildland Fire Program Policy, and actions from when it was first discussed after the devastating Painted Cave Fire which occurred in 1990 near Goleta, and was then instituted after the even more destructive Tunnel Fire which occurred in 1991 in the Oakland Hills. The program has been enthusiastically supported and continued to date by the Montecito FPD Board of Directors, the Montecito FPD personnel, and the Citizens of Montecito, due to a highly effective and efficient Community Fire Protection and Fire Prevention Education and Partnership Program. Dr. Kolden also discussed the types of mitigation strategies that have been successful in recent wildfires, both for individual homeowners and for communities.
Montecito was just one of several cities and communities that were threatened and received significant impact to residential and commercial properties during the 2017 Thomas Fire. However, compared to other communities impacted by the Thomas Fire, the community of Montecito suffered only a fraction of the damage that other communities suffered during the Thomas Fire. Montecito’s wildland fire program has spent the last 20 years developing a set of systems to combat the threat of wildfire. These systems include implementing new stringent building codes and architectural guidelines, creating a hazardous fuel treatment network across the northern portion of the community, developing a pre-attack plan to disseminate critical fire ground information to mutual aid resources, developing partnerships within the community and with adjacent agencies, and building a community education program that facilitates a positive working relationship with the community. These systems were successfully deployed to support structure defense actions by the more than 500 firefighters assigned to Montecito the morning of December 16th, 2017. The Community Education and Partnership Program include: defensible space surveys and inspections, neighborhood chipping days, preparedness planning, pre-attack zones and homes, voluntary and mandatory evacuation zones and trigger points, widening roads, hardening structures, and ornamental shrubbery around structures, etc. In part, due to the effectiveness of the systems, only minimal structure loss and damage occurred, but most importantly, no lives were lost or serious injuries occurred prior to and during the fire fight. A post-fire assessment found that the seven primary residences destroyed during the Thomas Fire lacked defensible space, lacked safe access due to narrow roads or no turnarounds for fire apparatus, were constructed of flammable construction materials, or were situated where gaps existed in the fuel treatment network. Forty other properties received varying degrees of damage to outbuildings, fencing, ornamental shrubbery, etc.
In retrospect, the Thomas Fire demonstrated how proactive actions implemented by the District and the community in the past 20 years contributed to the successful defense of the community during the Thomas Fire. Post-fire, Montecito still has unburned fuel in smaller enclaves within the community and within the 2008 Tea Fire and 2009 Jesusita Fire burn scars. These open space areas still have the potential to support smaller, more localized wildfires. Given the favorable climatic conditions of the Central Coast, over the next 10-20 years, vegetation in the footprint of the Thomas Fire will be able to support wildfire again. There is much opportunity for the District to use the Thomas Fire burned area to continue to expand and improve upon the existing fuel treatment network. Treating vegetation as it regrows will be less labor intensive and less costly than in the past. Leveraging community partnerships, improving the use of technology to support fire operations, modifying defensible space fire codes, and continuing the wildland fire safety and education of the community are critical steps for the District in the upcoming years as they prepare for the inevitable next wildfire. We know it’s coming, it’s just a matter of when!
(Excerpts for this story were taken from the Thomas Fire Retrospective Report produced by GEO Elements, LLC.)
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.
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
Last Year’s Disaster
During the massively destructive 2017 wildfire season in California, certain phrases kept being repeated. “Unprecedented”, “Uncharted territory”, “Historic”, “War zone”, “New normal”, and other descriptive phrases were used to try and give people an understanding of the magnitude and severity of the fires. People hoped 2018 would be different, but “New Normal” seems to be an accurate description of what we can expect from wildfires in California.
This Year’s Activity (So Far)
California governor Jerry Brown has started to get lawmakers and the public to brace for the increasing threat of wildfires. He was recently quoted in a SacBee article, saying that fighting wildfires in the state is “going to get expensive, it’s going to get dangerous, and we have to apply all our creativity to make the best of what is going to be an increasingly bad situation.”
Around a quarter of California’s annual fire suppression budget has already been spent; even though the fiscal year just started July 1st. Simultaneous large fires are also spreading resources thin. As of this writing, 16 large uncontained fires burning a total of 343,700 acres continue to to challenge California firefighters. The largest and most destructive of these fires is the Carr Fire near Redding, which claimed 6 lives and destroyed over 1,000 homes. It already ranks as California’s 6th most destructive wildfire. In fact, half of California’s 10 most destructive wildfires have happened in the last 4 years.
National resources are also spread thin, as the National Interagency Fire Center has upped the National Preparedness Level to 5 (out of a possible 5), indicating that resources are already fully committed to current fires. New fire starts will have a higher potential for large growth, as there will be limited resources to stop the fire before it gets established.
California Active Large Fire Facts
- As of: August 2, 2018
- Size: 343,700 acres
- Structures Destroyed: 1,000+
- Structures Threatened: 17,000
- Incident Page: http://www.fire.ca.gov/current_incidents
- News Article: https://www.sacbee.com/news/politics-government/capitol-alert/article215852940.html
The Ferguson Fire began last Friday evening (13/July) in the Savage Trading Post area of Mariposa County, CA. It quickly grew past 4,000 acres by Sunday morning. Evacuations were issued for several areas in the vicinity and parts of Hwy 140 were closed due to firefighting activities. From the beginning, crews focused on securing fire line along Hwy 140 and structure protection where needed. In preparation for the hot and dry forecast, additional resources worked to extend containment lines to the east on both north and south flanks of the fire. Daily, an inversion has kept the smoke low over the fire which limits the usage of aircraft for water and retardant drops. Another compounding factor to this very active fire is the available fuels – this area has had no significant wildfire in nearly 100 years.
The forecast has been much the same each day for the Ferguson Fire area. Today’s weather was similar to yesterday with upper 90os and into the triple digits, relative humidity around 17-20%, and light & variable west winds at 5-10 mph with gusts to 20 mph. As thunderstorms built over the area after lunch, these winds increased to 15 mph with stronger gusts. These conditions will lead to ongoing active fire behavior. As safety allowed, crews conducted burning operations along the western and eastern sides of the fire. This means they purposely burned fuel to remove it in controlled portions. Removing this fuel allows resources to better control where the fire can grow and spread next. At only 7% containment, crews are pre-positioned in the communities around the fire in case the winds drive it quickly to the houses. So far, no homes have been destroyed from this fire, but the destructive California fires of this past fall and winter remain fresh in everyone’s minds.
- As of: July 19th, 2018
- Location: Mariposa, CA
- Size: 21,041 acres
- Containment: 7%
- Fire Behavior: Moderate fire spread through brush/chapparal and light pine timber
- Structures Threatened: 108
- Structures Destroyed: zero
- Evacuations: In place for Jerseydale and Mariposa Pines to the south, Yosemite West to the east, and along Hwy 140 to the north
- Incident Page: https://inciweb.nwcg.gov/incident/5927/
Over the last thirty years, the length of wildfire season has increased by nearly 20% around the world. In California, the idea of wildfire ‘season’ is nearly laughable as large growth, damaging wildfires happen year-round on a regular basis now. While wildfires can happen just about anywhere, the western US States are usually at greater risk for experiencing wildfires. Higher rates result from this increased risk and, in some areas, the insurance companies may not offer coverage at all.
Why is wildfire coverage important?
As approximately one-third of homes in the United States are in the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI), insurance companies are updating what is and is not covered in cases of wildfire. Insurance companies may factor in wildfire history in the area, home construction materials, vegetation, and topography, for example. In a few of the highest risk areas in the country, some insurance companies have opted to avoid writing policy coverage at all!
When structuring your policy, be sure to ask questions to know what is covered and how you are protected in case of wildfire. Policies may cover additional living expenses (ALE, in case damages or loss make your home uninhabitable), fire department service charges, or repairs and debris removal after a covered loss. There may be an additional option for fire insurance specifically for your non-primary residence. Different carriers offer different protections and add-ons, so be sure to know what you need.
What property features are considered?
Vegetation, alone, on your property isn’t necessarily a cause for concern. Insurers will typically take into account the location and type, as well as density, of the surrounding vegetation. Fire stations and hydrants near your home alleviate some levels of risk as there are preventative resources near the home should a wildfire emergency occur. Topographical features could play heavily on your potential extra costs. If you live in or near notable high risk areas, such as a canyon or the deep woods, additional insurance charges may be added to cover the increased risk to your home from wildfire. Roof type, along with eaves and siding materials, may also play a factor. For example, a wood roof (even if treated) is at much higher risk of catching fire from embers than a clay tile roof.
Homeowners can ensure they maintain significant defensible space that can help slow or stop a wildfire from spreading to your home and property.
Can I do anything to help protect myself?
Do not be discouraged! There are steps you can take to help make your home more fire-resistant. Programs like the Wildfire Partners Program out of Boulder County, Colorado, give homeowners a property assessment with specific tips, updates, landscaping, and removals that decrease their risk to a wildfire. Additionally, some insurance companies have specialists that perform consultations and provide the homeowner a report with recommended improvements to eaves, patios and decks, roofs, and vegetation. In areas with high wildfire risk, insurance companies may require this kind of consultation and follow up work in order to authorize writing the policy. As always, be your own advocate, and take the first steps to giving your home the best chance of survival from a wildfire. However, if you choose to live in a high wildfire risk area, be prepared to pay a bit higher premium to have proper insurance coverage in case of a destructive wildfire.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Wikipedia – List of California Wildfires