Northern California wildfires claim 31 lives and 137,000 acres

Above: map showing four of the larger wildfires north of San Francisco: Pocket Fire, Tubbs Fire, Nuns Fire, and Atlas Fire. They were mapped Thursday night between 9 p.m. and 11 p.m. PDT.

(Originally published at 11:28 a.m. PDT October 13, 2017)

Calmer winds and higher humidity on Thursday slowed wildfires burning north of San Francisco in Sonoma and Napa Counties, allowing firefighters to make progress toward containment, but each of the large blazes still added thousands of acres to their footprints.

Statewide in California there are 17 active wildfires that have burned a total of 221,754 acres. Approximately 8,000 firefighters are battling the blazes and thousands of residents have evacuated. At least 3,500 homes have been destroyed this week according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

The death toll has risen to 31 and many people are unaccounted for.

Here is a closer look at the four largest fires in Sonoma and Napa Counties, working north to south. The sizes were updated by mapping flights Thursday night and total about 137,000 acres:

  • The Pocket Fire northeast of Geyserville and southeast of Cloverdale has grown to 9,996 acres. It was most active on the southeast side Thursday.
  • The 34,617-acre Tubbs Fire has burned at least 2,800 homes and many commercial buildings in Santa Rosa and Sonoma County. It did not expand much on Thursday, but was fairly active in some areas on the north and northeast sides. The fire is also burning in Napa County and is on both sides of Highways 128 and 101.
  • The Nuns Fire has merged with the Adobe and Norrbom Fires between Highways 116 and 121 — north, northwest, and east of Sonoma in both Napa and Sonoma Counties. The combined blaze now covers 44,381 acres. It was active on Friday northeast of the city of Sonoma and on the east flank in Napa County.
  • The Atlas Fire has burned 48,228 acres and is 17 miles long and about 6 miles wide. It is southeast, east, and north of Napa, primarily in Napa County.

The strong winds that have driven the fires decreased Friday, but Red Flag Warning conditions will return Friday night and Saturday with 20 to 30 mph northeast winds gusting at 40 to 50 mph. Isolated gusts up to 60 are possible on the highest ridges and peaks. The humidity will be in the teens during the day and between 25 and 35 percent at night.

The Red Flag Warning is in effect from 5 p.m. PDT Friday until 11 p.m. Saturday.

In the video below, Tanker 944, a 747, drops on the Pocket Fire.

Map Tubbs, Nuns Atlas Fires
Map of the Tubbs, Nuns, and Atlas Fires.

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.

Satellite photos of California wildfires

(Originally published at 6:43 p.m. PDT October 12, 2017)

These satellite photos show the growth of the wildfires in northern California. The photo above is from October 12, 2017. The red dots represent heat.

The next four photos are October 8 through October 11.

Satellite photo California wildfires

Satellite photo California wildfires

Satellite photo California wildfires

Satellite photo California wildfires

Below is a map showing heat detected on the fires over the last week.

map California wildfires
Map showing heat detected on wildfires in California over the last week. Created at 5:30 p.m. PDT October 12, 2017.

Canyon 2 Fire burns 7,500 acres in Southern California

(Originally published at 7:36 a.m. PDT October 10, 2017)

Canyon Fire map
The red dots represent heat detected on the Canyon 2 Fire by a satellite at 2:54 a.m. October 10. The yellow dots were detected at 12:54 p.m. October 9. The Canyon Fire started September 25, and the spread was stopped a few days later. Click to enlarge.

With attention — and resources — focused on the explosive growth and sheer scale of wildfires burning through Northern California’s wine country this week, crews to the south on Monday were busy battling an erratic, destructive and wind-whipped fire of their own.

The Canyon 2 Fire started Monday morning in the Anaheim Hills area.

By Tuesday morning, Anaheim Fire & Rescue reported the blaze to be at 7,500 acres. About 1,100 firefighters were assigned to the incident, with 14 helicopters and six planes assisting from the air.

It was just 5 percent contained.

The evacuation zone was primarily for residences in the wildland-urban interface south of the 91 Freeway and east of the 241.

Mandatory evacuations remained in place Tuesday. Some 24 structures are believed to have been destroyed, but exact details remain somewhat unclear.

Shifting winds were top of mind for crews on Tuesday.

Of note, the coastal marine layer that typically brings with it low-lying clouds and higher humidities was apparent Tuesday morning. However, the boundary line was pronounced, and the area of the Canyon 2 Fire was still experiencing single-digit relative humidity levels, courtesy of the Santa Ana Winds.

The Canyon 2 Fire was among several wildfires that blew up Monday in California, fed by high winds, low humidity and an abundance of fuels. Resources across the state were taxed as some fires went from ignition to tens of thousands of acres in just a few hours.

By Tuesday, “we’re gonna be as stretched as we can be,” said Steven Beech, an incident commander with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, according to the LA Times. 

The area is only a few miles from Disneyland. Suffice to say photos from the so-called “Happiest Place on Earth” were a little more striking on Monday.

Wildfires erupt overnight in California’s wine country

(Originally published at 7:57 a.m. PDT October 9, 2017)

(The Tubbs Fire burns in Northern California Monday, Oct. 9, 2017, as seen from this video posted on YouTube by Craig Philpott)

A series of fires fanned by high winds erupted Sunday night and Monday morning in California’s wine country, charring at least 20,000 acres and sending thousands of people fleeing homes, hotels and hospitals in the middle of the night.

The fires, many of which started late Sunday, burned out of control across hillsides in Sonoma and Napa counties, north of San Francisco and west of Sacramento. Multiple other counties were affected as smoke pushed into neighborhoods as day broke.

The largest, the Tubbs Fire, scorched in excess of 20,000 acres within just a few hours, Santa Rosa Fire reported. The fast-moving fire forced the evacuation of area hospitals, closed schools and led officials to recall all city employees to help staff the emergency operations center.

The Santa Rosa city manager and acting director of emergency services declared the situation a local emergency, according to the incident’s information page. 

“This is a life-threatening event,” the Santa Rosa Police Department said in a 2 a.m. alert regarding the evacuations. “Leave immediately.”

There was no immediate word on injuries to civilians or first responders.

The National Weather Services has issued a Red flag warning for the region until 5 a.m. Tuesday. North winds were forecast to gust to 30 mph through the day Monday before shifting to the south and diminishing by afternoon.

“Warm temperatures, low humidity and locally strong winds will coincide with critically dry fuels,” forecasters warned.

Red flag warnings were in effect across Northern California on Monday.
Red flag warnings were in effect across Northern California on Monday.

The nearby Marin County Sheriff’s Office reported no fires Monday morning but said its 911 dispatchers were overwhelmed with people calling to report smoke from other area fires being pushed into their neighborhoods.

Video from residents in the area shows the frantic evacuation efforts that unfolded Monday morning.

The exact magnitude of this event remains unclear as day breaks in the area. Photos circulating online, including several hosted here by The San Francisco Chronicle, show several structures, including homes, totally destroyed in the densely populated area.