Body cam footage as officers helped residents evacuate during Tubbs Fire

body cam tubbs fire wildfire
A screenshot from the ABC10 video below, shot by an officer’s body cam.

In the video below produced by ABC10, law enforcement officers and firefighters tell their stories about encouraging residents to evacuate during the first hours of the Tubbs Fire that burned into Santa Rosa, California October 9, 2017. One firefighter explains how he kept working after learning that his house was one of the hundreds that were destroyed. Body cam footage gives us an up close viewpoint of what the first responders were going through. The North Bay fires destroyed about 8,900 structures (including homes and outbuildings).

Are planned communities safe from wildfires?

And, can we learn to adapt to fire?

Today I was reading an article about how the communities in Northern California are dealing with the risk from wildfire. One item that got my attention was where a “forestry and wildfire specialist” was quoted describing the Fountaingrove area of Santa Rosa which was devastated by the Tubbs Fire in October of last year.

…a housing development in a rural area that had been built following the highest fire safety standards. Vegetation had been cleared as required, and the homes were built of fire-resistant materials.

The article correctly stated that the development had been “reduced to ashes by the Tubbs Fire”.

“How could that have happened?”, I thought. Fire resistant building standards and cleared vegetation? Firefighters know that if those two characteristics can be checked off, a structure has a much better chance of survival. So how did the community get wiped out?

The Fountaingrove community is 4 miles north of the intersection of Highways 101 and 12 in Santa Rosa. The Tubbs Fire, the deadliest of the fires in 2017, burned into the north section of Santa Rosa, including the Fountaingrove area. It killed 22 people, destroyed 5,643 structures, and burned 36,807 acres.

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

I would not call Fountaingrove a “rural area”. The thousands of homes there are very tightly packed, as you can see in the satellite photo below taken about five months before the Tubbs Fire.

Satellite photo Fountaingrove
Satellite photo of an area in Fountaingrove May 17, 2017, before the Tubbs Fire. Google Earth.

The next three photos are all of the same area, showing structures on Fir Ridge Road before and after the Tubbs Fire of October, 2017.

Fir Ridge Road
Fir Ridge Road area of Fountaingrove before the Tubbs Fire. Google Maps.
Satellite photo Fir Ridge Road
Satellite photo of the Fir Ridge Road area in Fountaingrove, June 16, 2017. Google Earth.
Satellite photo Fir Ridge Road
Satellite photo of the Fir Ridge Road area in Fountaingrove, October 17, 2017. Google Earth.

The photo below was taken before the fire, a few blocks south of the ones above. This home and all others around it burned.

South Ridge Road Fountaingrove
A home on South Ridge Road in Fountaingrove before the Tubbs Fire. Google Maps.

The Fountaingrove area burned in the 1964 Hanley fire. During the 53-year period until the next fire, the 2017 Tubbs Fire, the houses grew back along with a great deal of vegetation. Most of the homes have shrubs in the yards and multiple large trees, often between the houses that are very close together. Some of the structures are partially obscured from aerial photos by limbs hanging over the roofs.

It is difficult to tell if the homes in these photos were constructed of fire resistant materials. But it is clear that other Firewise principles were not being followed.

firewise wildfire risk home tree spacing
Firewise vegetation clearance recommendations. NFPA.

In a fireprone environment there should be no flammable material within 5 feet of a structure, and in the Home Ignition Zones 5 to 100 feet away, trees need to be 6 to 18 feet apart depending on the distance from the building. If on a slope, these distances have to be increased substantially.

An excellent video that elaborates on these principles has been produced by the NFPA. It points out that the areas in between the trees do not have to be nuked. But to be fire resistant they need to consist of green grass or fire resistant small plants, and should be raked or mowed close to the ground.

If a structure meets these Firewise guidelines, it stands a much better chance of surviving a wildfire. However, if the weather conditions are extreme, such as 60 mph winds and single digit humidity which can lead to spot fires igniting a mile ahead of the main fire, it can be difficult to save a structure.

Most homes are ignited not by the main flaming front of a fire, but from burning embers that land out ahead and start new fires. Likely receptors for these embers are leaves in a gutter, mulch, wooden decks, lawn furniture, attic vents, and accumulations of dead grass, pine needles, leaves, and other flammable material.

When a community is initially planned, the engineers may have done some things right, such as the design of the streets, and water systems. But if everything else is left up to the knowledge and discretion of developer and homeowner, very important principles might be ignored.

Fountaingrove did not meet all of the Firewise guidelines, but the streets were wide, making it easier for large fire trucks to access the structures. The very close spacing of the homes means that if one burns, the radiant heat alone can ignite its neighbor.

Other things to consider in mitigating the wildfire threat include multiple evacuation routes — if one becomes compromised by the fire, another could remain open. Large open spaces without flammable vegetation can serve as safety zones for residents who can’t escape. Backup electrical power sources that can keep pumps running so that community water tanks remain full can ensure firefighters have water at hydrants.

With the warming climate leading to extreme fires and fire seasons that are nearly year round, it is inevitable that deadly fires will strike many wildland-urban interface communities. Under the conditions we have seen in recent years, casually ignoring the threat will lead to more fatalities and property damage. It is not IF a fire will hit a fire prone area, but WHEN. The best solution is to learn to live with and adapt to fire, not ignore it.

Many factors can lead to an area being vulnerable to wildfire, including fire suppression leading to a buildup of vegetation, density of homes like at Fountaingrove, failure of homeowners to use Firewise principles, lack of community standards, insurance companies not understanding the issue, the federal government reducing expenditures for vegetation management and prescribed burning, lawsuits that halt vegetation management projects, and cutting the numbers of firefighters, air tankers, and Type 1 helicopters. When politicians take hold of just one of these issues while ignoring the rest, it can make it impossible to have a rational conversation about adapting to fire.

Discussions need to be thorough and nuanced, not politicized and influenced by industry that profits from using just a single, ill-conceived concept. And zeroing in on one vague term like “raking” and “poor forest management” simply confuse the general public when the complete picture is not illuminated.

PG&E equipment blamed for another of last year’s Northern California fires

This brings the total to 17 of last fall’s wildfires attributed to the company’s power lines and equipment

power line fire
File photo of Silverado Fire at 12:26 p.m. September 12, 2014.

(UPDATED at 6:20 p.m. PDT October 9, 2018)

Investigators looking into the cause and origin of the large wildfires that plagued Northern California last fall have determined that a Pacific Gas and Electric power line started the Cascade Fire in Yuba County. The blaze started on the evening of October 8 and burned a total of 9,989 acres, destroyed 264 structures, and resulted in four civilian fatalities and one firefighter injury.

“A high wind event in conjunction with the power line sag on two conductors caused the lines to come into contact, which created an electrical arc”, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) said in a news release. “The electrical arc deposited hot burning or molten material onto the ground in a receptive fuel bed causing the fire. The common term for this situation is called ‘line slap’ and the power line in question was owned by the Pacific Gas and Electric Company.”

The investigative report for the Cascade Fire was forwarded to the Yuba County District Attorney, which is the usual practice. The D.A. decided that no violations of the Public Utilities Code in regard to vegetation management were found and made no other recommendations regarding criminal action, including the offense of involuntary manslaughter.

In total, the October 2017 Fire Siege involved more than 170 fires and burned at least 245,000 acres in Northern California. Approximately 11,000 firefighters from 17 states and Australia helped battle the blazes.

Earlier CAL FIRE said an additional 16 fires during the siege were attributed to PG&E equipment, alleging violations of state law in 11 of those incidents. CAL FIRE still hasn’t released its report on the Tubbs blaze, the deadliest of last year’s fires, which killed 22 people, destroyed 5,643 structures, and burned 36,807 acres.

In a news release PG&E addressed the CAL FIRE report about the Cascade Fire:

We look forward to the opportunity to carefully review the CAL FIRE report to understand the agency’s perspectives.

The safety of our customers, their families and the communities we serve is our most important job. Without question, the loss of life, homes and businesses in these extraordinary wildfires is heartbreaking and we remain focused on helping communities recover and rebuild.

In the meantime, we are continuing to focus on implementing additional precautionary measures intended to further reduce wildfire threats, such as working to remove and reduce dangerous vegetation, improving weather forecasting, upgrading emergency response warnings, making lines and poles stronger in high fire threat areas and taking other actions to make our system, and our customers and communities, even safer in the face of a growing wildfire threat.

 

This article was updated to include a response from PG&E.

One year later, looking at the disastrous Northern California wildfires

satellite photo northern California wildfires October 2017
Copernicus Sentinel-3A satellite picture of smoke from Northern California wildfires, October 9, 2017.

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.

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

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.

list wildfires Northern California, October 2017.
The nine largest fires in Northern California, October 2017. Wikipedia. Click to enlarge.

Below are links to articles about the impact of the fires and the recovery.

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.”