How California’s most destructive wildfire spread, hour by hour 

THE NEW YORK TIMES

An analysis by The New York Times of satellite images, combined with on-the-ground surveys, provides a more complete picture of the origin, spread and devastation of the fire that killed at least 22 people in and around the city.

The Tubbs fire destroyed at least 5,200 homes and structures, shown on the map below, making it the most destructive wildfire in state history, as well as one of the deadliest. The Times analysis also shows how quickly the fire spread in the crucial initial hours.

Read more at: How California’s Most Destructive Wildfire Spread, Hour by Hour – The New York Times

Filed under Climate Change & Energy, Forests, Land Use

The push to reclaim starry skies

Mike McPhate, THE NEW YORK TIMES

Dark sky groups recommend “warmer” LED bulbs with an amber glow. They also push the use of dimmers, motion sensors and timers wherever they make sense.

Astronomers have preached the virtues of dark skies for years. Modern cities, they say, use way more artificial light in the evenings than necessary, much of it emanating into the sky where it does no good. So-called light pollution erases our view of stars and, to a degree, the wonder they bring at our place in the cosmos. It’s estimated that a third of the world’s population can’t see the Milky Way.

So how bad is the light pollution in California?

“It’s pretty bad,” said Sriram Murali, a Bay Area photographer who is making a film about astronomy and light pollution. “It’s not as bad as the East Coast, but definitely not as good as it is in the Midwest and Southwest.”

That’s been changing in the last five or so years, he added. A number of cities across California — from Davis to San Diego — have taken measures designed enhance the night sky.

By the end of this year, San Francisco is expected to finish converting roughly 18,500 of its sodium high-pressured streetlights to dark sky-compliant LED bulbs.

Read more at: California Today: The Push to Reclaim Starry Skies – The New York Times

Filed under Sustainable Living

In Sonoma County toxic debris removal, officials in a race against rains

Christi Warren, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Don McEnhill, Russian Riverkeeper: “I am very concerned, but there’s only so much you can do. You cannot prevent 100 percent of the toxins and things from going in (the watershed), but I feel like with the meetings that have been held this week, people have been very proactive about threats to the watershed, and that does give me hope that we’re going to do everything we possibly can before we have the rains come in.”

With ash now blanketing much of Sonoma County, environmentalists are turning their efforts to debris removal in a race against the oncoming rainy season. Their primary concern: protecting the watershed from toxic runoff.

As the fire roared through Santa Rosa, car batteries, insulation, couches, industrial facilities, carpets, plastics — all things that shouldn’t burn — did.

In response, Cal Fire officials created the Watershed Emergency Response Team. A coalition of state and federal agencies, as well as local environmental nonprofits, it’s dedicated to keeping as much debris as possible out of the county’s waterways.

Their next step will be to evaluate the fire areas and identify which of those are at the most risk for watershed emergencies, prioritizing debris removal and runoff mitigation that way, said Johnny Miller, a public information officer for Cal Fire.

Once identified, sandbags, barriers and straw wattles will be placed to protect against any erosion that could result from winter rains. While Sonoma County is expected to get rain tonight and Friday morning, the .25 inches that could fall is not enough to cause officials much concern.

This winter could be another story. With the North Bay facing a La Niña, it’s hard to tell just how much rain might fall, said Steve Anderson, a forecaster with the National Weather Service.

“Typically that means wetter than normal in the Pacific Northwest and dry in the desert Southwest,” he said.

But in the North Bay, “There are equal chances of above and below normal. … We’ll just have to see what kind of weather patterns set up.”

Read more at: In Sonoma County toxic debris removal, officials in a race against rains | The Press Democrat –

Filed under Water

Wildfire smoke continues to hurt air quality in Napa, Bay Area

Maria Sestito, NAPA VALLEY REGISTER

To check on local air quality, go to the EPA’s AirNow site: https://www.airnow.gov/

The fires in Napa County are mostly contained, but that doesn’t mean residents can put their respirators away just yet. Smoke from wildfires across the Bay Area – including Napa, Sonoma and Solano counties – are continuing to contaminate the air, making it harmful to even breathe.

The Bay Area Air Quality Management District issued a health advisory in addition to a Spare the Air alert for Wednesday and Thursday, and says that the conditions may continue for “days to come,” according to a press release.

In the past two weeks, parts of the Bay Area have experienced air quality levels that are historically bad, said Walter Wallace, air district spokesman. Although levels were at times “hazardous,” he said, they’re comparable to a normal day in Beijing, China.

Read more at: Wildfire smoke continues to hurt air quality in Napa, Bay Area | Local News | napavalleyregister.com

Filed under Air

Flying insects have been disappearing over the past few decades, study shows

Ben Guarino, THE WASHINGTON POST

Helping these tiny helpers can take only a small effort, he said. Habitat restoration can be as simple as a garden with plants that flower throughout the year. Unlike mammals, insects don’t require vast tracts of land to be satisfied — a back yard blooming with native flowers will do.

Not long ago, a lengthy drive on a hot day wouldn’t be complete without scraping bug guts off a windshield. But splattered insects have gone the way of the Chevy Nova — you just don’t see them on the road like you used to.

Biologists call this the windshield phenomenon. It’s a symptom, they say, of a vanishing population.

“For those of us who look, I think all of us are disturbed and all of us are seeing fewer insects,” said Scott Black, executive director of the Portland, Ore.-based Xerces Society, a nonprofit environmental group that promotes insect conservation. “On warm summer nights you used to see them around streetlights.”

The windshield phenomenon is not just a trick of Trans Am nostalgia. A small but growing number of scientific studies suggest that insects are on the wane.

“The windscreen phenomenon is probably one of the best illustrative ways to realize we are dealing with a decline in flying insects,” said Caspar Hallmann, an ecologist at Radboud University in the Netherlands. Hallmann is part of a research team that recently waded through 27 years’ worth of insects collected in German nature preserves.

Between 1989 and 2016, according to a report published Wednesday in the journal PLOS One, the biomass of flying insects captured in these regions decreased by a seasonal average of 76 percent.

Read more at: Flying insects have been disappearing over the past few decades, study shows – The Washington Post

Filed under Wildlife

U.S. EPA to oversee toxics cleanup after fires in Sonoma and Napa counties 

Guy Kovner, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Federal and state agencies are already planning post-fire cleanup in seven Northern California counties, including Sonoma, outlining long-term efforts likely to cost hundreds of millions of dollars but performed at no expense to residential property owners, officials said Tuesday.

In Sonoma and Napa counties, where more than 100,000 acres have burned, the chore looms so large the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will manage the first phase, which involves removal of toxic materials from thousands of fire-scorched properties.

That includes batteries, paint, solvents, flammable liquids, electronic waste and any materials that contain asbestos.

“We know people are already back at their homes, wondering what to do next,” said Lance Klug, a spokesman for California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery, known as CalRecycle. The agency typically handles the second phase, involving the removal of non-toxic waste — scraping away ash, concrete, metal and contaminated soil — in fire-affected counties, but CalRecycle’s role in the North Bay cleanup has not been determined, said Klug.

Details on the sprawling two-part cleanup are forthcoming and will be widely publicized, he said.

When that work is completed, homeowners will receive a certificate indicating their property has been cleaned and is eligible for local building permits, he said.

Read more at: U.S. EPA to oversee toxics cleanup after fires in Sonoma and Napa counties | The Press Democrat –

Filed under Sustainable Living

Tubbs fire revives memory of a blaze that now haunts Santa Rosa 

Gaye LeBaron, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Fifty years later, I ask[ed] the readers to pause and consider that it was almost all-open land that the fire burned through on its way to the bulldozered breaks and wind change on the Chanate hill.

Three years ago, I wrote one of those anniversary pieces that columnists love so dearly. It marked 50 years since two devastating wildfires raged through Sonoma County at the same time, threatening both Santa Rosa and the Sonoma Valley.

The Hanly fire and the Nunn’s Canyon fire of late September 1964 were tagged in our files as the most devastating in the county’s history. The column revisited the Hanly fire and was a bit preachy in places, suggesting (as columnists do — relentlessly) that there were lessons that week might have taught us. But didn’t.

It all began early on Sept. 19, a Saturday morning, when a deer hunter dropped a cigarette on a wooded slope below Highway 29 as it winds up Mt. St. Helena from the upper Napa Valley. By 10:15 a.m., flames were seen behind Hanly’s tavern, an old, familiar stopping place on the right side of the narrow road.

The new fire was moving fast down the hill toward Calistoga, growing as it traveled.Through the weekend into the Monday that followed, firefighters and volunteers armed with garden hoses and wet gunnysacks battled to save the up-valley town, holding the damage to about 40 homes on the northeastern edge. When the winds died down on Monday morning, Calistoga gave a collective sigh of relief that echoed over the surrounding hills and valleys.

All too soon.

On Monday night, the winds returned and the fire moved west with breathtaking speed. It created its own wind as it moved at 40 mph along Porter Creek and Mark West Springs roads into Sonoma County, burning homes along Mark West Springs and Riebli roads. It roared across Wikiup and Parker Hill Road, and — within what seemed like minutes — appeared along the ridge of Montecito Heights. Startled Santa Rosans watched from the streets below.

It moved down into Rincon Valley, advanced to Parker Hill and the old Fountaingrove Ranch and headed straight for the County Hospital on Chanate. That’s where a quick-thinking fire marshal from the Santa Rosa department, who was in charge because the chief was out of town, decided he would stop it. Giving the surprising order to delay loading the very sick and very old occupants of the hospital into waiting buses, Mike Turnick commandeered a bulldozer from its operator and, using skills he had learned years before with a lumber company, cut a fire break north of the hospital, stationed fire engines along the length of it and then turned his dozer up Parker Hill and cut another break.

Read more at: Gaye LeBaron: Tubbs fire revives memory of a blaze that now haunts Santa Rosa | The Press Democrat –

Filed under Land Use

El Diablo in Wine Country

Mike Davis, Blog, LONDON REVIEW OF BOOKS

In 1942 Alfred Hitchcock recruited the author of Our Town, Thornton Wilder, to write the screenplay for Shadow of a Doubt, an innocence-versus-evil thriller set in an ‘idyllic American town’. After considering various candidates, Hitchcock and Wilder selected Santa Rosa, a picturesque agricultural community of 13,000 people, 55 miles north of San Francisco in Sonoma County. The following year, Santa Rosa was introduced to millions of filmgoers in a series of establishing shots that began with aerial views of its pretty countryside and ‘all-American’ downtown. Wartime restrictions had precluded set-building and the exterior locations were all real, but it was difficult to believe that sunny Santa Rosa hadn’t been confected by Norman Rockwell on a Hollywood back lot.

Seventy-five years later, we contemplate another aerial view, this time of Santa Rosa’s Coffey Park neighbourhood. The scene, a thousand homes incinerated to their foundations, resembles the apocalypse Kim Jong-un keeps promising to bring to America. Especially shocking to Californians, these were not homes in the combustible foothills or mountains where fire danger traditionally lurks, but on the plain, next to a freeway, schools, fast-food outlets – the kind of landscape where most of us live. Altogether, in one terrible night, Santa Rosa (population 165,000) lost more than 2800 homes and businesses to what is officially known as the Tubbs Fire. But it’s premature to cite losses or add up body counts since, as I write, twenty fires still writhe across the Wine Country, and an army of exhausted firefighters fearfully awaits the return of the Diablo winds.

Although the explosive development of this firestorm complex caught county and municipal officials off guard, fire alarms had been going off for months. Two years ago, at the height of California’s worst drought in five hundred years, the Valley Fire, ignited by faulty wiring in a hot tub, burned 76,000 acres and destroyed 1350 homes in Lake, northern Sonoma, and Napa counties. Last winter’s record precipitation, meanwhile, did not so much bust the drought as prepare its second and more dangerous reincarnation. The spring’s unforgettable profusion of wildflowers and verdant grasses was punctually followed by a scorching summer that culminated in September with pavement-melting temperatures of 41ºC in San Francisco and 43ºC on the coast at Santa Cruz. Luxuriant green vegetation quickly turned into parched brown fire-starter.

Read more at: El Diablo in Wine Country « LRB blog

Filed under Climate Change & Energy, Land Use, Sustainable Living

Fire cause mystery: Winds not ‘hurricane strength’ as PG&E said

Paul Rogers, Lisa M. Krieger and Matthias Gaffni, BAY AREA NEWS GROUP

Investigators are looking at power line failures as a possible cause of the historic fires.

The heavy winds that downed power lines Sunday night at the start of the deadly wildfires raging across Northern California were far from “hurricane strength,” as PG&E has claimed, according to a review of weather station readings.

On Tuesday, the Bay Area News Group reported that Sonoma County emergency dispatchers sent fire crews to at least 10 reports of downed power lines and exploding transformers as the North Bay fires were starting around 9:22 p.m.

In response, PG&E said that “hurricane strength winds in excess of 75 mph in some cases” had damaged their equipment, but they said it was too early to speculate about what started the fires.

However, wind speeds were only about half that level, as the lines started to come down, the weather station records show. At a weather station in north Santa Rosa where the Tubbs fire started, the peak wind gusts at 9:29 p.m. hit 30 mph. An hour later, they were 41 mph.

Similarly, at another weather station east of the city of Napa, on Atlas Peak, where the Atlas fire started, wind gusts at 9:29 p.m. peaked at 32 mph. An hour later they were 30 mph.

Both speeds were substantially under the speed that power lines must be able to withstand winds under state law: at least 56 mph.

Read more at: Fire cause mystery: Winds not ‘hurricane strength’ as PG&E said

Filed under Climate Change & Energy, Sustainable Living

California’s multimillion-dollar pot farms are going up in smoke

Martha C. White, NBC NEWS

Talk about a buzz kill: In addition to charring acres of wine country north of San Francisco, California’s sweeping wildfires are also destroying cannabis farms in and around the state’s Emerald Triangle.

For many producers, the financial losses include not just harvest-ready crops, but recent investments in infrastructure to comply with licensing regulations in preparation for recreational marijuana legalization next year.

“The fires are hitting in an area of California that’s probably the predominant outdoor cultivation site in the country,” said Robert Frichtel, CEO of General Cannabis Corporation. “It has ideal growing conditions — the same reason they grow wine grapes in that region,” he said. “It arguably produces some of the highest-quality cannabis in the country.”

Hezekiah Allen, executive director of the California Growers Association, said it was impossible to know at this point how badly production had been affected, since evacuees from many fire-ravaged areas were not yet being allowed back to their farms.

“The basic reality here is we don’t know. What we know is bad, and it’s going to get a lot worse,” he told NBC News. On Thursday, Allen said he had confirmed that seven growers among his member base had lost their crops, worth between $3 million and $6 million at wholesale; by Friday morning, the number of members with lost crops was up to 21, and the aggressive spread of the fire led him to fear the worst.

Read more at: California’s Multimillion-Dollar Pot Farms Are Going Up in Smoke – NBC News

Filed under Agriculture/Food System