Over 7,000 structures burned in recent California wildfires– where do we go from here?

Will this teaching moment be squandered?

Above: A screen grab from drone footage uploaded October 11 of fire damage in Santa Rosa, California. Since then most of the numbers of lives and homes lost have about doubled. Los Angeles Times.

(Originally published at 1:48 p.m. MDT October 22, 2017)

Even many people who were not physically affected by the recent disastrous wildfires in Northern California are still stunned by what happened beginning the night of October 8 when very strong winds, hurricane force in some locations, pushed incredibly powerful fires through neighborhood after neighborhood.

The latest preliminary data reveals that four of the fires have found places in the list of 20 most destructive fires in California history when measured by the number of structures destroyed. Those four fires, Tubbs, Nuns, Atlas, and Redwood Valley accounted for the destruction of over 7,700 homes, commercial buildings, sheds, garages, and barns. Two of the three largest wildfires have occurred in the last four years.

Those who lost their possessions and homes are going to be hard pressed to find places to live for the next year or two. The state already has a severe housing shortage.

But what comes next in the big picture? People wring their hands and send thoughts and prayers. Is that enough? Most accidents and disasters provide a teaching moment. Will this one be squandered like so many times before after floods, hurricanes, mass shootings, and wildfires? Mentally disabled people accumulate assault rifles and homes are replaced in flood, fire, and hurricane-prone zones. Rinse and repeat.

The Los Angeles Times has started a series of articles looking back, and forward, at the siege of wildfires. On October 19 Paige St. John wrote about firefighting aircraft, and the October 21 edition had an editorial titled, “California wildfires are only going to get worse. We’re not ready”.

Below is an excerpt from the editorial:

…The state requires that new buildings in zones deemed by the state to be at high risk of fire be made with fire-resistant materials, such as tile roofs. The state and local governments should also consider requiring older homes and buildings in high-risk zones to be retrofitted.

Unfortunately, urban areas often weren’t included by the state in its designated high-risk zones because, well, nobody expected a wildfire to sweep through a city. State officials are now revising the maps, and the fires around Santa Rosa must surely be a wake-up call that suburbia has to be made more fire resistant.

Some home insurance companies refusing to renew policies in wildfire-prone areas

Firewise defensible space structure

One of the most serious problems facing firefighters today is the movement of residents into the Wildland/Urban Interface, the WUI. As a wildfire spreads toward flammable structures that are near or in some cases surrounded by burnable vegetation it can be very difficult to protect them. Often as a fire grows in a WUI area containing dozens or hundreds of homes there are not enough firefighters to park a fire engine at every house.

Some structures are easier to protect than others. “Firewise” refers to homes that are designed and maintained to be fire resistant. A few burning embers (that can be transported in the wind for a mile) in most cases will not ignite a home built to withstand fire. It is the other homes, with flammable siding, roofs, and decks, and that have brush or trees providing an efficient path for the fire to spread up to the structure, that is a nightmare for the fire department. In some cases as a fire approaches, this second category of homes will be written off since it may not be possible to save them, even with a fire truck parked in the driveway. Without vegetation clearance of 30 to 100 feet, it can be unsafe for firefighters to remain at the site as an intense fire approaches.

Gunbarrel Fire
Firefighters at the Gunbarrel Fire west of Cody, WY apply foam and install sprinklers at Goff Creek Lodge, August 26, 2008. Photo by Michael Johnson.

A difficult to defend home is not only a problem for the owner, but it also affects the community. As it burns in a wildfire, it creates huge amounts of radiant and convective heat. Combined with the airborne burning embers put into the air as it burns, it can ignite other homes nearby. If multiple unprepared homes burn, the effects of the conflagration are multiplied making it difficult for even Firewise structures to survive. In addition, unprepared homes suck up more firefighting resources, which can make it difficult or impossible for there to be enough firefighters, crews, engines, and aircraft to suppress the wildland fire — they are often tied up because of some irresponsible residents.

In a perfect world all structures in a WUI would be Firewise. Inevitably, however, a sizeable percentage of homeowners will do nothing to make their structures defensible. There are two ways to encourage, or even force, them to take action before a fire strikes. Zoning laws and insurance companies. Laws can, for example, ban wood shingle roofs, and require vegetation clearances up to 100 feet, as well as other requirements. Many jurisdictions do this.

Insurance companies have an extremely powerful tool at their disposal that is rarely used. According to the NW News Network, at least two companies in Washington and Oregon are refusing to renew the policies for some home owners, or for structures in wildfire prone areas.

Below is an excerpt from NW News:

Some insurance companies are choosing not to renew policies in wildfire-prone areas of the inland Northwest. That’s sending home owners scrambling to find new coverage for their properties. Northwest-based insurers such as Pemco and Grange Insurance are getting choosier about how much risk they’ll take on. This according to property owners who’ve been dropped recently and posted about their frustrations online.

One customer from Chelan, Washington, complained Pemco refused to renew her homeowners insurance despite 17 years with no claims. The common thread among the non-renewals is location in wildfire country.

Oregon’s insurance regulators looked into this and said some insurers updated their wildfire risk rating models.

“There have been some non-renewals, rate increases, and moratoriums on new business, because updated risk models showed certain areas to be at especially high risk of wildfires,” wrote Jake Sunderland, a Department of Consumer and Business Services spokesman, in an email.

Refusing to write policies in a large area is not the best solution. Some companies will only insure structures after inspecting them to be sure they are Firewise and have defensible space.

First National Legacy Award presented to Forest Service retiree

Above: Dr. Jack Cohen makes a presentation at the 2011 Fire Litigation Conference in San Diego. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Dr. Jack Cohen received the first National Legacy Award given by the U.S. Forest Service, National Association of State Foresters, National Fire Protection Association, and International Association of Fire Chiefs in recognition of outstanding career-long contributions to wildfire mitigation as an alternative to suppression. Dr. Cohen helped develop the U.S. National Fire Danger Rating System and developed calculations for wildland firefighters’ safe zones; created defensible space principles, which resulted in the Firewise program; the Home Ignition Zone; and conducted research on ember ignitions and structure ignitability.

His research laid the groundwork for nearly all of today’s work on wildland urban interface risk reduction. Until his 2016 retirement, he was a research scientist at Missoula Technology and Development Center. The award was presented at the IAFC WUI Conference in Reno, Nevada.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Robert.
Typos or errors, report them HERE.

60 minutes: “Wildfires on the Rise”

Above: One of the homes that survived the Eiler Fire in northern California, August, 2014. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

The CBS TV show 60 Minutes recently aired a story titled, “Wildfires on the rise due to drought and climate change“, concentrating on how to deal with the increasing number of wildfires, and particularly what homeowners can do to protect their investments.

Below is an excerpt from the transcript:

Events like [the Yarnell Hill Fire that killed 19 member of the Granite Mountain Hotshots] add urgency to the work at a U.S. Forest Service lab. In this building in Missoula, Montana, scientists study how fires spread.

And one of them, Jack Cohen, made a specialty of how to better defend homes.

Jack Cohen: Clearly we’re not gonna solve the problem by telling people they’re gonna have to move their houses into a city from being out in the woods.

Steve Inskeep: Not gonna happen.

Jack Cohen: Right? It’s not gonna happen for a whole bunch of reasons, one of which is that the population who live there, including me– aren’t gonna do it.

Steve Inskeep: Is it reasonable for a homeowner in that situation, a fire bearing down on their neighborhood to just say, “Look, I pay my taxes. There are firefighters, there’s a fire department. The forest service, if it’s public land, has thousands of firefighters. It’s their job; put it out?”

Jack Cohen: So what if they can’t? Then the question becomes one of, “Well, if the extreme wildfires are inevitable does that mean that wildland-urban fire disasters are inevitable?” And my answer to that is no.

President signs executive order to mitigate wildfire risks to Federal buildings

President Obama today signed an Executive Order on Wildland-Urban Interface Federal Risk Mitigation, intended to mitigate wildfire risks to Federal buildings located in the wildland-urban interface (WUI), reduce risks to people, and help minimize property loss to wildfire.

For new buildings and alterations to existing buildings greater than 5,000 square feet on Federal land within the WUI at moderate or greater risk to wildfire, the Executive Order directs Federal agencies to apply wildfire-resistant design provisions delineated in the 2015 edition of the International Wildland-Urban Interface Code promulgated by the International Code Council, or an equivalent code. These codes, which encompass the current understanding of wildfire hazard potential, will help increase safety and protect the lives of people who live or work in these buildings.