Tag Archives: fire

California’s massive fires reveal our illusion of control over disasters 

Faith Kearns, BAY NATURE

I drove away from the Pepperwood Preserve in the Sonoma County hills on a hot and windy Sunday evening in October feeling hopeful. I’d spent part of the day talking with members of the California Naturalist Program about wildfire-induced emotional trauma in the region. As I arrived home in Berkeley later that evening, however, that peculiar fire weather feeling Joan Didion described as when the “winds show us how close to the edge we are” kicked into overdrive.

Several hours later, I awoke to the overwhelming smell of smoke and the news that people all over the Bay Area were hearing: a number of large fires were running wild through the beautiful place I’d left just the night before.

As the days went on, a horrifying picture emerged. Story after story of sudden and terrifying evacuations appeared. Whole neighborhoods had been awoken in the middle of the night by people—some police and firefighters, but many simply neighbors—banging on doors or honking horns as emergency alert systems lagged.

These reports from citizens are harrowing enough on their own but, as a scientist working on disasters like drought and wildfire in California for over a decade, I’m especially struck by the changing commentary from the emergency response community itself. As an example, Cal Fire Chief Ken Pimlott told the Sacramento Bee that “it’s becoming more the norm now to have multiple damaging fires” at the same time. In the Ventura County Star, Cal Fire Battalion Chief Jonathon Cox said the fire was “unstoppable.” Santa Rosa Fire Chief Tony Gossner noted the pace of alerts and evacuations simply couldn’t keep up with the pace of the fire. These are remarkable statements from top-down, command-and-control institutions.

Read more at: California’s Massive Fires Reveal Our Illusion of Control Over Disasters – Bay Nature

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

By a landslide

Tom Gogola, NORTH BAY BOHEMIAN

Read more at: By a Landslide | News | North Bay Bohemian

Filed under Water

Fire retardant use explodes as worries about water, wildlife grow

Matt Weiser, KQED SCIENCE

In 2014, scientists at the National Marine Fisheries Service published a study showing that two fire-retardant formulations are deadly to Chinook salmon, even when heavily diluted in streams.

Chemical fire retardants are considered a vital wildland firefighting tool, helping to slow the spread of flames while ground crews move into position. But as their use increases, the harmful side effects of these chemicals are coming under increasing scrutiny.

The chemicals, usually dropped from low-flying aircraft, largely consist of ammonia compounds, which are known toxins to fish and other aquatic life. Studies have shown retardants can kill fish, alter soil chemistry, feed harmful algae blooms and even encourage the spread of invasive plants. Yet there is little regulation of their use, and no safer alternatives on the market.

In California, state firefighting crews have applied 15.3 million gallons of chemical fire retardants so far this year, according to data provided by CalFire, the state’s wildland firefighting agency. That’s a new record, and double the amount used just three years ago.

CalFire applied 2.7 million gallons of retardant in a single one-week period starting October 9 – also a record. Of that amount, about 2 million gallons were used on the North Bay wildfires, which killed 43 people and burned more than 8,000 structures in October as they swept across several counties north of the San Francisco Bay Area, including Sonoma and Napa.

Read more at: Fire Retardant Use Explodes as Worries About Water, Wildlife Grow | KQED Science

Filed under Water

Sonoma County fire cleanup weighs heavy on landfill

Kevin Fixler, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Although nearly 260 destroyed homesites had been cleared of their post-fire debris in Santa Rosa’s Coffey Park neighborhood through Nov. 19, it represents less than a quarter of the burned properties in one corner of the devastating 36,807-acre Tubbs fire.

Just those cleared sites, however, produced a mountain of ash, twisted metal and charred wood — nearly 50,000 tons, according to county officials, with all of it going to Sonoma County’s Central Landfill.

The dump west of Cotati is the main disposal site for what local and state officials are calling the biggest debris removal from a wildfire in California history.

The scorched remains of more than 5,100 Sonoma County homes are bound for the Mecham Road location for burial — loads that have spiked daily traffic from heavy-duty commercial trucks and could burn through the life expectancy for one of the North Coast’s few operating landfills between Petaluma and the Oregon border.

Other than to confirm an increase of inflows from fire debris, a spokesman for Republic Services, the Arizona-based waste giant that operates the county-owned dump, declined to offer specifics about the number of trucks or how much material is now coming through the gates. He added that it presented no need for worries over capacity.

“From where we stand, as the operators, we are not concerned,” said Russ Knocke, Republic’s vice president of communications and public affairs. “Without a doubt it’s something that will factor into overall capacity at the site, but in terms of cause for immediate concern, again, I would say no.”

Still, to handle the additional level of waste and the sudden need for a place to unload it, Republic Services requested a four-month-long emergency waiver at the end of October for its daily weight maximums. Without that, only 2,500 tons of materials from a maximum of 900 trucks are permitted each business day.

Under operations covered by the emergency waiver, on the single biggest disposal day since the fire, the Central Landfill accepted 5,800 tons — about six times the most recent year’s pre-fire average. That compares to roughly 1,000 tons of municipal solid waste per day in 2016, and less than 860 tons daily in 2015.

Read more at: Sonoma County fire cleanup weighs heavy on landfill

Filed under Land Use, Sustainable Living

First aid for Sonoma County’s fire damaged soil

Douglas Kent, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Douglas Kent is the author of Firescaping: Creating fire-resistant landscapes, gardens and properties in California’s diverse environments

You are battered and fatigued, but the fight to save your property and community is far from over.

In the wake of recent wildfires on the North Coast, the risk of topsoil loss and the flow of debris has grown.

Erosion leaps as high as 200 percent following fires in urbanized areas. With this increase comes mass sedimentation, alteration of streambeds, property and infrastructure damage, and, in some cases, even injury and death.

We need to hold our ground.

Fires eliminate canopies, burn off leaf litter and expose the soil. When there is nothing to slow or stop them, wind and water gain leverage. Soil gets shoved around as a consequence.

But the problem is not just the lack of protective cover. Recently burnt landscapes also have to contend with repellency. Fires cook the waxes that are natural to our soils. When these waxes cool, they coat the first inch of soil with a repellency layer, stopping water from infiltrating.

The consequences can be dire when the lack of protective cover and repellency are combined. Fire-scarred communities can produce incredible amounts of runoff and debris flow.This runoff and debris can overwhelm storm water drainage systems, leading to extensive erosion elsewhere. Worse still, debris flowing down slopes can overrun homes, businesses and small communities. These types of events can, and have, lead to personal injury and death.

Read more at: First aid for Sonoma County’s fire damaged soil | The Press Democrat –

Filed under Sustainable Living

Next challenge in Wine Country fires: colossal cleanup before winter rains 

Kurtis Alexander, SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE

While the worst of the wildfires is over for Wine Country, the region faces another daunting test: the cleanup of heaps of ash, twisted metal and blackened debris scattered across some 250 square miles of burned hills and valleys — an area five times the size of San Francisco.Never before has California seen such wildfire destruction. The blazes that roared through Napa and Sonoma counties this month obliterated at least 7,200 houses, barns and businesses, including entire neighborhoods, each with untold amounts of hazardous items now littered about, from pesticides to propane to melted plastics.

Residents are eager to get their properties cleared of the often toxic wreckage so that they can rebuild, though it will be months before any construction starts. Plans for the huge cleanup are still being worked out, with a goal of finishing early next year. The state will lead the effort, in partnership with the federal government, but only after the fires are extinguished and logistics are addressed.

Officials need to find landfills with enough space to take the rubble and get consent from landowners to clear their properties, matters that could take weeks. Once that’s done, the state is likely to hire hundreds if not thousands of contractors to truck out the debris from private residences and public property. Businesses and their insurers, though, will probably be responsible for cleanup at their sites.

Read more at: Next challenge in Wine Country fires: colossal cleanup before winter rains – San Francisco Chronicle

Filed under Sustainable Living, Water

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

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

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