Trial by Fire: California Grappling with Wildfire Threat

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Trial by Fire: California Grappling with Wildfire Threat

Can the Golden State Avert a Third Cataclysmic Fire Season?


This fire season like never before, California firefighters, emergency responders, government officials and utilities are working to reverse the alarming trend of increasing wildfires across the state.

It’s a daunting task. And they face some serious challenges:

        • Badly overgrown and highly combustible forests
        • An electric grid prone to throwing deadly sparks
        • Sprawling development in fire-prone areas, and
        • A warming climate.

Here’s what they’re doing:

Forest Management

Decades of fire suppression has resulted in a dangerous buildup of vegetation in California’s forests, while drought and bug infestation have literally added fuel to the fire.

The following video explains how the wildfire fire suppression policy has caused big problems:

 

The U.S. Forest Service and Cal Fire are working to reduce the unhealthy growth by thinning trees, clearing brush and setting more controlled burns on more acres.

Still, the forestry work is a fraction of what needs to be done to seriously contain the fire risk, according to forest experts. Of the 15 million acres of wildlands estimated to need “restoration,” the Forest Service plans to treat about 220,000 acres, while Cal Fire plans to treat about 45,000 acres.

Fire SeasonThe progress is often limited by the difficulty of the work, the cost, access to private property and disagreement about how it should be done.

Gov. Newsom is aware of the many obstacles to effective forest management, but that hasn’t deterred him from promoting a plan to quickly clear an additional 90,000 acres.

“We’re not going to solve the problem (right away),” said Scott Stephens, a professor of fire science at UC Berkeley. “But there’s hope of making a difference in the next two decades.”

Public Safety Power Shutoffs

Pacific Gas & Electric’s shutoffs will likely become more frequent this fire season.  And other utilities may very well follow suit.

In preparation for these power shutoffs, it’s important to have a personal safety plan in place for every member of your household (including pets). Prepareforpowerdown.com recommends the following:

            • Make sure your power company has your current contact information by visiting their website. (Click here for PG&E’s site.)

            • Identify backup charging methods for phones and keep hard copies of emergency numbers.

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Fire Season

 

          • Plan for any medical needs, like medications that need to be refrigerated or medical devices that require power.

          • Build or restock your emergency kit with flashlights, fresh batteries, first aid supplies and cash.

          • Learn how to manually open your garage door.

          • If you own a backup generator, ensure it is ready to safely operate

Emergency Alerts

Fire SeasonUntil recently, California’s emergency warning system has been an uncoordinated hodgepodge. While many counties have subscriber systems (like Nixle), which sheriff’s departments use to send emergency text alerts to local cell phones, others have no type of text alert system in place.

Experts believe the lack of a coordinated warning system contributed to the high death toll in both the 2017 Tubbs Fire, and the 2018 Camp Fire.

But now, all but four of California’s 58 counties have some kind of wireless alert or subscriber system in place. That’s because the California Office of Emergency Services issued guidelines in March for a statewide alerting system that pings every cell phone in a potential disaster area.

“Every fire season is worse than the one before,” said state Sen. Mike McGuire. Which is why the legislature worked quickly to adopt the protocols. “We’ve come a long way,” McGuire added, “but we know there’s more work ahead.” (Click here to download Cal Fire’s mobile app.)

How Cal Fire Prepares for Fire Season

Cal Fire is hiring more firefighters, deploying more equipment and spending more money than ever before.

The agency has already spent more than two-thirds of its $800 million emergency fund for the current fiscal year (ending in October). And it expects to spend at least that much next go-round.

Fire SeasonAccording to Cal Fire spokesman Scott McLean, “The idea is to make the initial attack very effective and to keep fires at 10 acres or less.”

To that end, they’ve been increasing their seasonal staff by about 200 per year, in addition to expanding the ranks of permanent firefighters. Equipment includes 343 fire engines (13 of which are brand new), 23 air tankers, 17 twin-engine spotter planes.

They’ve also purchased 12 new Blackhawk helicopters, each of which can carry 1,000 gallons of water. That’s more than twice as much as the old models.

In addition, Cal Fire thinning crews will be assisted by 110 National Guard troops this fire season. And the U.S. Forest Service has budgeted $100 million more for wildfire suppression this year than it did in 2018. “Cal Fire helps us on our fires, and we help Cal Fire on their fires,” said Tony Scardina, the USFS deputy regional forester.

Building Code Expansion

Fire Season

Both the Camp Fire and the 2017 Tubbs Fire demonstrated how quickly unprotected buildings can fuel a wildfire.

Which is why Cal Fire is working to create a list of home upgrades that it intends to promote. In addition, some California communities have won federal and state grants to bring older homes up to current wildfire safety codes. Meanwhile, state fire officials are expanding that 2008 code. Home construction will now require that garage door gaps and skylights be sealed to keep out embers.

Insurance Carriers Pulling Out?

Increasingly, homeowners in fire-prone areas are having difficulty securing and keeping insurance coverage.

Which leaves them with two options:

  1. The California FAIR Plan,  comprised of companies authorized to sell property insurance within the state. It’s the insurer of last resort for both homeowners and renters.
  2. Surplus lines carriers, such as Lloyd’s of London, which are much less regulated than mainstream carriers.

Last year, the California FAIR Plan sold 25% more policies in brush/wildland areas than it did in 2016.

Policy sales for surplus lines carriers increased even more dramatically: 75% in the first five months of this year alone. The Surplus Line Association of California can’t confirm that the increase in sales is concentrated in wildfire-prone areas. But they’ve been told that mainstream insurers are “pulling back.”

“Every fire season is worse than the one before.” – California State Sen. Mike McGuire

Meanwhile, lawmakers and regulators are taking steps to help wildfire victims via two new state laws:

The first law requires insurance companies to offer at least two policy renewal periods for homeowners who have suffered a total loss in a declared disaster.

The second law requires insurers to renew a policy for any residence located within or adjacent to a wildfire perimeter for one year after the declared disaster.


Sources:

San Francisco Chronicle

Prepareforpowerdown.com

Government Technology

California FAIR Plan