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.
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.
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
A year ago today more than 10 large very destructive wildfires were burning in Northern California. They started on October 8 and 9 pushed by very strong winds and eventually destroyed about 8,900 structures (including homes and outbuildings), burned at least 245,000 acres, and caused the deaths of 44 people.
The fires instantly made thousands of residents homeless, and while rebuilding has begun, some are still struggling.
Many received no warning or alert on their telephones and were awakened during the night by neighbors pounding on their doors or the sirens of first responders.
One year ago today, I was immersed in the most destructive fire in California history. When I watched the #tubbsfire hop Hwy 128 at Bennet Lane and roar through Franz Valley, I knew #santarosa was in trouble. This clip is from Fountaingrove. @NorthBayNews pic.twitter.com/hQqikrL4yr
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.
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.
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.
Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Bob. Typos or errors, report them HERE.
(Originally published at 10:28 a.m. MST November 22, 2017)
A report has been released about a near miss that occurred October 18 on the Nuns Fire between Santa Rosa and Napa, California. According to the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center’s summary of the incident there were no injuries on the five-person crew but the truck sustained major damage from a falling tree.
Below is an excerpt from the report about the incident on the Nuns Fire:
On the Nuns Fire on the morning of October 18 at approximately 1145, during mop up operations, a large (60-inch DBH) fire-weakened, green Douglas fir tree fell from upslope, at a 90 degree angle, and landed across the hood of an engine that was parked on the road below with two people inside.
The five-person engine crew had been assigned to evaluate and identify hazards for the MM Division Supervisor.
In addition to patrolling, as the engine crew moved through the burned area, they were also mopping up hotspots along the roadside.
The crew had scouted the road to the end and were working their way back, suppressing hotspots.
The Engine Boss stopped the engine directly below a large green tree with fire and smoke coming from its base—which was obscured by unburned brush. One crewmember dragged hose from the live reel toward the base of the tree while another crewmember helped with hose deployment from the back of the engine. Another crewmember stood on the road as a lookout behind the engine.
The Engine Boss and Engine Boss Trainee remained in the engine’s front seats writing intel information for the Division Supervisor that had been gathered from their scouting mission.
The Engine Boss would later explain:
Intel for the Division Supervisor had not been passed forward and he (the Division Supervisor) had not sent anyone into the area for three days. We knew there were hazard trees in there and had received a good briefing. You just don’t look at a green tree with smoke at the base with green stuff all around it and think to yourself that this thing’s coming down any second. That’s just another smoke for the rest of the crew to knock out. We had knocked out half a dozen smokes before going down that road.
Approximately 90 seconds after assessing the base of the tree and spraying it with water, crewmembers outside of the engine began yelling that the tree was starting to fall. Crewmembers on the road moved quickly down the road. The Engine Boss didn’t put the engine into reverse because he couldn’t see if any of the crew was behind the engine. He attempted to move forward, but the tree had already fallen and hit a large oak tree across the road from the engine.
Oak Tree Reduces Impact onto Engine
The full impact of the falling tree split the large oak in half. The oak tree was located approximately 40 feet in front of the engine. The oak reduced the impact and possibly the location of impact to the engine. Ultimately, the 60-inch wide and 120-foot tall fir landed across the hood of the engine.
The impact caused major damage to the engine, impaling a branch in the hood and shattering the windshield. While all crewmembers were stunned, everyone was physically OK.
Afterwards, one of the crewmembers said: “We were making the area safe for someone, we were doing our job.”
The engine crew was on their eighth day on this fire and had been assigned to four different Divisions. The crew was frustrated by lack of assignment continuity. The area that the crew was working in appeared to have had chainsaw work prior to their assignment.
A brief defusing was conducted at ICP [Incident Command post] by PEER staff assigned to the incident.
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.
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.
“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.
Above: Fine-scale weather model simulation (horizontal grid spacing of 370 meters) analyzing the surface wind when the Northern California fires started, 8 p.m. local time October 8, 2017. The darkest brown areas (with cross-hatching) indicate wind speeds greater than 40 m/s (~90 mph). The red shapes indicate heat from active fires first detected by a satellite (VIIRS) at 3:09 a.m. local time October 9, 2017. Simulation by Dr. Janice Coen, a Project Scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado. Simulated with the Coupled Atmosphere Wildland Fire Environment model.
(Originally published at 10:40 a.m. MDT October 30, 2017.)
More research into the weather conditions when the devastating October 8 wildfires started in Northern California indicates that hurricane force wind was one of the factors responsible for the extremely rapid spread of the fires that killed at least 43 people and destroyed more than 8,900 structures.
Dr. Janice Coen, a Project Scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado ran fine-scale weather model simulations (horizontal grid spacing of 370 meters) analyzing the wind during the time the fires started. Her research (see chart above) showed significantly higher surface wind speeds than previously thought — 75 to 90 mph just upwind of the major fires.
CAL FIRE has not released the causes of the October 8 conflagrations, but at about the same time firefighters were first responding to numerous fires, they also received multiple calls about fallen power lines and electrical transformers exploding.
California law dictates that power lines are supposed to be able to withstand 56 mph.
In an email Dr. Coen told us more about the October 8 wind simulation and her research related to fire weather:
“These early simulations suggest that within a wide area of strong winds, these small, local bands of extreme winds occurred where winds were perpendicular to the local ridge. And, that the location of the peaks and their peak speeds evolved throughout the event as the wind direction changed, in part due to the high pressure over the Great Basin moving along.
“I don’t have a lot of confidence that we’d be able to find evidence to prove or disprove if/when a particular simulated wind speed maximum occurred. And, although there is a lot of theoretical and laboratory work on stably stratified flow over objects, this three-dimensional terrain is too complicated to apply much of that.
“We’ve seen a sequence of devastatingly destructive fire events each driven by strong wind events – 2007 fires in southern California driven by Santa Anas, surprising destruction from a mountain downslope wind-driven fire in Gatlinburg, TN, and now this – yet fine-scale investigations of the mechanisms producing the peak winds and how they are distributed, particularly in relation to potential ignition sources, don’t really exist. And, though our forecast models may indicate strong gusty winds are possible, explicitly predicting how extreme the winds might be and where the most dangerous spots are with the detail shown here is beyond their capabilities.
“I hope to learn and share more about the mechanics of these events by visualizing these simulations, so we can see inside these events, prepare and anticipate, contribute to firefighter awareness and safety (as Diablo winds in general are a regional fire issue), and perhaps help potential ignition sources such as utilities manage the risk.”