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

Will this teaching moment be squandered?

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Santa Rosa Aerial photo of fire damage

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.

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Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire.

17 thoughts on “Over 7,000 structures burned in recent California wildfires– where do we go from here?”

  1. Bill, I’m glad you’re pointing to the California wildfires as a teachable moment. Because on top of everything else horrible that the fires have been…they’re that, too.
    Apart from building materials and urban design, I can think of (at least) two areas where I would want to see the fires treated as an opportunity for public awareness and future prevention:
    * Far greater appreciation for the work done and risks taken by the firefighters who find voice and respect through Wildfire Today
    * Recognition that, at some point, there *is* a connection (and has to be a “right” time to talk about the connection) between increasing wildfire risk and the various effects of climate change. If we can get to a point where that’s seen as a practical, common-sense link to be drawn, rather than an automatically politicized statement, it’ll become clear that adapting to today’s reality and mitigating tomorrow’s risk go hand in hand. So that, for example, we think about getting an existing building as close as possible to net-zero energy consumption once we’ve already started a renovation to add fire-resistant materials.
    I’m pretty firmly convinced that decision-makers and program managers at most points along the political spectrum will move in this direction, not because someone tells them to respect firefighters or take climate change more seriously, but because there’s some aspect of that change in practice that *also* helps them achieve something that is already on their agenda. (So a building retrofit program might be the job creator that will help a state legislator win a tough re-election campaign in a district with high unemployment.) It would be interesting to discuss what those lead benefits might be, and how both of the communities we write about can come in behind them.

  2. I feel very badly for the lives lost, others injured and thousand left homeless and great loss of personal property. A massive disaster indeed. History has a record of massive wind driven urban fires. In many places after them new building codes have made great improvements. The insurance industry will push for new codes or answer with greatly increased rates or refuse fire coverage as they have done in my hurricane prone neighborhood for wind and flood insurance. Yes neighborhoods will have to rebuild to much stricter fire codes. New development will need to meet them also. In frequent trips to relatives urban/suburban California homes the question has been asked of me what should I do to protect my home from wildfire? I go outside and look. Closely spaced homes, combustible construction including wood roofs and fences. Combustible plants in yards. My answer is move or make large and costly renovations to your home and surrounding area. Buy lots of insurance and get a fireproof storage facility for you valuables. Have a escape plan ready and practice it. Already established communities not up to current code are going to have a much harder time. When fires get this large and fast moving they become almost impossible to catch and contain. They might be nudged around a little but that’s all. Watching the 1988 Huck Fire in Wyoming start from a down power and literally explode across flat ground driven by dry gusty winds of 50-60mph and rush up adjoining hill sides I turned to the veteran FMO next to me and said what do we do? He turned and said: Nothing, wait for the weather to change.

  3. I don’t know how much education and/or regulation can help with certain events like the Santa Rosa/Tubbs Fire. I haven’t been there, but there’s been a picture widely published that showed before and after of an area in Santa Rosa that I can’t imagine carried any ground fire. It was town – lots of streets and very little open space. Again, this is speculation on my part but I think that 75 mph winds threw brands and embers so far and hard that not much could have stopped them from lodging in eaves and facia. I mean, the metal-sided K-Mart burned!

    But obviously that wasn’t the only place that burned in the ’17 California fire bust – many homes and structures other than the ones in that picture were destroyed and I’d be the last person to say that mitigation measures shouldn’t be required and enacted. But I think there is a lot wisdom in the idea I first heard from Dr. Stephen Pyne. – we’re going to have to get used to these catastrophic fires. I can’t imagine mitigation measures – other than paving wildlands – that would be effective against the weather conditions that turned the Tubbs Fire into a nightmare conflagration.

    In my years in wildfire suppression and management I came to realize that after disasters like the recent one is California there are only about two years where you can capitalize on a rise in awareness and there’s a decent chance of effecting needed changes. After that, the momentum is gone. Maybe things have changed since I retired…

  4. A couple of observations.

    One is that an effective emergency alert system and the willingness to use it would have saved lives. You had an extreme wind event and as soon as you had reports of fires they could have been evacuating people downwind of the fires.

    Another is that there is a need for an outdoor fire alarm. I can imagine something I would place a few hundred feet away from my house on likely fire approaches that would produce an extremely loud alarm when it detects a fire. That would have given people in the path of the fire extra minutes to bug out.

    A third insight is that events like this are at least somewhat predictable. You need three ingredients: a fire, dry fuel conditions, and a wind event. Wind events are forecastable with quite good skill, and the directions of those winds (especially high wind events) are usually at least somewhat uniform. Where fires start is also not completely random. And of course, terrain and fuels are not random either. What all that means is that there must be locations that are at much higher risk for events like this, and subsequently there must be locations that are at lower risk. Knowing where the high-risk locations are would make it easier to direct limited resources to where they are likely to do the most good.

    Finally, I’d like to learn more about what happened here. It is very striking to me that all or nearly all of the structures burnt but the trees in many images still appear to be green. My suspicion is that the structures were either ignited by firebrands or by radiant heat from nearby burning structures. But I’d like to know. Most wildfire modeling assumes that urban areas are relatively inflammable. Obviously that is something that needs to be taken into account.

  5. We fought almost the same fire as the Tubbs Fire in 1964; the Haley Fire. Main difference… very few houses at risk.
    I see three areas to focus on post fire:
    1. enforcing FIRESAFE standards on replacement buildings and existing structures
    2. WARNING Systems
    3. Shutting down certain power distribution lines when extreme wind events are forecast


  6. A few years ago California passed a law requiring new residential home construction to have internal fire sprinklers. The building contractors lobby missed this one, external sprinklers. If you have ever attended petroleum live fire training you understand the concept of a thin band of water protecting the fire fighter from 2500 F degree flames. You don’t need water running off the roof to protect the structure. A failed company about five years ago introduced a mechanical, reliable, automatic, effective fire system that flowed only 30 g.p.m. of water applied by six discharge sprinklers ON a 2500 square foot home. Or the wind has quit blowing and it won’t happen for another thirty years.

  7. The short answer, if history is any indicator, I’m sad to say that yes, teachable moments probably will be squandered.

  8. to the structures lost and green trees around the area,i figured it had to do with fuel moisture’s,but im not an expert and i dont have the answer. the thing that bugs me,and its just me im sure,is the plethora of doomsday types posting videos and commenting their opinions that these fires were man made by political conspiracies.even saw one that claimed it was ISIS who started the fires,and one said it was BLM or antifa… its not illegal to have an opinion but these people and those opinions sure dont help.

  9. i know this is silly,but 4 of the 42 deaths occurred in the NEU/BTU ranger units,and many of the 7000+ homes being talked about were also from the fires here,i know not a big deal,but my point is that this situation wasnt confined to the “wine country” of napa and sonoma,those counties in the sierra nevada foothills are also “wine country”.some very good wines come from here and if you watch those cooking shows on food and cooking channels,some of the wines produced here are said to be from napa,that gets me,lol.on a side note,many of the very large vintners from napa and sonoma grow the majority of their wine grapes in the sacramento valley in the ares around Arbukle cal .

    BTW i was awakened around 4:30 am on monday morning when a long line of placer county sheriffs units went past my home enroute to the fire near rough n ready and penn valley,i suppose they went to the mccourtney fire as well,but they were told the ICP was at penn valley.just before dawn least it wasnt light and my home,i heard air attack 230 lift off from grass valley followed closely by the tankers.

  10. I wonder if its time to finally add structures to the list of fuel in the fuel model?

    To this day, I do not believe that I have heard a good answer as to why they are not considered a fuel in the wildfire environment other than, they are not live fuels…

    https://www.fs.fed.us/rm/pubs/rmrs_gtr153.pdf is a document put out by the USDA in 2005. On page 20 there is an anecdote that states the following: NB1 Expected fire behavior: No fire spread

    When we talk about the educational values and components of what just happened, perhaps this can be address and or included in the perception of “climate change.”

    Just a thought.

  11. I want to take this opportunity to say how much I appreciate the community that reads, and importantly, leaves intelligent, well reasoned, lucid, illuminating comments about topics like this. Many are based on years of hard-earned experience and education — we all benefit from your insights.

    Thank you for your service.

  12. Bob I believe the answer is that the models are predominantly based on ground spread. And I do not believe these structure fires were caused by ground spread, or at least most of them were not. And the pictures illustrate it isn’t crown fire that is causing the structures to burn.

    So we’re left with an ember/spot fire scenario. And possibly radiant heat although I assume most were caused by blowing embers, and perhaps in combination with radiant heat the probability of ignition greatly increased.

    Perhaps a new fuel model that is not capable of ground spread but is capable of combustion due to ember/spot fire ignition, and itself capable of throwing multitudes of embers, would fit the need. But that seems extremely simplified.

    For instance, take a look at the following:

    I do not know how good that model is, but I do know we’re looking at a whole different set of data requirements. It is interesting, however, that they mention running their model as a sub-model to traditional wildland fire spread models.

  13. With all due respect, I do not know you or your attitude or knowledge, but generally people are do not have access to actual “assault” weapons. Maybe you would want to educate yourself on that matter.

    The point of my comment though is: I am not sure of all of the facts, but apparently on the night of October 8th four separate fires started in four different places, isn’t that rather remarkable or curious? It seems quite far beyond coincidental even without a full investigation being completed.

    Is there something I am missing?

  14. “xz”

    You wrote:

    Is there something I am missing?

    One of the things you are missing is the weather during the period when the fires started. Extremely strong winds, in some areas hurricane-force, blew down power lines. For example, the wind gusted to 96 mph on a 3,400 foot peak NE of Geyersville, about 20 miles NNW of downtown Santa Rosa.

    If you really want to debate conspiracy theories or whether people generally have access to assault weapons, there are many sites that would welcome your thoughts with open arms.

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