Ranchers affected by Thomas Fire file lawsuit against California utility

Thomas Fire. Photo credit: Ventura County Fire Department.

Ranchers in Ventura County who lost cattle and property during the devastating Thomas Fire filed a lawsuit this week against Southern California Edison, claiming the utility’s outdated equipment and lagging fire mitigation efforts were to blame for what became the largest blaze in modern state history.

“The Thomas Fire was the inevitable byproduct of SCE’s willful and conscious disregard of public safety. SCE, although mandated to do so, failed to identify, inspect, manage and/or control vegetation growth near its power lines and/or other electrical equipment. This created a foreseeable danger of trees and/or other vegetation coming into contact with SCE’s power lines and/or other electrical equipment and causing electrical problems, including ignition of fires,” the complaints state.

The lawsuit, filed on behalf of two ranchers, is the latest in a series of suits lodged against the utility provider.

According to The Ventura County Star newspaper, a spokesman for Edison said the company would not comment until the official cause of the blaze has been released.

“The Thomas fire obviously has had an impact of many individuals, but the origin and cause of the fire continue to be under investigation and no report has yet been issued,” a spokesman said in a statement, as reported by the newspaper. “This and other lawsuits are not based on findings related to an investigation. Therefore, it would be premature for SCE to comment on the origin or cause of the recent wildfires.”

The Thomas Fire burned 281,893 acres, making it the largest wildfire in recent California history. It destroyed 1,063 structures, damaged 280 more, and set in motion the factors that led to a series of flash-floods and landslides that killed 21 residents. 

A report on the official cause may still be several weeks away.

Record number of attendees at Arizona wildfire academy

Above: Students use sand tables to visualize initial attack scenarios and learn how to make sound decisions in this S200 Initial Attack Commander course during the 2018 Arizona Wildfire and Incident Management Academy in Prescott, Arizona. Courtesy photo. 

An annual wildfire training camp’s enrollment ballooned to record numbers this year on the heels of an especially active fire season — and the release of Only the Brave.  

At least 1,020 students are partaking in the 51 classes offered at this week’s Arizona Wildfire and Incident Management Academy in Prescott, said Tony Sciacca, Executive Director of the academy, as reported by The Daily Courier in Prescott. In its 16 years of operation, the academy’s previous highest enrollment  was 730.

The academy has a capacity of 1060.

“It’s a significant jump,” Sciacca told the newspaper.

During the training, which began March 10 and lasts through Friday at Embry Riddle Aeronautical University, attendees can pick from more than 50 NWCG, FEMA and other skills classes. Class offerings range from the entry-level S-130/190 to more advanced leadership or communications roles.

The Goodwin Fire burned 28,500 acres just outside of Prescott last year.  That, along with high-profile wildfires in California, might have piqued some interested in the academy, which is largely attended by Arizonans.

Additionally, there stands to be more money to go around this year. Arizona’s governor last month called for the doubling of the state’s investment in fire prevention funding for the upcoming fiscal year, from $1 million to $2 million.

And while it’s impossible to say, interest in wildland firefighting has surely increased since October’s release of Only the Brave. That film, of course, is based on the Granite Mountain Hotshots that fought not only wildfires for several years, but also battled with the establishment to finally be certified as the first Type 1 Interagency Hotshot Crew managed by a municipal fire department — the Prescott, Arizona Fire Department.

Field day for the 130/190 students

Posted by Arizona Wildfire and Incident Management Academy on Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Wind-driven wildfires race through Kansas Wednesday

Photo: Hutchinson Kansas Fire Department

A series of wildfires raced through grasslands in rural Kansas Wednesday, scorching swaths of land and drawing local firefighters and the Kansas National Guard.

The fires began midday Wednesday, primarily in Rice County in central Kansas. Fanned by gusty winds, the fire quickly became visible on radar imagery and the GOES-16 Satellite, as shown in these images from the National Weather Service’s Wichita bureau.

“Wind is the huge factor in the tall grass,” Rice County Emergency Management Director Greg Kline told reporters at the scene of one of the fires. “Access to some of these locations is very tough at times.”

Details about the estimated number of acres burned were not immediately available. But Kline said the three separate fires in Rice County were estimated to be about 2 miles wide and about 4 miles long at their farthest points.

Video of the news conference was posted by The Hutchinson News. 

Neighboring counties were assisting local crews, and firefighters were expected to be in the area through the night.

A crop-duster was also being used to help.

Kansas Gov. Jeff Colyer on Wednesday morning made an emergency declaration for three of the fires burning in Rice County and deployed Black Hawk helicopters from the Kansas National Guard to assist in the response.

Much of the state has been under red flag warnings in recent days.

Plus, the entire state is currently classified as “abnormally dry” with a large pocket of southern Kansas categorized as being in an “extreme drought,”

Drought monitor
Drought monitor, March 1, 2018. National Drought Mitigation Center.

Very high and extreme fire danger is anticipated for Thursday and Friday, with forecasted temperatures in the 70s and wind gusts up to 30 mph. Cooler temperatures and rain could be on the way for the weekend, according to the National Weather Service.

Still a huge wild fire in Rice County as of 308PM. Several fire crews are battling it. The smoke plume extends through McPherson, Dickinson and Saline Counties.

Posted by WIBW Jeremy Goodwin on Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Evacuation alerts face scrutiny as California wine country wildfires rage

(Above: A firefighter works in Northern California. Photo courtesy CAL FIRE). 

It was only a matter of time.

As follows almost every major natural disaster in recent years, emergency officials are under fire for what some say was lackluster performance when it came to warning people about the oncoming siege of fire marching toward their homes early Monday.

Why weren’t more cell phone alerts issued?

Why wasn’t there more advance notice?

What worked, and what didn’t?

With at least 31 lives lost as a result of the fast-moving fires across Northern California’s wine country, they’re fair questions — questions that will no doubt come to dominate the conversation in coming weeks and months.

But while there are always things to learn from, it is worth remembering this was not a disaster that had a days-long build-up, like a hurricane. For many near the point of origin, there wasn’t even an hours-long build up, like severe weather such as tornadoes. Rather, many families went to bed Sunday before any fires had ignited, only to be awoken in the middle of the night to commands from a loudspeaker outside, a neighbor pounding on the door, or — maybe — a telephone call.

As it relates to messaging, here’s a rundown of what we know:

  • Officials did not issue Amber-Alert-style cell phone messages in Napa and Sonoma counties. These alerts, administered through the Wireless Emergency Alert System, light up cell phones and trigger an un-mistakable screeching sound when a child is missing and in danger in the recipient’s area. Though they are almost guaranteed to wake people from a dead sleep, they are not necessarily intended for neighborhood-level evacuations.

According to the FCC, the alerts are broadcast from cell towers whose coverage area best matches the zone of an emergency to “phones that are using the cell towers in the alert zone.” Depending on the region and how connected residents are to cell phone networks, that could result in a widespread, wide-radius of messaging.

And that could have resulted in a widespread shadow evacuation in which everyone — not just those in immediate evacuation zones — hits the roads in the middle of the night in a panic, potentially leading to any number of other emergencies, officials maintain. 

“It would cause unnecessary evacuations and delays for emergency vehicles reaching people in areas in need,” said county spokeswoman Jennifer Larocque, according to The Mercury News. “In order not to slow down response to people actually in need of help, we chose not to send the notice.”

Though beneficial, residents have to register for the service, a quick process but a process nonetheless. And there remains the challenge of reaching people in the middle of the night, as was the case this week.

It seems pertinent here to mention media, both social and traditional. Though news reporters were quick to begin reporting on the fires, and many were on the fire line overnight, residents were likely slow to tune in, at least initially. And social media, the means through which many community-level communications are handled by way of Facebook or NextDoor, was a vacuum at first. If you posted something, it might not have been seen until the morning.

  • So that leaves word-of-mouth. There are scores of harrowing stories of neighbors warning neighbors, showing up on doorsteps, blaring horns and doing everything they could to simply get people to wake up and look outside. This was how many people learned of the urgency. This, many have said, was the best way to get the word out.

“The smoke and ash and embers were raining down, sparking spot fires,” Paul Lowenthal, assistant fire marshal in Santa Rosa, recalled in an interview Wednesday with The Washington Post. “It didn’t take but moments for people to look out their front doors and see what was happening.”

It’s less than ideal. But in some cases, it’s all there can be.

As an aside, my graduate research was about evacuation communications during the 2013 Colorado Flood, which devastated a swath of the state and carved communities into islands. The gist: social ties matter within a community during disaster events. And while technology can certainly help, it cannot be the only answer, nor can it be the answer without considering the role of local first responders. People go through a two-step process during evacuations: hearing an alert and seeking additional information. It is inherently a social experience. Accordingly, communication infrastructure is vital as people both receive initial information and seek additional details, through whatever means necessary discussed earlier in this piece.

All of that to say cell phone towers becoming compromised during a disaster — as was the case during this week’s wildfire outbreak — will no doubt be a topic officials hone in on, with good reason.

In March, I wrote a piece for Wildfire Today about issues continuing to play out surrounding evacuations in Gatlinburg, a starkly different situation, but relevant still. Essentially, city officials there, it was determined, downplayed the threat early in the incident. Then, when hurricane-force winds tore through the region and fanned the flames, a “communication failure” caused by disabled communication services prevented the immediate issuance of a timely alert. Alternative sources of emergency communication — local media, for example — had only a marginal effect.

It’s only been five days since fires in Northern California erupted. The questions, after-actions reviews and analyses will be long coming.

Communicating breaking news or public safety-related evacuation messages to off-line, at-risk populations during a dynamic disaster event is a seemingly impossible conundrum. It is one that researchers have spent decades studying in various forms, whether under the umbrella of the sociology of disaster or the various hazard communication models within emergency management.

Going forward, with a continuous onslaught of disasters now reality, it’s an area that should not be ignored.

California wildfires update: More wind, more evacuations, more destruction

(Originally published at 7:14 a.m. PDT October 12, 2017)

After a day of relative calm and progress, high winds — some gusting to 50 mph overnight — prompted red flag warnings in Northern California and will hinder firefighters trying to gain an edge in what will likely go down as the most deadly and destructive wildfire event in state history.

The latest figures on this week’s wildfire outbreak, per CAL FIRE as of late Wednesday:

  • 22 wildfires have burned more than 170,000 acres
  • 3,500 homes and structures have been destroyed
  • 21 people have died, and that figure is expected to rise
  • More than 8,000 firefighters are working fires across the state, primarily those in Northern California’s wine country. This includes crews on 550 engines, 73 helicopters and 30 air tankers.

This New York Times analysis, from the air and ground adds to grim picture emerging from wine country, where the number of structures destroyed stands to climb.

While progress has been made on containment for many of the smaller fires, several major fires continue to expand, forcing even more evacuations Wednesday night and into Thursday, including the 5,000 people who live in Calistoga.

“Forecasted conditions have worsened. In the interest of life safety, it has become necessary to expand and implement the CAL FIRE Mandatory evacuation for the entire city of Calistoga,” city officials said. 

Among the largest incidents, as of Wednesday night’s update:

  • Atlas Fire: 43,000 acres and 3 percent contained
  • Tubbs Fire: 27,000 acres and 10 percent contained (at least 11 people were killed in this incident, making it the single deadliest blaze in this outbreak, according to CAL FIRE.
  • Redwood/Potter Fires (Mendocino Lake Complex): 30,000 acres and 5 percent contained

Here’s a list of the 20 most damaging fires in California history. Atop the list is the Tunnel Fire a 1,600-acre blaze that rekindled in October 1991 and tore through Oakland Hills, killing 25 people and destroying 2,900 structures. We wrote about the two of the top five, the Cedar and Witch fires, in a post earlier this week. Four of the top five started in October, when fuel loads are driest and Santa Ana wind events are inevitable.

On Thursday night, perimeters expanded on some fires with the return of high winds. The National Weather Service re-issued red flag warnings through Thursday for much of Northern California.

The bulletin today:

“Although the wind will not be as strong as Sunday and
Sunday night, the dry northerly winds could rapidly spread
current and new wildfire activity…”
Easing winds and a shift in a direction should reduce some fire dangers by the afternoon.
But it stands to be a busy weekend.
“A stronger wind event will impact the area late Friday night into Sunday. The strongest winds winds look to occur late Friday night and Saturday. Winds for the valley will taper off Saturday night but increase once again for many mountain and foothill areas before tapering off on Sunday. Most critical areas of concern where the strongest winds are expected will be across exposed ridges and through wind-aligned drainages.”


California fire chief among those who lost home in wine country wildfires

(Originally published at 6:49 a.m. PDT October 11, 2017)

(Above: Mill Valley Fire Chief Tom Welch, a resident of Santa Rosa, has lost his family home due to the wildfires burning this week in Northern California). 

A fire chief in Northern California who has been coordinating his staff’s response to wildfires this week is among those whose family home has been destroyed.

Tom Welch is the fire chief of the 35-member Mill Valley Fire Department in Marin County. Though the city of 15,000 has generally been spared the destructive effects of the wine country wildfires, Welch and his family reside 40 miles to the north in Santa Rosa — among the hardest hit communities.

His home was among the estimated 2,000 structures that were completely destroyed by this week’s fires that erupted Sunday night, the city confirmed on its website.

The city in a statement said:

“His family is safe. At this point we are still learning how other City of Mill Valley employees are impacted as well. Our thoughts are with everyone who has been impacted by this disaster.”

An online fundraiser has been established to help Chief Welch and other families. By 6 a.m. PDT Wednesday, more than 450 donors had contributed $62,000 to the campaign.

Reports are beginning to circulate of other first responders whose homes were damaged or destroyed, though it remains unclear how many could have been affected.

At least 17 people have been killed and more than 2,000 homes destroyed in the series of more than a dozen fires that started late Sunday and early Monday across Northern California. Containment efforts are progressing for some fires, which have burned in excess of 100,000 acres, and conditions have calmed considerably from Monday morning’s ferocious winds.

That could change later this week as winds and red flag warnings return to the area.

“It’s devastating,” said Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, who toured the fire-scarred region by helicopter, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. “I fully expect this will be the worst fire disaster in California history.”