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What to know as California's peak fire months loom

Cal Fire updating map identifying areas of fire danger to help predict where, how wildfires may strike

A neighborhood in the Northern California city of Santa Rosa, after a devastating 2017 wildfire. Photo by Anne Belden, istockphotos.com

California fire officials have learned through hard experience to temper their optimism.

Having just endured more than a decade of rampaging fires — 14 of the 20 most destructive fires in state history have occurred since 2007 — fire bosses say this year the glass is half-full.

"We've got a few things going for us at the moment," said Scott McLean, a spokesman for Cal Fire, the state firefighting agency. "We still have a snowpack. Our upper elevations haven't dried out. Because of that, we are able to continue our fuel-reduction projects."

Yes, this year featured a wet winter — usually good news for fire officials. But so did 2017, one of the state's wettest winters in half a century and one of the most devastating years for wildfire.

Clearing and cutting has helped eliminate some of the brush and trees that fuel the flames. But California's forests are still clogged with 147 million dead trees, and counting. And the late-winter rains encouraged the growth of grasses and other highly combustible plants.

Cal Fire battled 164 fires across the state in the third week of August, many of them small. History shows that September and October, with their hot, fierce winds, are the worst months for fire. And "this week we have dry lightning predicted," McLean said. That could spark fires in the state's northern forests.

On the other hand, state officials have been showering Cal Fire with financial aid. The agency's ranks are bolstered by an additional 400 seasonal firefighters and 13 new engines and crews to operate them. And the state is taking delivery of a new Sikorsky S-70i Firehawk helicopter next month, the first of 12 replacement firefighting helicopters.

"We've got everything out of maintenance; everything's ready," McLean said.

But don't look for California's biggest air tool to come to a rescue anytime soon. The converted 747 jet, which can carry 24,0000 gallons of water or retardant, is currently flying over the Amazon, fighting fires in Brazil.

Mapping the fire threat

Cal Fire is in the process of updating its map of wildfire-hazard zones, identifying areas of fire danger and assigning degrees of risk to those places. The California Public Utilities Commission is revising its fire map as well. So are the state's power providers and insurance companies.

They're all trying to better predict where and how wildfires may strike, as officials across the state seek to gain some advantage over fire's growing menace.

In the case of Cal Fire, the mapmaking — painstaking and devilishly complex, combining detailed data about weather, topography, vegetation and the placement of roads and homes — was last undertaken about 12 years ago. Officials say that doesn't mean the 2007 version is out of date.

"When you look at hazards by themselves, they are long-term factors that don't often change," said Daniel Berlant, Cal Fire assistant deputy director and chief of planning and risk analysis. "The slope of topography is not going to change in a decade."

But much else has changed. A debilitating drought has come and gone. That and widespread insect infestation wiped out trees in especially fire-prone regions of the state. And more and more Californians are living in the very landscapes that are most flammable.

Cal Fire's map is used largely by counties and local authorities in making decisions about construction in high-fire-hazard zones and fire-mitigation measures from homeowners.

Berlant said the document's "major overhaul" will include the latest science, particularly sophisticated new models for where and how wind drives wildfires. It will be completed sometime next year, he said.

The utility commission's map is somewhat different. It breaks the state into a grid of one-mile squares, focusing on power companies' lines and equipment and assigning fire threats. The identification of risk areas dictates what prevention efforts the companies should undertake to safeguard their property from fire.

The map includes Cal Fire and utility-company data, updated yearly.

Mason Withers, who helps run San Diego Gas & Electric's risk-management group, said his company assumes the worst-case scenario in all of its 4,000-square-mile service territory and assigns its own fire-potential index.

"If vegetation could be dry, we assume it is dry. We assume winds will get as bad as they can get," he said.

The analysis is intended for use by firefighters and utility companies but is only glanced at by insurers, which have been assembling their own risk assessments for decades. Many companies hire outside firms to provide them with satellite data as well as information from NASA and other federal institutions.

Verisk Analytics provides reports to insurers about risk but does not do forecasting. "We are not trying to predict where the next wildfire is going to happen; it's too complex," said Arindam Samanta, the company's director of product management and innovation.

Although Cal Fire and the utilities commission publish their maps online, California residents may never hear about them.

"I didn't know there was one," said Curtis Simms, who lives in Paradise, which was devastated by a wildfire last year. "You don't need a map to know you are in a high-risk area. You're an idiot if you don't."

The risk in power shutoffs

Utilities call it "de-energizing" or Public Safety Power Shutoffs. To consumers, it's what happens when a power company cuts electricity as a precaution during times of high wildfire risk.

Officials say the practice is a prudent fire-mitigation strategy, and it's about to become a widespread tool, whether customers like it or not.

Officials say one in 10 wildfires in California is related to energy equipment. Even as California's utilities do more to fireproof their lines and transformers, state officials say, the safest course during periods of high heat, dryness and winds may be to turn off power to some lines.

San Diego Gas & Electric has been proactively shutting off power ahead of high-fire-risk periods since 2013, but the state Public Utilities Commission adopted a policy on such cuts only last year. Customers around the rest of the state are still adjusting to the prospect of blackouts.

"Some customers are not particularly enthusiastic about the program when they first hear about it," said Jeff Smith, a spokesman for Pacific Gas and Electric. "They are frustrated that their power will be turned off but understand it once we tell customers that it's to reduce fire risk."

The company experienced that kind of frustration earlier this month when it made public its plan for emergency shutdowns, involving four times as many power lines as in the previous year. Even though PG&E stressed that it doesn't envision cutting power along every line it operates at once, residents reacted with trepidation.

Smith said the company has hosted dozens of events to describe the program, which is still new to PG&E's 5 million electricity customers. The utility cut power only once in 2018, during high-fire-risk conditions, and twice this year, he said. The company has established a website for customers to check for shutoff forecasts, as have SDG&E and Southern California Edison.

Companies are loath to curtail power, for reasons that go far beyond spoiled food and other inconveniences. A representative of the city of Malibu testified at a Public Utilities Commission hearing last year that a power outage during a 2018 fire there cut off internet access and made it difficult for residents to keep abreast of emergency information and other public-safety announcements.

"We understand that there are risks on both sides," Smith said. "There are impacts on first responders, impacts on traffic, on folks that have life-saving equipment they rely on. And there is risk with keeping power on during those high-threat periods."

Technology has made the shutdowns less expansive. The San Diego utility has adopted a sophisticated system enabling it to curtail power to a single neighborhood or street.

Utilities have been meeting with local officials to discuss emergency power options that cities and counties may use to protect vulnerable people. Some residents are preparing for electrical outages by buying gasoline-powered generators.

Under new state rules, utilities are required to ramp up efforts to inform the public before outages, giving 24 to 48 hours of advance notice, or more, depending on the nature of the fire threat.

Fire-insurance angst

State Insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara laid out the dire news to legislators earlier this month: Insurers have declined to renew 350,000 homeowner policies in high-fire-risk areas in California since 2015, when the state began collecting data.

"I have heard from many local communities about how not being able to obtain insurance can create a domino effect for the local economy, affecting home sales and property taxes," Lara said in a prepared statement.

"This data should be a wake-up call for state and local policymakers that without action to reduce the risk from extreme wildfires and preserve the insurance market we could see communities unraveling," he said.

Lara's news, which did not reflect those who were able to obtain replacement policies, reiterates that for insurers, California remains an expensive place to do business, and for homeowners, a costly place to buy insurance.

The data firm CoreLogic, in a report due out in September, estimates that about 640,000 homes in California are in areas of high or extreme fire risk. The cost to replace those homes: nearly $280 billion.

A RAND Corp. report, prepared for the state last year, estimated that the insurance industry's underwriting profits of $12 billion from 2001 through 2016, "were almost completely wiped out" by catastrophic wildfires in 2017. Residential insurance claims from the 2017-2018 fires, the worst fire period on record for California, totaled $26 billion.

Mark Sektnan, a lobbyist for the American Property Casualty Insurance Association, a trade group, said that for every dollar taken in via premiums, companies have been paying out $2 for fire claims.

"Things have been changing quickly," he said, noting that the 1991 Oakland Hills fire, which killed 25 people, was long thought to be the worst-case scenario for loss of life and property. Those once-in-a-generation events are happening with greater frequency, he said.

In the face of the dropped policies, there has been some legislative relief. A law passed last year requires insurers to offer a homeowner who lost a residence to disaster two renewal periods or two years of coverage, whichever is greater.

However, that law doesn't prevent those whose homes were untouched or only damaged by fire from having their policies cancelled.

Steven Nielsen's story of frustration is all too familiar to many fire victims. The 52-year-old lost his Santa Rosa home in the October 2017 Tubbs fire in Sonoma County. Bureaucratic entanglements with his insurer of 25 years delayed the rebuilding process.

At the time, insurers were required by law to offer fire victims at least one policy renewal, which Nielsen received, taking him through 2018. But when renewal time came again a few months ago, he said, his insurer sent him a letter saying that because no home was built at his address, the company was dropping him.

Still, he counts himself lucky to have found a company to cover the rebuilt residence when it's ready. He expects his premium will go up 60-80%.

For California homeowners who cannot find or afford new insurance, there is the FAIR Plan, a bare-bones fire policy created by the state and operated by insurance companies.

Legislation: what's next

After spending some of this year promising to roll out comprehensive fire legislation, lawmakers hustled a single mega-bill out in July, on a tight schedule, days before their month-long summer recess.

Many in Sacramento and elsewhere are still arguing over the bona fides of the bill, which was brokered by the governor: Is it a reprieve for Pacific Gas and Electric, which filed for bankruptcy because of fire-related liabilities, or substantive improvement in how California addresses wildfire?

The law does help the state's largest utility pay fire victims by establishing a $21 billion compensation fund that it and other companies can tap under certain circumstances. It also requires California's three biggest utilities to spend $5 billion to fireproof their equipment. They had already pledged to spend $3 billion in that effort, replacing wooden poles with steel ones and insulating lines and other equipment.

And for the first time, the state is requiring utilities to obtain a safety certification, setting a standard for safe and responsible operation.

Now comes the legislative mop-up. Pieces of earlier proposals were swept into the mega-bill or reconstituted into new bills.

"We made a lot of progress, but there's a lot more work to be done," said state Sen. Bill Dodd, a Democrat from Napa whose district has been beset by wildfires.

Don't look for blockbusters; the bills still on the table are more modest, addressing discrete pieces of a complex problem. "None of these things are a be-all, end-all," Dodd said.

There are bills to fund education programs and brush-clearing projects, beef up enforcement of "defensible space" ordinances and conduct independent audits of the utilities' fire-mitigation work. Another proposal would establish a state wildfire warning center.

Additional legislation would expand notification periods before power companies shut off electricity to customers, especially to health care facilities and first responders, during times of high fire risk. Another bill would help low-income customers with back-up service or financial aid during power cutoffs.

And legislators are not finished with PG&E. One proposal would allow the state to sell billions in bonds that would help the company pay off wildfire liabilities exceeding its insurance limits.

Most of the proposals have been put on hold; it's not clear which, if any, will clear the Legislature before it adjourns in two weeks.

CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California's policies and politics. Read more state news from CALmatters here.

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Comments

5 people like this
Posted by Been There
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 2, 2019 at 10:21 am

Oakland is perhaps not the best example, because like Hurricane Katrina, the manmade stupidity and failure to apply any reasonable safety concerns to planning played a greater role in losses than the natural disaster itself.

Postfire analysis in Oakland highlighted the problem that Oakland fire hydrants all had a different sized hose fitting than all the surrounding communities. It was no accident that far more homes burned in Oakland than in Berkeley, because mutual aid was parked all along Hwy 13 and 24 unable to do anything on the Oakland side. A firefighter neighbor who was home that day expressed the belief that a one-inch hose in the many hours no one could fight the fire could have saved the entire neighborhood. The problems came about because people said "we can always do this difficult task upon which preventing a major disaster hinges [in this case, passing out adaptors to mutual aid in a city as large as Oakland with that kind of terrain and a history of fires]"


4 people like this
Posted by resident
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 2, 2019 at 10:39 am

No matter what are your politics, California's rainy season is starting much later in the year now days. I can remember when rain storms happened every year during October and the Tahoe ski resorts usually opened by Thanksgiving with natural snow. Now days, we're lucky to get anything before the New Year. Homeowners need to prepare for the extended dry season. We can't plan the same way that our parents did because our climate is different.


8 people like this
Posted by Been There
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 2, 2019 at 11:05 am

Palo Altans: because of the density of our building (and I don't just mean now, I mean from decades ago), our proximity to fire-prone areas like LAH and Stanford foothills, individuals can take steps now to prevent the next Coffee Park:

Number one most important thing:
*If you have a shake roof, replace it with a fire-safe roof. Just do it. Do it now. Keeping your shake roof not only endangers your own home, it endangers your whole neighborhood if your house catches fire and, as in so many large fires, things rage unchecked.

*Get rid of the fire-prone landscaping, like juniper which explodes from embers and burns long and hot. Make defensible space.

*Clean out your gutters! Even if you don't have trees, you have junk in your gutters carried on the wind.

*If you can transition to electrical from natural gas, this can reduce the house-to-house problem in post-earthquake fires. It's also considered more environmentally conscientious.

*Get citizen disaster training from one of the local groups --


Beyond that, there are things we can do to prevent stupid systemic problems, such as remembering that we, too, may need to evacuate in the event of an emergency (and stop making streets that are impassable even under the best of circumstances). Take city safety departments out from under planning so that safety can be first rather than only an afterthought and only if it's convenient. This is the kind of thinking that guarantees major loss of life.

Homeowners or homeowners groups can get those non-toxic fire retardant gels that can be sprayed on with a garden hose, and can be rewetted with a simple mist. This protects the integrity of the water system because you don't have people with endlessly running garden hoses dropping the water pressure, and people can protect their houses and leave. One home saved in a key place in a neighborhood can prevent the whole neighborhood from going. This is especially important in an area with so many trees, and so many new multi-family buildings with flat roofs in areas adjacent to fireprone areas. We can no longer expect that very urban environs or institutions will necessarily be spared. Everyone has to do their part.





Like this comment
Posted by the new smoky summers
a resident of Nixon School
on Sep 2, 2019 at 11:22 am

Buy masks early. Save yer lungs....

Oh, yeah - go find a climate denier and kick him in the shins.


6 people like this
Posted by the new smoky summers
a resident of Nixon School
on Sep 2, 2019 at 11:24 am

Oh, yeah - go find a pg&e exec and aim a little higher.

(not THERE, just a charley horse, as a playful sign of our love for all things pge!)

;-)


2 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 2, 2019 at 11:34 am

Our own hills are definitely a problem with respect to wildfires.

Take for example Page Mill Road leading to Foothills Park. That windy road, often full of bikes slowly riding uphill and very fast going downhill, would be a major escape route for hill residents as well as Park users. The Park itself only has one vehicle exit as well as very poor cell phone coverage. If a fire occurred most would not be aware until they saw the flames/smoke or possibly heard sirens from fire trucks.

I think a comprehensive plan for evacuating our own environs should be invoked and posted not only in the park but elsewhere on Page Mill.


6 people like this
Posted by Fred
a resident of Palo Alto Hills
on Sep 2, 2019 at 11:54 am

Why isn’t the Palo Alto Fire wildland station not open 24/7 during this time of year?


3 people like this
Posted by Resident 1-Adobe Meadows
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Sep 2, 2019 at 12:32 pm

Resident 1-Adobe Meadows is a registered user.

We have major problems from the bay lands - high dead vegetation, freeway sides with high weeds, moving up in to houses where residents have dead vegetation directly in front of their homes. Fire care by residents and the city needs to be emphasized because we have a lot of visitors who use our roads and park on our streets who have no investment in the properties. We all have to pick up trash left by parkers.
The city should tag house owners who are not managing their front-on the street property to remove highly flammable plants which have already expired due to the very hot temperatures. We are talking totally dead plants here.


Like this comment
Posted by Anonymous
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Sep 2, 2019 at 9:22 pm

I remain concerned about tall, dry weeds and untrimmed trees, bushes at our 101 freeway entrances and exits. A car fire or careless visitor (commercial or Stanford traffic) might toss a cigarette out the window. It could spread into our nearby residential neighborhoods.


7 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 2, 2019 at 11:29 pm

The state should remove eucalyptus trees.
Around the Canada college turnoff from 280, there are far too many of these dangerous trees.
And if you look at Google map, you can see how dangerous it would be to live in the foothills.
Even with a fire station, there is probably no way to control a blaze if one were to start up there. The brush is too thick, and fires just race up hills like a chimney.
I am glad to live in the flat lands. The climate has changed. I used to think anything west of 280 was dangerous, but now I know fires can jump across multi-lane highways if it is windy. I saw this happen near Thousand Oaks when is crossed 101.


14 people like this
Posted by mauricio
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Sep 3, 2019 at 5:48 am

mauricio is a registered user.

We can start by removing every climate change denier from a position of influence. Having climate deniers in position of influence is like having NASA run by the flat earth society.


Like this comment
Posted by Anon
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 3, 2019 at 10:08 am

Posted by Resident, a resident of Old Palo Alto

>> The state should remove eucalyptus trees.

Often known as "gum trees" in their native Australia, they are now understood to be the reason why some bushfires spread far more rapidly downwind than expected. Here is an article from the Australian research agency CSIRO:

Web Link

"Sullivan and his team, including researchers from the ANU, have studied how firebrand behaviour contributed to fire spotting on that day, with particular attention to the unkempt ribbon bark eucalypts such as Eucalyptus viminalis (manna gum) and E. rubida (candlebark).

"Ribbon barks typically shed their bark in hot weather, producing strips several metres long that have a tendency to curl longitudinally.

"Sullivan’s team used the CSIRO Vertical Wind Tunnel to investigate just how strips of burning bark from these trees combust under the conditions of terminal velocity (the maximum speed at which an object travels through the air). From this they could deduce how far they could travel as viable firebrands.

"They tested flat, simple cylinders and curled cylinders of bark, oven-dried to mimic wildfire conditions.

"The tests showed that the average burnt out time for short tightly curled cylinders was more than 7 minutes. This suggests that a similar firebrand 2.7 m long would be capable of remaining alight for more than 30 minutes. Under conditions typical of a high intensity forest fire, the firebrand would be capable of travelling and causing a spotfire 37 km away."

Sorry for the long quote. But, note that depending on type, ribbon bark firebrands from Eucalyptus can stay lighted for 10 miles (straight flat ribbon type) to 20 miles (curled ribbon type). During the Kilmore East fires of 7 February 2009 these conditions were encountered.

Australian building practice for housing located out in the bush is catching up with this potential. There is a lot of information available via the web of course. e.g. start here and follow the links:

Web Link

It is interesting to contemplate that those rather pretty trees (I admit, I like them) can produce firebrands that will stay burning for 5-30 minutes, spreading fire far, far downwind.


Like this comment
Posted by eucalyptus stinks
a resident of The Greenhouse
on Sep 3, 2019 at 11:16 am

> (I admit, I like them)

Ahhh, so you're the one.

;-)

They're a dirty, oily tree, as you highlighted. Non-native. Maybe while we're raking the forests, we can remove these, though I've been led to believe it is a commercially useless wood (warps, curls, etc..) Pulp, maybe?


Like this comment
Posted by Anon
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 3, 2019 at 1:14 pm

Posted by eucalyptus stinks, a resident of The Greenhouse

>> Ahhh, so you're the one.

It is all my fault. Ask anybody.

But, TBH, I think the trees generally need to be removed and replaced with native oaks. Takes a while, though. And, I also think that we in California need to get serious about linking insurance rates to building construction. It is quite possible to build bushfire resistant houses-- they just don't have that Sunset-Magazine look.

Web Link



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