Lessons learned by fleet manager during major wildfire siege

The vehicle fleet in Sonoma County was heavily impacted by the Tubbs, Nuns, and Pocket Fires in October, 2017

Above: Tubbs Fire in Sonoma County, California, October, 2017. Photo by Jeff Zimmerman.

The huge fires that tore through populated areas north of the San Francisco Bay Area last October heavily impacted the region. The Nuns, Pocket, Atlas, and Tubbs Fires in Sonoma and Napa Counties burned over 100,000 acres. At least 44 people were killed and more than 5,000 structures were destroyed after the siege began October 8.

Facts like the above are what you normally hear when the impacts of wildfires and other natural disasters are discussed. But a lot is going on behind the scenes to directly or indirectly mitigate the effects and provide logistical support for the emergency responders.

Three fires burned in Sonoma County — the Pocket, Tubbs, and Nuns Fires. The county is very large — 1,768 square miles with a population of half a million.

Sonoma County wildfires map
Map showing the locations of fires in and near Sonoma County, California. Wildfire Today/Google. County borders are in light green.

The County-owned vehicles are maintained by fleet manager David Worthington and his 22 colleagues. In an article published at Government Fleet, Mr. Worthington wrote about some of the lessons his organization learned during the fire siege. Many Logistics personnel on Incident Management Teams are familiar with some of these issues, but it is interesting hearing about the perceptions of a fleet manager outside of the wildfire organization.

map Pocket, Tubbs, Nuns, and Atlas
Map showing the perimeters of the Pocket, Tubbs, Nuns, and Atlas Fires. CAL FIRE October 15, 2017.

You should read the entire article, but here are some of the topics that were covered in the article.

  • Many tires on Deputy Sheriff vehicles had flats caused by driving over debris and then in some cases were destroyed when the officer had to continue driving to get to a safe place to stop.
  • Several vehicles suffered significant damage from radiant heat — melted plastic trim, headlights, and damage to the vinyl layer in the window glass.
  • With a high demand for fuel, they stopped trying to schedule fuel deliveries, and had the vendors bring a truck every day to top off the storage tanks.
  • Replacing the plugged cabin air filters was as important as replacing the engine air filters.
Sonoma County fire damaged vehicle
Several County of Sonoma vehicles sustained major damage from radiant heat. Photo credit: Sonoma County.
Sonoma County fire damaged vehicle
Several County of Sonoma vehicles sustained major damage from radiant heat. This shows damage to plastic and the vinyl layer in the window glass. Credit: Sonoma County.

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

California utility latest to talk power shutoff when conditions ripe for wildfires

Above:  A firefighter works a blaze in Northern California during the fires in Wine Country in October, 2017. Photo courtesy CAL FIRE. 

A San Francisco-based utility provider that has come under scrutiny in the aftermath of 2017’s California wildfires on Friday outlined a series of steps it says will reduce future fire risks — including preemptively cutting the power in areas facing high fire danger.

Pacific Gas and Electric Company is drafting guidelines to boost wildfire prevention, create new safety measures and harden the electric grid across many of the same areas devastated last year, the company said. PG&E provides utilities to a major swath of California, including Wine Country, which was ravaged by deadly fires in October.

Perhaps the most controversial proposal, a move toward preemptive power shutdowns coincides with conversations elsewhere in the state and across the country. Officials said they were refining protocols for shutting down power lines in “areas where extreme fire conditions are occurring.” They also vowed to implement “appropriate communications and resources to help inform, prepare and support” customers and communities.

The move is not without precedent or controversy.

San Diego Gas and Electric has cut power during red flag warnings and critical fire situations, hoping to prevent a utility-sparked blaze. The policy change came on the heels of the firestorm in 2007 that investigators blamed on power lines.  In December, the San Diego company cut power in some rural areas of the county, again triggering debate about fire prevention at the cost of isolating power-dependent swaths of the population who rely on electricity for communication, disaster preparation and even medical care.

Pat Hogan, PG&E senior vice president of electric operations, said the options were not ideal but remained necessary.

Per the Sacramento Bee newspaper: 

“We really view this as a last resort,” Hogan said. “It’s one public safety risk vs. another. We’re very cognizant that when we shut off the power, that creates a whole set of safety risks. You potentially impact hospitals, fire stations, police stations, traffic lights go out, garages don’t open.”

However, Hogan said “there are going to be times where the conditions on the ground are so extreme, that the potential for ignition, and the potential for spread if there was an ignition, is so high that we’re going to de-energize those lines.”

The utility, facing multiple investigations and the subject of multiple lawsuits and liability claims since October, also said it is planned to expand its weather forecasting ability by ramping up a network of company-owned weather stations.

The move is also similar to that of SDG&E that we reported on last year. 

Those tools will help inform an expanded staff of fire-focused personnel at a to-be created Wildfire Safety Operations Center that will monitor wildfire risks in real-time and coordinate prevention and response efforts with first responders, the company said.

Officials also said they would harden the electrical system by replacing wood utility poles with less-vulnerable ones and pre-treat infrastructure with fire retardant in high-risk areas.

PG&E officials said they are working with regional first responders and fire officials as the utility explores its next steps with the multi-pronged approach. The decisions are not in response to any legal trouble, officials maintained, but rather to address the ever-intensifying risks of climate change and “extreme weather events.”

“Our system and our mindset need to be laser-focused on working together to help prevent devastating wildfires like the ones in the North Bay in October and in Southern California in December from happening again, and in responding quickly and effectively if they do,” Hogan  said in a news release. “Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures, which is what the Community Wildfire Safety Program is all about.”

Mapping defensive actions and exposure at the 2017 california Tubbs Fire

How effective were firefighters’ defensive actions in limiting the destruction?

The very detailed analysis below documents in a “story map” format the locations of structures that were completely destroyed or damaged when the Tubbs Fire ran through Santa Rosa, California October 8, 2017.

A primary emphasis of the analysis highlights defensive actions taken by firefighters or others. It shows structures that were only damaged on the periphery of areas that experienced total destruction. The conclusion is that the protected “boxed in” structures show successful halting of the worst effects of the fire due to exposure and defensive actions. That could be the case, however there are many factors that affect the spread of a fire in an urban environment.

We thank Geospatial Measurement Solutions, LLC who put this mapping product together. Derek McNamara, owner, said by email:

As our firefighters continue to put their lives at risk to protect all of us and fires continue to rage in Southern California, I thought it pertinent to show what they face in these situations, the consequences of their actions, and what might happen without them. I have observed that firefighters take these losses to heart and I hope this gives them some validation of their unbelievable efforts.

State cites employer of firefighter killed on Tubbs Fire

KQED reports that Tehama Transport, the owner of the truck that rolled over, failed to provide workers compensation insurance for their employees.

According to KQED the state of California has cited the company that employed the firefighter killed in Northern California October 16 while operating a water tender on the Tubbs Fire.

water tender accident in Napa County
Screen capture from KCRA video of water tender accident in Napa County October 16, 2017.

Garrett Paiz, 39, died when the water tender he was driving rolled over while descending Oakville Grade west of Highway 29. Mr. Paiz was the only firefighter killed on the numerous large fires that broke out during a wind event in Northern California October 8-9. About 40 civilians died in the fire storms which also destroyed thousands of homes.

Investigations by the California Department of Industrial Relations and the state Labor Commissioner’s Office found that the owner of the truck, Tehama Transport, failed to procure workers compensation insurance for their employees.

Below are excerpts from articles at KQED:

The company, like scores of other contractors, has provided water tenders and bulldozers to firefighting efforts. Firms that contract with Cal Fire for heavy equipment are required to provide copies of their current workers’ compensation insurance policies for their employees.

But Tehama Transport did not have to abide by that requirement because it registered as an “owner/operator.” Under that classification, the company was saying that Paiz either had ownership in the company or was a relative of someone who did.

Without that coverage, Paiz’s family, his wife and teenage daughter, might lose out on hundreds of thousands of dollars in benefits.

Cal Fire has hired the company 56 times and the U.S. Forest Service has hired the firm 47 times since 2006, according to documents obtained by KQED.

Tehama Transport appealed the penalty, leading to a hearing that took place Monday. A hearing officer’s decision on the dispute is pending.

In April both a private contractor and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) were issued citations by California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) related to a fatality when a dozer rolled over. Robert Reagan, 35, of Friant, California, was killed while fighting the Soberanes Fire south of Monterey, California July 26, 2016.

Minutes after Mr. Reagan began operating the piece of equipment for Czirban Concrete Construction on contract to CAL FIRE, it rolled over.

According to KQED news, Cal/OSHA issued five citations to Czirban totaling $20,000. The largest was $13,500 for not wearing a seat belt.

Czirban had not secured workers’ compensation insurance for Mr. Reagan as required, and had been cited eight times in four years by the Contractors State License Board, several times because of worker’s compensation issues.

CAL FIRE was cited for failing to report a serious injury within eight hours and another for failing to maintain an effective injury and illness prevention program.

Tubbs Fire: garage door in a tree

Garage door in a tree. #wildfire #tubbsfire #santarosa #wind

A post shared by Josey Goggin (@joseygoggin) on

Joseygoggin posted this photo on Instagram taken in the Tubbs Fire, indicating that the object in the tree is a garage door.

The very strong, up to 90 mph, winds during the large wildfires in Northern California October 8-10 caused extreme fire behavior resulting in the destruction of thousands of homes and the deaths of at least 40 people.

Sonoma County officials criticized for inadequate warning about approaching wildfires

A system that can send emergency notifications to every cell phone in a designated area was not used.

Soon after the Pocket, Tubbs, and Nuns Fires burned thousands of homes in northern California in the days following the October 8 wind event, local residents began asking why they received no emergency notifications on their cell phones.

The day before, all cell phones in Rincon Valley east of Santa Rosa loudly blared with a message about a child abduction in San Francisco about 48 air miles to the south, but the Amber Alert system was not used as the wildfires bore down on the densely packed communities in Sonoma County.

Photo by Jeff Zimmerman
Tubbs Fire. Photo by Jeff Zimmerman.

Officials did use two other systems, Nixle and SoCo Alert, to send messages to less than 35,000 cell phone users. Those programs require people to opt-in or sign up in advance.

But most residents in Sonoma County did not receive any notifications by phone as the fires approached between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. They found out as neighbors knocked on their doors or police drove around blasting sirens.

At least 23 people in Sonoma County died in the fires.

Below are excerpts from an article in the Press Democrat:

“I’m emotional when it comes to this, and I’m a rational guy,” said Patrick McCallum, who fled the fires with his wife, Judy Sakaki, president of Sonoma State University.

They burned their bare feet and ran for their lives as flames tore through their Fountaingrove neighborhood. By that point, about 4 a.m., the Tubbs fire, which started outside Calistoga 9 miles to the east, had been burning more than six hours. McCallum, however, was only awakened by a smoke alarm and the couple’s home already was on fire. The landline phone in the bedroom never rang.

The [Amber Alert] program is available to the Sonoma County Emergency Services division, housed within the county fire department. Emergency officials have said publicly they opted against using the program because they didn’t want alerts to go out countywide and cause mass evacuations that could have prevented first responders from reaching affected areas.

“In this rushed environment to inform as many people as possible, we were worried that notification would go out too broadly, and potentially clog roads,” Sonoma County spokeswoman Hannah Euser said.

But state emergency officials have said the system can send messages to smaller geographic areas.

Inadequate notification of residents also occurred in November of last year as the Chimney Tops 2 Fire burned into Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Fourteen people died as a result of the wildfires and nearly 2,500 structures were damaged or destroyed by flames that charred more than 17,000 acres in and around Great Smoky Mountain National Park.