Investigators determine that a power line caused the Thomas Fire

The fire burned 281,893 acres near Santa Barbara, destroyed 1,063 structures, and caused the death of one civilian and one firefighter

Thomas Fire
Thomas Fire, Ventura, CA, Los Padres National Forest, 2017. USFS photo.

The Ventura County Fire Department (VCFD) has determined that an arcing power line caused the Thomas Fire that destroyed 1,063 structures and caused the death of a civilian and a firefighter.

Investigators found that strong winds on December 4, 2017 forced Southern California Edison power lines to come in contact with each other, resulting in molten metal falling to the ground which ignited vegetation. The common term for this is “line slap.”

Measured east to west the Thomas Fire spread for over 42 miles, stretching between Fillmore and Santa Barbara in Southern California.

map Thomas Fire
Map of the west side of the Thomas Fire. The red line was the perimeter on December 23, 2017. Click to enlarge.

CAL FIRE Fire Apparatus Engineer Cory Iverson of the San Diego/San Diego County Fire Authority was overrun by fire and killed December 14, 2017 while battling the blaze. A 70-year-old woman died in a car accident while fleeing the fire on December 6, 2017.

At one point nearly 9,000 emergency personnel were working on the fire.

The investigative team was comprised of four agencies: CAL FIRE, Ventura County Sheriff’s Office, Santa Barbara County Fire Department, and the U.S. Forest Service.

Wildfires can be part of a series of cascading events

Maximum Wildfire Elevation
Maximum Wildfire Elevation. MBTS & Nature.

In the natural world one environmental event or disturbance can initiate or be part of a series of cascading events that intensify the impacts of natural hazards, possibly turning them into disasters.

An article at The Conversation explores how these effects can be enhanced by a warming climate. Below is an excerpt from an article written by Amir AghaKouchak (UC Irvine) and Farshid Vahedifard (Mississippi State University).


“Multiple hazardous events are considered cascading when they act as a series of toppling dominoes, such as flooding and landslides that occur after rain over wildfires. Cascading events may begin in small areas but can intensify and spread to influence larger areas.

[…]

“Also, the severity of these cascading weather events worsens in a warming world. Drought-stricken areas become more vulnerable to wildfires. And snow and ice are melting earlier, altering the timing of runoff. This has a direct relationship with the fact that the fire season across the globe has extended by 20 percent since the 1980s. Earlier snowmelt increases the chance of low flows in the dry season and can make forests and vegetation more vulnerable to fires.

“These links spread further as wildfires occur at elevations never imagined before. As fires destroy the forest canopy on high mountain ranges, the way snow accumulates is altered. Snow melts faster because soot deposited on the snow absorbs heat. Similarly, as drought dust is released, snow melts at a higher rate, as has been seen in the Upper Colorado River Basin.

[…]

“When landscapes are charred during wildfires, they become more vulnerable to landslides and flooding. In January, a debris flow event in Montecito, California killed 21 people and injured more than 160. Just one month before the landslide, the soil on the town’s steep slopes were destabilized in [the Thomas Fire]. After a storm brought torrential downpours, a 5-meter high wave of mud, tree branches and boulders swept down the slopes and into people’s homes.”


More Information

Google Earth acquires imagery of Thomas Fire

Google Earth, the software that has aerial imagery from all over the world, now has satellite photos of the Thomas Fire. The photo above is from December 13, 2017. To see the fire images you will need to zoom in fairly close and select imagery from December, 2017 (View/Historical Imagery). The photos are from December 4 through 18, 2017.

The Thomas Fire burned 281,893 acres in December, 2017 near Ventura, California, making it for a surprisingly short time, the largest wildfire in recent California history. It destroyed 1,063 structures, damaged 280 more, and set in motion the factors that led to a series of flash-floods and landslides that killed 21 residents. Seven months later the Ranch Fire east of Ukiah became the largest in the recent history of the state, burning 410,000 acres.

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

Ranchers affected by Thomas Fire file lawsuit against California utility

Thomas Fire. Photo credit: Ventura County Fire Department.

Ranchers in Ventura County who lost cattle and property during the devastating Thomas Fire filed a lawsuit this week against Southern California Edison, claiming the utility’s outdated equipment and lagging fire mitigation efforts were to blame for what became the largest blaze in modern state history.

“The Thomas Fire was the inevitable byproduct of SCE’s willful and conscious disregard of public safety. SCE, although mandated to do so, failed to identify, inspect, manage and/or control vegetation growth near its power lines and/or other electrical equipment. This created a foreseeable danger of trees and/or other vegetation coming into contact with SCE’s power lines and/or other electrical equipment and causing electrical problems, including ignition of fires,” the complaints state.

The lawsuit, filed on behalf of two ranchers, is the latest in a series of suits lodged against the utility provider.

According to The Ventura County Star newspaper, a spokesman for Edison said the company would not comment until the official cause of the blaze has been released.

“The Thomas fire obviously has had an impact of many individuals, but the origin and cause of the fire continue to be under investigation and no report has yet been issued,” a spokesman said in a statement, as reported by the newspaper. “This and other lawsuits are not based on findings related to an investigation. Therefore, it would be premature for SCE to comment on the origin or cause of the recent wildfires.”

The Thomas Fire burned 281,893 acres, making it the largest wildfire in recent California history. It destroyed 1,063 structures, damaged 280 more, and set in motion the factors that led to a series of flash-floods and landslides that killed 21 residents. 

A report on the official cause may still be several weeks away.

Report released on Thomas Fire Fatality

Above: A map from the report showing the entrapment location. The red line was the firefighter’s path of travel. It leads from the black circle, which was the site of the first spot fires, to a drainage.

(Originally published at 6:25 p.m. MST January 8, 2018)

CAL FIRE has released a “Green Sheet” preliminary report for the line of duty death of CAL FIRE Fire Apparatus Engineer Cory Iverson of the CAL FIRE San Diego/San Diego County Fire Authority. Engineer Iverson was overrun by fire and killed December 14, 2017 while battling the Thomas Fire in Ventura County north of Fillmore, California.

While working with a hose lay along a dozer line he was attempting to suppress a  spot fire across the fireline. As one spot fire became multiple spot fires he attempted to escape but was not successful.

The entire 2.6MB report is here. The portion of the document that describes the entrapment is below. Fire Apparatus Engineer Iverson is “FAE1” in the report.


…FAE1 responded on the assigned tactical frequency, that he saw the spot fire. He engaged the spot fire that was on the edge of the dozer line with his hand tool.

Immediately after the report of the spot fire, a second spot fire was reported approximately 20 feet into the green.

At some point, before leaving the dozer line, FAE1 dropped a 100 foot length of hose from his hose pack on the dozer line. This action left 200 feet of hose still in his hose pack.

As FAE1 reached the second spot and began to take action, it erupted. At the same time, additional spot fires erupted along the dozer line west of the original spot fire. FF1 sprayed in the direction of the spot fires. The spot fires rapidly increased in size and the hose stream was ineffective. FAE1’s escape route back to dozer line was cut off. FAE1 began traveling southwest, paralleling the dozer line. Due to fire intensity, FAE1 turned and headed down slope to the south. FAE1 made a request, on the assigned tactical frequency, for immediate air support. This was the last confirmed radio transmission by FAE1. STL1 contacted HLCO for immediate air support. HLCO responded, he had additional copters coming in and they too would begin to work the area.

At approximately 9:25 AM, FC1 reported to FAE1 on the assigned tactical frequency, additional spots were below him and he told FAE1 to “Get out of there.”

The fire intensity increased in the green along the dozer line. FF1 and FF4 retreated along the dozer line, while FF2 and FF3 retreated along the dozer line and then up into the black, towards the mid-slope road. All four FF’s dropped their hose packs on the dozer line while retreating.

At approximately 9:27 AM, FC1 declared, on the assigned tactical frequency, “Mayday, we’ve got a firefighter down.” FC1 then clarified, “We have a firefighter trapped.” STL1 confirmed with DIVS X he copied the “Mayday” of a firefighter trapped. DIVS X acknowledged the traffic with STL1 and requested, through Thomas Communications, an ALS ambulance to the address of the staging area below the avocado orchard.

At 9:28 AM, the response from Ventura County Fire Station 27 was started.

Copter 1, and two CWN copters, continued working the area below the dozer line attempting to provide an escape route for FAE1. These copters saw FAE1 retreating down through the green.

At that time, two spots erupted down slope and south of FAE1, in his path, causing him to turn southwest and start down slope toward the eventual entrapment site.

FC1 saw FAE1 fall and lost sight of him. Copter 1 also saw FAE1 fall, but get back up and continue down slope toward the eventual entrapment site.

It was described by those who saw FAE1 moving through the vegetation that the height was chest to head high; and in some cases, all that could be seen was the top of his helmet.

Prior to the fire, the vegetation height and thickness masked the view of the deep gulch in the drainage, which was the location of the eventual entrapment site.

STL1 contacted HLCO, re-confirmed a firefighter was trapped, and was told by HLCO, six helicopters were enroute.

The additional CWN copters arrived and each copter began working the area where FAE1 was last seen. Those copters dropped retardant at first, and then switched to water due to a faster turnaround time.


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

Last year’s California wildfires, graphically

Some people learn or are stimulated most effectively by reading, or hearing someone talk about a subject. Others, like myself, respond better visually. For me, there is truth in the old saying, “A picture is worth a thousand words”. So I can appreciate well-thought-out graphics that tell a story.

Lauren Tierney started her job with the Washington Post’s graphics department in November and yesterday she had her first graphics story published. If you click on the image in the Tweet below, the perimeters of wildfires that burned last year in California will be superimposed around an outline of the District of Columbia.

The article at the Washington Post website has additional fire-related graphics. One shows all of the 2017 fires on a map of California, and another allows you to choose which city you’d like to compare to the Thomas Fire, which became the largest in the recorded history of the state.

Frankly, when a reporter compares the size of a fire to a city, like, “The XXX Fire is the larger than Pittsburgh”, that does not mean a lot to me. But these maps take it to a new level.

I had occasional problems getting all of the graphics to render properly using the Chrome web browser, but they worked fine with Firefox.