Monday Morning Thoughts: What Happens When It Comes Here?

Yesterday I had a terrifying reminder of just how vulnerable we actually are.  As I drove over the Mace overpass, Davis blanketed by cool smoke and noxious ash, I suddenly saw to the east, not far away, a new and fresh column of smoke rising into the air.  Then I saw flames.  It was close, seemingly to the west of the levee at the Yolo Basin and it appeared to have been a backburn, but it was a reminder – there is not much standing in the way of disaster should the next fire come our way.

The next major fire could be here.  We saw what happened last fall in Napa, we saw recently at Berryessa, and we are seeing it now with a number of simultaneous fires, the worst devastating residential neighborhoods in Redding.

Are we ready if – no, make that when – it comes here?  One of the enduring memories from my childhood, 1985, I remember the Fourth of July that year, watching flames at the end of the street in the far off distance.  A week or so later, we would get the call, evacuation and heading off to friends near the cooler and less smoky coast.  That night we watched flames on the ridge burn, not far from our house.

There was burnt brush at the top of our street when we returned and burnt brush at the bottom of our street.  But no residential houses burned.  It was miraculous in a way.

That was 1985.  Things seem so much worse now, and I wonder if our home would have survived had it been now as opposed to then.

It’s not even late summer/early fall yet.  And we are already overwhelmed.

The editorial today in the Bee paints the picture: “As we face yet another summer of towering firestorms and overmatched first responders, it is becoming clear that we must radically improve emergency preparation in California. Summer has been a death march and July isn’t even done.”

Overmatched is a good word.  That was the sense last fall in Napa.  That is the sense this Thursday in Redding.  The firefighters – brave and hardworking – were overmatched and overwhelmed.

Writes the Bee, “On Thursday evening, the wind-driven Carr Fire rushed into residential neighborhoods in Redding, bringing a one-two punch of thick smoke and unpredictable ‘firenados’ that overwhelmed firefighters. At least two people were killed trying to beat back the blaze and, within hours, dozens of homes had burned to the ground.”

“There was literally a wall of flames coming into the city,” California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection Battalion Chief Jonathan Cox said Friday.

For so long, the specter of climate change was a looming nightmare.  We debated it.  It was a political football.  We have our arguments for and against.  The debate is over.  The only question now is what we do.

The Bee writes: “This is climate change, for real and in real time.”

The Bee continues: “Still, it is sobering to witness how swiftly scientists’ worst predictions have come true, from the lethal heat wave gripping Japan to the record temperatures in Europe to the flames exploding near the Arctic Circle.”

Fire has always been a threat in California.  But it’s worse now.

As the Bee notes: “Many in Redding, for example, weren’t ready for a wildfire capable of creating its own weather system in their neighborhoods. They thought flames could never jump the Sacramento River and get into the city, in large part, because it’s never happened.”

They continue: “But old rules no longer apply. Now everyone in California needs a plan to escape a natural disaster, and cities in fire zones especially need better emergency notification systems, better public education and better evacuation routes.”

There will be those who will continue the old debates on climate change.  But why?  The real question is how can we protect our homes, our community and our lives from the inevitability of the next firestorm?

Our council, in addition to passing ordinances limiting the use of straws, lowering the GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions, and making for better sustainability, have to plan what happens if a 50-foot-high wall of flames heads eastward from the west toward the neighborhoods on the west side of Davis or what happens if the wind shifts and a fire near the basin turns westward and heads our way and threatens the east side?

How do we get out of town?  Do we have enough protection?  Will we be the next town that is devastated by fires coming through in the middle of the night with little or no warning?

Those who lived in Santa Rosa faced that reality last October.  Residents barely had enough time to jump into their cars.  Some didn’t even make that.

The Bee paints a devastating picture of what happened next – damaged cell towers, and a system tied to landline phones which residents no longer have.  The result was not only chaos, but disaster: “bumper-to-bumper traffic, unwieldy lines at gas stations and, tragically, people who never made it out alive.”

The Bee notes: “In Redding, many residents reported getting robocalls and text messages on their cellphones, telling them to evacuate. The result was better, but still chaotic. Police swarmed neighborhoods, running door to door. Again, there was bumper-to-bumper traffic, as residents who underestimated the wildfire’s reach waited to leave.”

We have one advantage here in Davis – we have time to plan because, unfortunately, we saw what happened in Santa Rosa and Redding before us.

The next fire will be something along lines which we have never seen before.  We probably can’t prevent it at this point, we can only make plans to survive it.

—David M. Greenwald reporting


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David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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59 thoughts on “Monday Morning Thoughts: What Happens When It Comes Here?”

  1. Don Shor

    Our council in addition to passing ordinances limiting the use of straws, lowering the GHG emissions, and making for better sustainability, have to plan what happens is a 50 foot high wall of flames heads eastward from west Davis towards the neighborhoods on the west side of town or what happens if the wind shifts and a fire near the basin turns and heads our way and threatens the east?

    This is ridiculous. We are surrounded by irrigated farms.

    1. Keith O

      I agree, most of this article is ridiculous.  Are we going to call the slim chance of Davis burning a “crisis” too?  This is all just another example of climate change hype.

      1. David Greenwald Post author

        Seemed pretty dry to me, but what do I know. They were concerned enough yesterday that they lit a back burn along the levy.

    2. Mark West

      “We are surrounded by irrigated farms.”

      Geography is your friend…

      The horrendous fires we have seen of late have occurred in hilly woodland terrain with decades of a build-up of fallen branches and dead trees due to the disruption of the natural fire cycle typical of the west. They didn’t happen on the valley floor where the predominant vegetation is irrigated row crops and well-tended orchards. It was not that long ago that fires similar to the one yesterday occurred throughout the region as farmers burned off their rice stubble as part of their normal agricultural practices. No cities were lost in that process.

      “Our council…have to plan what happens if a 50 foot high wall of flames”

      This is a great example of why the City should not allow residents’ irrational and/or uninformed fears to dictate, or even influence our policies.

  2. Alan Miller

    > Are we ready if – no, make that when – it comes here?

    Make that BIG IF.  Earthquake in the Bay Area, when.  Wildfire in Davis – NOT SO MUCH.

      1. Keith O

        Yeah, like we’ve never had big fast moving fires before the climate change hype?

        Part of the problem as we’re hearing about in the Merced Grove area is that we haven’t had a fire in a long time and if that area was to ignite the fire would be much worse because of all the undergrowth and droppings.

         

  3. Alan Miller

    > We have one advantage here in Davis – we have time to plan

    We also have multiple escape routes in every direction. (Except for the The Cannery and Olive Drive, which are doomed)

     

  4. Alan Miller

    The next fire will be something along lines which we have never seen before.  We probably can’t prevent it at this point, we can only make plans to survive it.

    “Sharknado Firestorm” by David Greenwald.  Coming soon to a Blockbuster store near you.  Rated BS.

  5. Jim Hoch

    I was on the way to the Farmer’s market yesterday and saw the fire before the FD got there. There was a pile of mulch or something burning just to the north of the 80 and west of Legacy.

  6. Howard P

    Scenarios more likely to occur… Folsom Dam looks like it might breach/collapse, 100,000’s of Sacramento City/County evacuees… where do they get shelter, food, water?  Davis and Woodland… maybe Elk Grove… this scenario was actually evaluated as a real table-top exercise with dozens of senior City staff across all departments… also, previous exercises have included overturning of a chlorine tanker @ the ‘wye’, resulting in a major spill of toxic fumes near downtown at mid-day (or, at night)

    The City does EO (emergency operation) planning… former Fire Chief Conroy, and many others spear-headed these ‘drills’… a lot of role-playing, but with real thought… then it is critiqued.  One of the on-going efforts the City does “behind the scenes”… no knowledge nor interest from  the public, including “investigative reporters”.  I’ve been involved in at least half a dozen of those, either in the ‘command center’ or in the satellite centers…

    EO planning has been taking place in Davis for many years… based on low risk, higher possibility scenarios.

    Perhaps today’s story was actually authored by Chicken Little, as told to David G…

    Prepare for the worst, expect the best… but don’t cry ‘wolf’…

    1. Howard P

      Oh… those drills were based on scenarios that were not disclosed to the participants, until the beginning of the exercise… done in “real time”, and often with emerging complications to the drill…

  7. Ron

    Significant wildfires spreading into Davis seems remote.  History should provide a guide, regarding the risk.  (For example, a large fire had previously burned the same area about 50 years ago, in Santa Rosa. Seems highly likely that this will occur again, after they finish rebuilding in the same area.)

    I have seen plenty of articles which indicate that our climate is changing, along with the frequency and intensity of wildfires.  (While simultaneously allowing developments, including tract developments, to spread further into fire-prone areas).

    Our policies encourage this.  For example, we all pay the enormous costs to fight wildfires, to protect lives and property in fire-prone areas.  Since PG&E might be responsible for the costs associated with the Santa Rosa fire last year (which could exceed $1 billion dollars), it is attempting to either shift costs onto all ratepayers, and/or to have the law changed to limit responsibility.  (Lots of articles regarding this, including the one below.)

    https://www.sfchronicle.com/bayarea/article/PG-E-could-pay-dearly-if-its-wires-caused-fires-12315908.php

    Not sure how insurance companies attempt to cover their losses in fire prone areas (e.g., whether or not those costs are “spread out” to others, who live in safer locations).

    If those taking such risks had to shoulder the full costs, it’s not likely that such developments would occur.  This applies to building in flood zones, as well.

  8. Jeff M

    First of all… California has always had a lot of fires.

    Second… California has had droughts before… and lots of hot windy days.

    Third… California has 40 million people.

    Forth… California has a bunch of extreme environmentalists that prevent clearing of trees and brush.

    Fifth… California has 40 million people.

    Maybe California has too many people and too many extreme environmentalists?

    1. David Greenwald

      “California has always had a lot of fires”

      SF Chronicle on July 10: “The wildfires that torched Californiain 2017 caused historic levels of death and destruction, but the fierce start to the season in 2018 indicates this year could be equally challenging for overworked crews. Last year the federal government spent over $2.39 billion on firefighting, easily outpacing all previous fire seasons.”

      But hey, nothing to worry about, California has always had a lot of fires.

      1. Howard P

        California’s (recorded) history barely goes back 300 years… one of the stupid things we did in the 20th century was to try to eliminate processes (by aggressive fire-fighting in mainly un-populated areas)… that have gone on for 100’s of thousands years (or more!).  Which resulted in increased insect damage to forests, increased fuel that never got burned (resulting in increased intensity of fires that still occurred), etc.

        What someone calls “GHG sequestration”, another calls dangerous fuel.

        How much GHG and PM 10’s have been released by these fires?  Compared to all other CA sources?

        1. Mark West

          “one of the stupid things we did in the 20th century was to try to eliminate processes (by aggressive fire-fighting in mainly un-populated areas)…”

          Or as my Forestry Professor put it in 1977, ‘Smokey the Bear’ has caused more catastrophic fires in the last 50 years than have ever been seen in the history of the region.

           

          1. Don Shor

            Dr. Delwiche? And he also finished the quarter by showing us how to use a chain saw. Dressed in a tuxedo (him, not the chain saw).

        2. Howard P

          Ahhhh… memory lane… I too had Prof. Delwiche (Charles?)… missed the chain saw part… one of my favorite classes/professors… he worked closely with the Forestry dept. @ UCB, as I recall, and was an early advocate of selective harvesting of the forests (not ‘preservation’, nor clear-cutting) and of controlled, pre-emptive, burns… seem to recall him saying that the tribes in the Yosemite area (think it was Tuolumne meadows), would set fire to emerging brush, trees, as the snows melted, to keep the area open to attract and hunt deer (grasses were not emergent yet…  This was ~1972-73 when I took that class…

          Yeah, wasn’t sure where I’d gravitate as a profession, so took courses in Forestry, and Range Management, before I settled on engineering…

        3. Mark West

          “Dr. Delwiche?”

          I knew the family growing up, but I didn’t attend UCD so I never had him as a professor. Besides, I already knew how to operate a chainsaw by the time I stepped on campus.

      2. Jeff M

        California has always had a lot of fires, but not so many people where the fires would rage.

        The Santa Rosa fire was caused by PG&E lines in trees.  The fire next to it was caused by a homeless camp.

        The Steele fire around Redding was caused by a car malfunction.

        I believe the majority of big fires over the last several years of global warming hysteria have been started by humans.

        And without all the people building next to places where the environmentalists demand that the land stay natural habitat, there would be less costly firefighting.

        But, I guess I don’t understand your point.  What do you suggest be done?

        1. Alan Miller

          And without all the people building next to places where the environmentalists demand that the land stay natural habitat, there would be less costly firefighting.

          Not sure here your point.  The problem is people building next to natural habitat, or the natural habitat?

        2. Jeff M

          Cause of the fire is not significant. The severity of the fire is.

          The problem is people building next to natural habitat, or the natural habitat?

          We used to have a lot more smaller fires in California… fires that would burn out quicker and burn less hot because previous fires and logging practices had thinned the fuel material.

          Today we have a lot more protections and restrictions of designated natural habitat and we also put out all the small fires.  So that results in more fuel when there is a fire and it burns hotter and faster.

          And if we did NOT have people living in and next to all this over-grown natural habitat, the fire-fighting process would be easier… in being able to set more long-range back fires.

          Mostly agree with this article… http://www.latimes.com/local/california/la-me-fire-perspectives-20171022-story.html

        3. Alan Miller

          OK, Frankly, thanks, clarified.

          Yet, we’ve known this for decades and many environmentalists now agree, so why haven’t the management policies changed?  (haven’t read the link yet)

          As for people living in — well, they build right ON earthquake faults in the Bay Area and L.A., so building in a fire zone seems rather tame in comparing stupidities.

          1. Don Shor

            Yet, we’ve known this for decades and many environmentalists now agree, so why haven’t the management policies changed?

            What makes you assume they haven’t?

        4. Howard P

          David (and several others)… you really don’t understand the parameters of wild fires, it appears…

          Available fuel… drought weakens trees and makes them more stressed for insect attack, which can leave large stands of dead/severely weakened trees… aka fuel… droughts have been endemic… not unique to “climate change”…

          Again on fuel… early rains that spur grass and brush growth, which then dries out in the normal CA climate, is the “tinder” that starts the fires when there is an ignition source… natural or man-made (but, the species homo sapiens, is actually, “natural”, right?)

          Stuff happens… Santa Ana winds are not a Climate Change phenomena… lightning strikes are “natural”and have seen no correlation between those and “climate change”… fires can create their own local “weather”, particularly local wind speeds… that’s how fireplaces and chimneys work…

          Accessibility… the worst fires break out in terrain that is not suitable for fire-fighting… the greatest tragedies occurred (are occurring) in terrain that was not person nor equipment friendly…

          Look at total sq miles of wildfires in any given year, and compare that to sq miles of CA!

           

        5. Mark West

          “What makes you assume they haven’t?”

          Fire management policies did change a few years back, allowing naturally occurring (lightning) fires to burn themselves out…at least that was the plan. Then the public had a ‘hissy-fit’ when the first major fire threatened something desirable. This is a situation where doing the ‘right’ thing is painful and the combination of an uninformed/uneducated public and our invertebrate politicians leads to bad policy.

    2. Ron

      Jeff:  “Maybe California has too many people and too many extreme environmentalists?”

      You’re “half-right”.  But, I suspect that we disagree, regarding which half.

      1. Howard P

        Extreme environmentalists are directly responsible for much of the current wildfire threat.  No clearing of fuel from forests, or urban settings, because it provides habitat, for one example.

        Wildfires can be seen (particularly if initiated by a lightning strike) as a natural process…

        1. Ron

          I have not seen any “extreme environmentalists” who oppose creating defensible space around property.  The folks you’re referring to might not be “environmentalists”, at all.

          Environmentalists generally support allowing periodic (lower-intensity) fires to clear out brush, as has been occurring for thousands (if not millions) of years.  A natural process, as you point out. (However, even this process becomes more complicated and costly to manage/control, as more folks move into fire-prone areas.)

        2. Ron

          In fact, “environmentalists” have been leading the way for years, regarding the use of fire to ensure the health of forests and reduce risks.  Also, some plants depend upon fire, to regenerate.

          Here’s a couple of articles that I just found:

          “Studies going back decades have shown that climate change has led to warmer, drier conditions that are exacerbating the natural drying trends that typically lead to normal, seasonal fires. These drier, hotter conditions have arrived after years of forest mismanagement policies that emphasized fire suppression over preserving the ecological benefits of fire to a healthy forest ecosystem.”

          https://www.sierraclub.org/sierra/california-s-wildfires-point-new-normal

          “Fire is a natural, integral, and valuable component of many ecosystems. Fire management must be a part of the management of public lands. Areas managed for their natural values often benefit from recurring wildfires and may be harmed by a policy of fire suppression. Long-term suppression of small wildfires may build up conditions making occasional catastrophic conflagrations inevitable.”

          https://www.sierraclub.org/policy/fire-management-public-lands

          Of course, this all becomes more complicated and costly for all of us as more development occurs in fire-prone areas, including areas adjacent to public lands, and on private property where fires are not managed/allowed to periodically burn.

           

    3. Alan Miller

      Forth… California has a bunch of extreme environmentalists that prevent clearing of trees and brush.

      After reading this article I hired a bulldozer crew and had them clear a 100′ defensible space around my house.  My neighbors are really p*ssed at me for the loss of their homes.

      1. John Hobbs

        “My neighbors are really p*ssed at me for the loss of their homes.”

        Typical NIMBYs.

        Whether David is being overly dramatic or not, fire is a terrible foe. A late summer lightning strike wiped out my family’s logging business and made us paupers in a single night. We literally had to sell the boat we escaped on to rent a house and buy groceries.

        I have participated in the drills Howard mentions. One from around 2009 involved a chemical spill from a rail car, as I recall.

  9. Don Shor

    In Davis we are at risk from grass fires in nearby fields burning up to the edges of neighborhoods. But the wildfires that are occurring in the state are in areas of Wildland Urban Interface, and we don’t have that here. Our only wild area is riparian which means water is flowing through it. The rest is farms and the change in cropping patterns has actually reduced our fire risk.

    In fact, we are at less risk of wildfire than we were when I moved here, because so much of the row crop land has gone over to orchards. “Controlled burn out of control” was a regular feature in the fire/police reports in the 1970’s and 1980’s. Grass crops were burned off after harvest, which isn’t done any more. Orchards don’t burn.

    So overall in Davis we are at less risk of fire than we were a couple of decades ago.

    The fires you are seeing that are so impressive are in areas where brush grew heavily due to high rainfall, and then has become quite combustible due to higher summer temperatures last summer and, to a lesser extent, this year. We don’t have extensive wild brushy areas. We don’t have the types of plant communities that burn the way you’re seeing on the news. We have orchards and irrigated farm fields that get disced under after harvest.

    Winters and Vacaville should have evacuation plans for their western-most residents and those in outlying areas uphill. Davis does not need that. In Davis, we are also at less risk from flooding than most of our surrounding communities. When the flood happens, we’ll be hosting families from the east. Unless, of course, you’re talking about an 1861-62 style mega-flood, which would completely overwhelm the whole region.

    This is unnecessary alarmism.

  10. Ron

    If anyone wants to witness how nature can recover from a wildfire, look no further than UCD’s Stebbins Cold Canyon reserve (and the adjacent BLM lands).  (No, I’m not referring to “Black Lives Matter”, here.) There is an outstanding (but challenging) loop trail, through these lands.  One of my favorite hikes, anywhere.  The views of Lake Berryessa are outstanding, as are the wildflowers at times.

    As a side note, Tuleyome was recently involved in the purchase of an adjacent piece of land, which expanded the opportunity to hike further (and access additional viewpoints).

    I’ve been hiking this area (probably an average of once/month), for the past 15 years or so. During that time, it seems to have become much more popular (including/perhaps primarily folks who appear to be UCD students). Most of these folks (including myself) appear to be quite happy, out enjoying the exercise and scenery.

    Here’s a related NY Times article, regarding the recent fire and recovery in this area:

    https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/25/travel/berryessa-snow-mountain-california-national-monument.html

     

     

    1. Ron

      Actually, the article focuses more on the new National Monument status, but it does discuss the rebirth on the trail through Stebbins Cold Canyon, after the fire.

      P.S. – Despite its name, it’s anything but “cold”, this time of year. (Not too bad on the shaded lower part, though.)

  11. Jim Hoch

    The effect of the PGE settlement, if it happens, will be to raise the cost of being on the grid in the boondocks. They talk about turning off the grid when the wind goes above a breeze but then they will be sued by people who use oxygen generators etc. The alternative, hardening or burying powerlines, will be very expensive and undoubtedly they will tell us we are one unified state and all the people in towns should pay for this.

    The alternative is to disconnect rural houses from the grid entirely and move to local generation for a very large number of people. This will present a challenge for internet providers as they use the same poles though perhaps 5G will help there.

    1. Ron

      Jim:  “The effect of the PGE settlement, if it happens, will be to raise the cost of being on the grid in the boondocks.”

      This seems to contradict, with how rates are set.  (There’s no difference in rates between geographic areas, which means that someone in an urban area pays the same as someone living in the country.)  It also means that all of PG&E’s customers will pay for PG&E’s liability costs (if the CPUC allows such costs to be past on to ratepayers), associated with the Santa Rosa area (and other) fires.

      From link below: “All customers across PG&E’s service area pay the same rate in each tier.”

      https://www.pge.com/en_US/residential/rate-plans/how-rates-work/learn-how-rates-are-set/learn-how-rates-are-set.page

      I realize that there may be differing costs to connect new dwellings to the grid (in different geographic areas), depending upon various factors. Not sure how that’s determined.

      1. Howard P

         I realize that there may be differing costs to connect new dwellings to the grid (in different geographic areas), depending upon various factors. Not sure how that’s determined.

        By the provider… usually, PG&E[edited]

        1. Ron

          Of course, Howard.  But, that’s not what I was referring to.  I was acknowledging that connection fees might be higher for rural residents.  Theoretically, those might also be impacted, e.g., if safety requirements are strengthened in such areas. In that case, Jim’s point would be more applicable.

          In any case, here’s another article regarding the challenges that PG&E (and other utilities) are facing:

          https://www.sfchronicle.com/business/article/Fight-over-PG-E-s-liability-in-Wine-Country-12981642.php

          Just saw Keith’s response. Yeap, it’s definitely and repeatedly irritating (but not unexpected, at this point). 🙂

      2. Jim Hoch

        If they need to build new connections to existing dwellings that will cost someone a lot. Building or burying to isolated residences will not be done for nothing.

        1. Ron

          Got it.  You’re referring to improving safety, on existing lines.  Yeah, hadn’t thought about that.  Is there a call/effort to significantly improve safety, as well?

          It will be interesting to see what happens, with all of the issues (e.g., liability, safety, etc.). It may be that some customers will “cut the cord”, as you noted. (Thereby dumping even more costs, on remaining customers.)

          Somebody’s going to pay!

          By the way, I wonder if there will be a subsequent increase in fires started by those “off-the-grid”.

           

  12. James R

    David, thanks for this article. I think you catch too much unwarranted flack from commenters at times, but even if folks above DID want to nitpick the likelihood of Davis burning to the ground (and maybe the friction when Measure R/J comes up again will be just enough tinder to ignite that firestorm), disaster preparedness is NEVER something to take lightly.

    1. Howard P

      Agree, James… yet disaster preparedness has been going on for many years… most folks just haven’t paid attention… nothing new under the sun…

  13. Ron

    California has become an overcrowded, underfunded, and unmitigated disaster zone.  (I keep waiting for others to realize this, and leave.)  Just kidding, as I know I could just look in the mirror.  (Actually, more are leaving, vs. arriving from other states.)

    And yet, it’s still somehow desirable, in some ways. (Which I tend to forget about, while complaining.)

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