Lessons learned from Camp Fire could augment data utilization and community resilience

Camp Fire Northern California
Firefighters monitor the Camp Fire in Northern California. Inciweb photo.

A Mississippi State University civil engineering faculty member who researches resilience against extreme events and natural hazards is responding to lessons learned from California’s deadly Camp Fire by outlining how to utilize the power of data to improve disaster response and minimize economic loss and human harm in similar events.

In a letter published January 10, 2019 in Science Magazine, Farshid Vahedifard writes that in the aftermath of the Camp Fire in Northern California, it is critical to examine how decision makers and first-responders can “prevent an extreme hazard like the Camp Fire from turning into a massive human disaster.”

Vahedifard is an MSU Bagley College of Engineering associate professor who also holds the Civil and Environmental Advisory Board Endowed Professorship. He penned the Science letter with MSU colleague Alireza Ermagun, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering; Kimia Mortezaei, an MSU engineering postdoctoral associate with the university’s Center for Advanced Vehicular Systems; and Amir AghaKouchak, a University of California-Irvine associate professor of civil and environmental engineering.

With reports pointing to shortcomings in disseminating critical information to warn residents before and during the November fire that killed 85 people, scorched more than 153,336 acres and destroyed more than 18,800 structures, the authors point out that a “lack of an integrated framework for circulating information among decision-makers and passing it to residents exacerbated the devastating impact of the wildfire.”

They assert that investment in an integrated system for identifying, harnessing, synthesizing, and communicating pertinent data would “enable decision-makers and communities to better anticipate, prepare for, respond to and recover from extreme events such as the Camp Fire.”

They continue, “We must identify relevant stakeholders, examine the required data, collect public and relevant private data efficiently, and develop platforms for processing datasets such as weather data, cell phone GPS data as proxy for people, social media feeds, and traffic cameras and sensors. We then need strategies to convert data sets into usable information by using artificial intelligence technologies for decision-support systems. To communicate the resulting information effectively, we need a reliable data infrastructure for real-time analysis that could alert residents by email, phone messages, text warning, television, radio, and ‘reverse 911.’”

Vahedifard and colleagues previously have published research and commentary highlighting how a chain of events, such as wildfires, landslides and mudslides, cascades like a series of toppling dominoes and leads to catastrophic disasters.

Modeling the spread of the Camp Fire

Using the Coupled Atmosphere-Wildland Fire Environment modeling system

model simulation spread Camp Fire
CAWFE

The Coupled Atmosphere-Wildland Fire Environment modeling system was used to produce the video below to show how it would predict the spread of the Camp Fire that burned through Paradise, California November 8, 2018.

 

About the modeling system:

The CAWFE modeling system combines a numerical weather prediction (NWP) model that predicts how weather varies in time and space even in complex terrain with wildland fire behavior modules. These components are connected in two directions such that the evolving wind, along with fuel properties and terrain slope, directs where the fire grows and how fast, while heat released by the fire modifies its atmospheric environment thereby creating its own weather (e.g., fire-induced winds). The model is described in Clark et al. (2004) and Coen 2005a.  Coen (2013) documents the model equations.

CAWFE was developed recognizing that fires interact with the atmosphere surrounding them and that this produces many fundamental fire behaviors. Research applying CAWFE showed that fire-atmosphere interactions produce numerous wildland fire phenomena, including the commonly-observed bowed shape (below); the heading, flanks, and backing regions; fire whirls; horizontal roll vortices.

Here is another copy of the video, on Google Drive.

The CAWFE was developed by Janice Coen and other scientists at the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, as well as Don Latham (formerly USFS, Missoula), Francis Fujioka (formerly, USFS Riverside), Phil Riggan (USFS), and David Packham (Bureau of Meteorology in Australia).

 

Wildfires: Attorney General says PG&E could face murder charges

Depends on which charges, if any, are filed by county district attorneys for causing wildfires in 2017 and 2018

In a brief submitted to a federal court, the California Attorney General wrote that Pacific Gas & Electric could be prosecuted for murder, manslaughter or lesser criminal charges if investigators determine that “reckless operation” of its power equipment caused any of the wildfires in which people were killed during the last 15 months.

Gavel

A dozen of the fires that started in Northern California around October 8, 2017 have been blamed on PG&E’s electrical equipment, according to CAL FIRE Investigators, who also are looking into power line equipment failures that may have caused the Camp Fire on November 8, 2018. Over 40 people died in the Northern California fires, and 86 perished in the Camp Fire. More than 14,000 homes were destroyed in the Camp Fire.

Shortly after both events the stock price of PG&E dropped precipitously, sinking 66 percent over the 13-month period. It took several days in 2017 for word to spread that the company appeared to be liable for the Northern California fires, but the sell-off began the day after the Camp Fire started in 2018. Investors are worried that the utility could be on the hook for billions of dollars in civil damages in addition to criminal penalties.

Stock price PG&E california fires wildfires liable

Below is an excerpt from the Sacramento Bee:

The legal brief submitted by [Attorney General Xavier] Becerra’s office said prosecutors would have to gauge PG&E’s “mental state” before determining which charges, if any, to bring. The charges would range from murder to a misdemeanor negligence charge, according to the brief. Becerra’s brief is purely advisory; if any criminal charges are filed, they would likely be lodged by county district attorneys, not the state.
So far, though, district attorneys have shown little appetite for prosecuting PG&E, according to Sacramento Bee reporting. No charges have been filed yet in the wine country fires. And at least one DA has opted for a financial settlement in lieu of criminal prosecution

New satellites can aid in management of wildfires

Imagery from GOES 16 showed dramatic smoke plumes from the Camp Fire

Screenshot from the GOES 16 time-lapse of the Camp Fire.

The NASA article below lays out how the agency believes the imagery from recently launched satellites can assist in the detection and management of wildfires.


GOES-16, operating as NOAA’s GOES East satellite, is proving to be an invaluable asset in detecting wildfires and helping forecasters provide proactive tactical decision-support services. The satellite’s main instrument, the Advanced Baseline Imager (ABI), offers three times more spectral channels, four times increased resolution, and five times faster coverage than the previous GOES imager. This means a much more detailed look at fire conditions, faster detection of hot spots, and the ability to track fire progression and spread in real time.

National Weather Service (NWS) incident meteorologists (IMETs) are using GOES-16 data to assist firefighting efforts. IMETs who deploy to wildfires are instrumental to the mission. An IMET’s first priority is to keep firefighters and the public safe amid rapidly changing wildfire conditions. During the peak of the Camp Fire in northern California in November 2018, the fire was advancing at a rate of over 100 football fields every minute. A shift in the winds could easily put firefighters in danger.

GOES East captured imagery of the Camp Fire in northern California on November 8, 2018. The wildfire developed in the early morning hours and spread quickly within very windy and dry weather conditions. Hot spots and a large plume of smoke are seen in this fire temperature RGB (red-green-blue) imagery is created with Advanced Baseline Imager bands 7, 6, and 5 (shortwave and near infrared bands), which are used to detect hot spots. To make this animation, the fire temperature imagery is made partially transparent and placed over a GeoColor enhancement, so both the fire’s hot spots and smoke plume are visible.

Timely satellite imagery is critical, life-saving information in a dynamic fire environment. In the past, IMETs had a single low-resolution image that updated every 15 minutes – typically the image was already 20 minutes old when it arrived to the forecaster. Now, GOES-16 frequently detects fires before they are spotted on the ground – often 10 to 15 minutes before emergency notifications to 911.

Alex Hoon, the NWS IMET for both the Camp and Carr Fires in California in 2018, says GOES-16 is crucial to an IMET’s mission to protect lives and property. “Now, forecasters are able to get incredible high-resolution images of the fire every single minute in the field, directly supporting firefighters who are engaged in the fire. Not only is this helping firefighters to more effectively fight fire, but more importantly, it’s helping to keep firefighters safe so that they can also come home to their families,” said Hoon.

GOES-16 is also used to pinpoint the exact location of a fire after reports of smoke. On July 2, 2018, the Pueblo County, Colorado, Emergency Management Office called the NWS Pueblo Weather Forecast Office (WFO) for assistance locating the source of smoke reported near Custer/Fremont/Pueblo County lines. GOES-16 showed a hotspot in northeast Custer County and the Pueblo WFO was able to provide the exact coordinates of what would become the Adobe Fire. Being in a remote and wooded area, the early and more precise geolocation of the fire was helpful for getting crews on the scene quickly.

GOES-16 observations are not just valuable for detecting wildfires but are also critical to observing and monitoring smoke from those fires. GOES-16’s ability to monitor smoke plumes in near-real time is particularly useful in directing firefighting efforts from the air. Deploying airplanes and helicopters to spray fire retardant is often hampered due to poor visibility. GOES-16 can help guide decisions for deploying flights by providing information on the exact location and motion of smoke from a fire. The smoke detection and monitoring information also enable better air quality forecasts.

The benefits from GOES-16 aren’t just seen during a fire but are also important in monitoring burn scars and predicting flash flood events from rain events after a fire. GOES-16 provides critical data for the entire lifecycle of a fire disaster – from drought to fire to floods and landslides.

The new capabilities from GOES-16 are a game-changer for fire weather forecasts and warnings. Soon, GOES-16 will be joined by its twin satellite, GOES-17, as NOAA’s operational GOES West. GOES-17 will provide even better resolution for U.S. West Coast firefighting efforts than GOES-16 due to its location over the Pacific Ocean.

New channels on the ABI provide more information to forecasters and the high resolution and rapid scanning give them high-definition images as often as every minute. Data from the ABI is helping forecasters locate hotspots, detect changes in a fire’s behavior, predict a fire’s motion, and monitor the post-fire landscape like never before. Providing this information to firefighters, emergency managers, and state and county agencies helps NOAA’s Satellite and Information Service meet its mission of protecting the nation’s environment, security, economy and quality of life.

A documentary about the Camp Fire at Paradise, California

Camp Fire Documentary
Screen grab from the Camp Fire Documentary

There will probably be numerous documentaries released about the Camp Fire that erased much of Paradise, California as it killed at least 86 people and destroyed over 14,000 homes. Below is one of the first.

The fire will be an important part of California history, but it remains to be seen if it will be eclipsed in the next few years by even more unimaginable and disastrous fires as the climate becomes warmer and more prone to extreme events.

The film below, produced by Paradise-area film maker Golden Eagle Films, contains many interviews with residents that survived the inferno.

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

Why did a 99-year old power line fail, igniting the Camp fire?

Investigators have removed parts of a transmission tower to examine more closely

Investigators are zeroing in on their goal to determine exactly what caused molten aluminum and metal to drop from a 115,000-volt PG&E power line tower at about 6:15 a.m. on November 8 near Poe Dam seven miles east of Paradise, California. A few hours later most of the town had been reduced to ashes as 50 mph winds pushed the wildfire through the community, killing at least 85 people and making thousands homeless.

As reported by an article in the Mercury News, something failed on the tower, causing a power line to get loose and whip around, striking metal which instantly heated, melted, and dropped to the ground igniting the vegetation. It could have been “a tiny O-ring that holds up rows of disc-shaped insulators, or possibly fatigued steel from one of the tower’s arms”, the article explains. The tower was built in 1919 which raises the possibility of worn out parts and metal fatigue. CAL FIRE has removed some pieces from the tower to examine further.

The newspaper also reports that CAL FIRE is investigating a possible second point of ignition below a PG&E lower voltage distribution line that occurred about half an hour after the first failure.

The Camp Fire started 13 months after the disastrous fires that burned in the Napa Valley in October of 2017. There are reports that at least 12 of them were caused by Pacific Gas & Electric power lines.