A warming climate complicates everything. Hotter and drier seasons mean that big fires in December, once almost unheard of, are now common.
In earlier decades, fires late in the year might have sputtered out after hitting hillsides wet with winter rain. More recent blazes feasted on vegetation that has been sucked of moisture by persistent drought.
Even years of plentiful rain harbor dangers. Post-fire precipitation, especially very wet winters, can usher in the growth of non-native shrubs and grasses that burn quickly and spread fires faster than native species.
California’s bigger, more frequent fires are endangering more residents—nearly 90 perished in the 2018 blaze that destroyed the Northern California town of Paradise. Forest fires are increasingly a misnomer as flames race across landscapes dotted with subdivisions and communities that have been carved out where trees once stood.
The trend of more Californians living in harm’s way complicates firefighting efforts and ramps up the danger fires pose.
Epidemic of dead trees
California’s forests, which cover a third of the state, are now choked with some 150 million dead trees.
Weakened by a prolonged drought, which scientists link to climate change, California’s ubiquitous pines and oaks are vulnerable to insect infestation and disease. Those giants crash to the forest floor and, unless they are removed, provide ready fodder for the next voracious fire. The die-off is catastrophic beyond the reach of state foresters to remedy.
In many communities of the central and southern Sierra Nevada mountain range, “80 percent of trees are dead,” said Ken Pimlott, former director of Cal Fire.
The state owns only about 3 percent of California’s wooded acreage. Some land is owned by cities, counties, Native American tribes and private holders. President Trump has criticized California’s fire management. But in fact, the biggest forest landlord in California, by far, is the federal government, which manages 18 national forests in the state.
The U.S. Forest Service has a longtime policy of putting out every fire, and quickly, which has packed the federal land with fuel to burn. And its budget falls short of the cost of needed work to reduce that fuel.
The electricity factor
Hundreds of thousands of miles of transmission lines and other electrical equipment are strung across California, drawing little attention—until authorities name utility equipment as the cause of a wildfire. One in 10 California wildfires is related to energy equipment, according to the state’s chief utility regulator.
Lawmakers have ordered that utility companies put safety measures in place, hoping to ensure that their equipment won’t spark future fires. Among the firms’ strategies: more aggressively clearing brush and trees around transmission lines; swapping wooden power poles for metal ones and maintaining a network of remote cameras to keep watch on wind, smoke and other dangers.
None of these or other fire-mitigation efforts will come cheaply. When a judge proposed new safety measures for Pacific Gas & Electric, the company said the work could cost $150 billion. Can be expected to foot much of the fire-mitigation bill as utility companies pass costs along to them.
When fires burn in uninhabited wildlands, their corrosive effects can be carried hundreds of miles by the wind, causing stinging eyes, burning throats and severe coughing.
Local air districts issue warnings to residents to wear masks and avoid outside exercise. Hospitals report increased numbers of patients seeking help for respiratory problems, and school closures can keep as many as a million children home as even indoor air quality deteriorates.
No state has done as much as California to reduce its output of planet-warming greenhouse gases. Yet the smoke produced by major fires is so potent that a single weeks-long blaze can undo a year’s worth of carbon-reduction efforts. State officials are concerned that what’s pumped into the air during fires could impair California’s ability to reach its stringent greenhouse-gas reduction goals.
A single wildfire can spew more pollutants into the air than millions of cars. Moreover, as more trees die, another weapon to combat climate change is lost: the prodigious ability of healthy trees to absorb carbon from the atmosphere.
Trees release a powerful pollutant, black carbon, as they burn. Black carbon is many thousand times more damaging than greenhouse gases. And the damage doesn’t cease once flames are snuffed out; decaying forests continue to emit harmful pollutants.
If a burned-out forest is replaced by chaparral or brush, that landscape loses more than 90 percent of its capacity to take in and retain carbon.
It has to be said that fires are not always bad. Naturally occurring fires clear overgrown forests, creating space for some plants and trees to revitalize. Researchers say less-dense forests are more natural and healthy.
But more often in California, wildfires ignite a furious competition for life. Fast-growing and opportunistic non-native plants rush in after fires, with the potential to wholly supplant native species. This phenomenon doesn’t just erase an aspect of California’s botanical history; it affects its fire future. Invasive grasses and weeds often burn more readily, fanning hotter and more frequent fires.
Wildfires took scores of lives in California in 2018, the deadliest fire year in the state’s recent history. Most of those deaths were related to the blaze that destroyed the town of Paradise. The numbers include people responding to the fires.
Not surprisingly, the wildfire tab is growing.
The state has exceeded projected fire-suppression costs in seven of the last 10 years. In 2018, California spent nearly $1 billion on fire suppression and emergency response, far exceeding the budgeted $450 million.
Cal Fire boasts one of the largest firefighting air fleets in the world, including S-2T air tankers and Huey helicopters. The state plans to upgrade the Hueys to Black Hawks and add C-130 Hercules cargo planes.
And rather than waiting to respond to a wildfire, emergency personnel have shifted to pre-positioning strike teams before a fire starts. It’s a strategy that costs more.
Seven of the 10 most destructive wildfires in California have occurred in the last five years. The financial toll for homeowners, renters and businesses in the past two fire seasons has topped $10 billion in insured losses each year.
The California Department of Insurance has reported claims from major wildfire seasons going back to 2007. The claims include damages reported to residential and commercial properties as well as auto and other lines of insurance. The figures don’t tell the whole story. We know many wildfire victims lived in high-threat areas without insurance.
The utilities debacle
PG&E filed for Chapter 11 reorganization in U.S. Bankruptcy Court on Jan. 29, 2019.
The utility, which provides natural gas and electricity to 16 million people in Northern and Central California, cited up to $30 billion in liabilities since many recent blazes have been linked to its equipment. Legal experts say it could take up to three years to rehabilitate PG&E, a process that could leave energy goals hampered and wildfire victims shortchanged. Even before PG&E’s bankruptcy, there was debate about who bears the costs as wildfires become more frequent and destructive.
Investor-owned utilities must now prepare wildfire mitigation plans that describe what they are doing to prevent, combat and respond to wildfires. The three largest utilities, Pacific Gas & Electric, Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric, plan to spend millions clearing brush and trees away from transmission lines, insulate or install underground power lines and install or maintain a network of remote cameras and weather stations to detect wind, smoke and other dangers.
In March, Gov. Newsom declared a wildfire state of emergency for California and waived environmental regulations to speed up forest management projects aimed at reducing the fuel load for the upcoming wildfire season. By removing dead trees or clearing brush, the programs aim to reduce the threat of wildfires by creating fuel breaks, defensible space and safe travel corridors around vulnerable communities.
Some environmental groups, however, question whether logging would damage ecosystems and suggest it’s more effective to clear vegetation around homes.
There are, however, some places where the risk is so great that fire scientists say homes simply should not be built there—even in a state where housing shortages have reached crisis levels. In California from 1990 to 2010, an estimated 45 percent of new housing units were constructed in the “wildland-urban interface”—where suburbia and rural towns back up onto wild, and combustible, landscapes. With more residences sprouting on the edge of wildlands or deep in narrow canyons, fires become an inevitability and firefighters have a tougher and larger territory to defend.
What to do? State lawmakers have already extended some state restrictions to local lands, and some have talked about possible rebates or other subsidies for residents who cannot afford to “harden” their homes. But essentially legislators are grappling with an unpalatable reality: Require even more extensive and expensive upgrades to existing homes, or ban building altogether in some areas. That discussion is as potentially explosive as the fires themselves.
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Marin Civil Grand Jury’s wildfire report smokes out the county’s inadequate preparations for a mega wild-fire.
“We are living in a powder keg,” wrote the Marin County Civil Grand Jury in its late April report on the state of wildfire preparedness in Marin County. Strong words indeed—but that was just the beginning, as the jury issued a blistering 37-page critique of county fire preparation efforts and concluded with a recommendation that the county create a new public authority devoted to pre-ignition fire suppression efforts.
The grand jury’s last wildfire report, in 2013, was far less draconian in its sweep and indictment of the county—but the basic issues from 2013 remain the same: Inadequate vegetation removal efforts; poor evacuation planning; poor communication between agencies; and not much in the way of education-outreach when it comes to informing the public of the wildfire risks. And that’s not all.
“Marin County has been warned repeatedly that it stands one spark away from a major conflagration,” the citizens’ panel concluded, “but many of the county’s governments continue to conduct business as usual. Uncoordinated pre-ignition planning, jurisdictional rivalries, and a glacial pace for implementation of improvements has left the public in grave danger.”
Other facets of life in Marin County—including the eye-popping cost of living—have also played a role in making the county exceedingly vulnerable to a “mega-wildfire” such as those that broke out in Sonoma and Napa counties in 2017 and in Butte County last year. The grand jury noted that most of the first responders who work in the town of Paradise, also lived in the town of Paradise. They found that in 2011, between 20 and 30 percent of first responders live in Marin County. “That number is likely to be even lower now,” given the rapid spike in Marin’s cost of living over that time, they report.
The grand jury’s latest wildfire report also signals a shift away from one especially controversial recommendation the body made in 2013, when it encouraged the county to go along with a Marin Municipal Water District plan to use glyphosate-based poisons to eradicate invasive plants that are a known fuel for wildfires.
That recommendation was not adopted and the county and numerous towns within the county have enacted bans on the cancer-causing herbicide (Gov. Gavin Newsom has called for a statewide ban).
Now the grand jury is calling for a special vegetation-removal cadre of firefighters to beat back Scotch broom and other fire-friendly vegetation using manual means. The county’s already taken up that recommendation in response to a report that pulled no punches in fingering civic leaders for largely dropping the ball on pre-ignition suppression efforts.
One especially pointed observation from the civilian-led grand jury stands out: “In some cases, local government does not trust the public,” the jurors wrote. “It ‘spins’ information to avoid an adverse public response. Government officials and first responders would like the public to believe that all evacuation routes have been cleared of roadside vegetation, all designated access and egress roads are accessible and passable, and that traffic congestion can be handled by police officers who will be in place at critical intersections. The public would be mistaken to believe this.”
Moreover, state fire-hazard maps are useless and outdated, they write—they haven’t been updated since 2007, and given the advent of fast-moving wildfires, ember showers and fire tornadoes, the civil grand jury’s concluded that the entire county is at high risk of catastrophic fire, regardless of what the state maps say. There are 69,000 homes in Marin’s so-called “wildland-urban interface” which comprises some 60,000 acres. The residences in these areas are worth an estimated $59 billion, according to estimates from the Marin County Fire Department. But the report also notes that the wildland-urban interface designation doesn’t mean much when considering that Coffey Park, in Santa Rosa, was not in the Sonoma County’s urban-rural and burned to the ground in 2017.
Public buy-in to emergency alerts (Marin residents are coming in at a pokey 35 percent participation in early-warning sign-ups) and fire-management and evacuation plans is critical, the grand jurors conclude. Treating the public as an impediment and not an asset is dangerously short-sighted thinking, they charge, especially in the era of the unpredictable mega-fire: “Withholding information prevents people from planning ahead for their own evacuation or improvising as circumstances change. It is precisely the unpredictability of wildfire that makes it essential that all possible escape routes be known well in advance.” That same public may now be asked to OK a local quarter-cent hike in Marin’s sales tax to fund a new fire czar, whose role would be to coordinate fire prevention efforts among the dozen-odd fire departments that service the county.
In making its provocative “powder keg” observation, the grand jury highlighted the topographic challenges in the county as a key driver behind their draconian call to action.
The geography is varied and most of the county is open space, it notes, “much of which has become dangerously overgrown.” This includes the vast sections of West Marin that are under the jurisdiction of the state and federal government (they contract with the Marin County Fire Department to provide fire service to the unincorporated parts of the county).
They’re not alone, as just about every other public agency and organization under the Marin sun gets smoked out in this report for failing to heed the crisis: “Despite the laudable efforts of Marin’s fire chiefs to create a bold new approach to pre-ignition and pre-suppression issues, other entities such as city councils, transportation agencies, environmental groups, regional and urban planners, and land-use activists are not addressing the wildfire risks that climate change has brought to our daily lives.” (Environmental groups are singled out for opposing vegetation removal and controlled burns.)
The grand jury report is currently under review by numerous agencies and entities in Marin County—from the Inverness Fire District to the Transportation Authority of Marin—and their required-by-law responses to the report are due in July.
“We’re developing a draft response that we’re going to take to our June board meeting, says TAM deputy executive director Dan Cherrier.
The agency’s going to push back on the grand jury report, he says. The report singles out TAM for its failure to jump on to evacuation planning efforts. “Emergency evacuation is not covered under the code that created TAM,” he says—not to mention that the authority doesn’t have any policing powers to enforce an evacuation plan. “We don’t have the mission nor the funds to worry about emergency evacuation,” he adds, noting that it falls under the sheriff’s office and county emergency-services office to come up with safe evacuation plans for the county. He also notes that TAM’s voter-approved spending plan from Nov. 2018 didn’t enhance evacuation buy-in and “was not something that the voters tasked us with.”
“They’re trying to do their role, too, he says of the grand jury’s effort, Cherrier adds. “We’re not saying that they are wrong,” he says—just that it’s not TAM’s job to provide for a safe evacuation route. —Tom Gogola