Lives Lost, Homes and Businesses Reduced to Ash

Northern CA firestorm raises question of emergency preparedness

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When UC Santa Cruz lecturer John Newman went to bed Sunday night, he was mildly concerned about the winds strong enough to topple his fence and part the roof from his shed, but he expected to wake up to an ordinary Monday.

What he got instead was a thunderous pounding on his front door at 3 a.m. It was his sister-in-law, who came to warn Newman and his wife that a fire was descending down the hills near his Santa Rosa home.

“It was just a landscape of destruction, it looked like the apocalypse,” Newman said of the hillside. “All of these expensive homes that had been there were now just piles of ash and chimneys. The trees were still burning and the gas pipes were belching fire.”

Photo courtesy of California Highway Patrol

Fifteen wildfires swept across Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino and other Northern California counties Sunday night. In the days since, seven more fires ignited and all 22 fires continue to burn. The fires have killed at least 21 people and destroyed at least 3,500 buildings over 170,000 acres of land, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire). Eleven of the 21 deaths occurred in the Tubbs Fire alone, making it the sixth deadliest in state history.

The strong winds of over 50 mph, which initially fueled the inferno, subsided on Tuesday and allowed firefighters to make some headway. However, dry conditions and smaller gusts continue to hinder efforts to contain the blaze. As of Oct. 11, the largest fires, the Tubbs Fire and the Atlas Fire, are only 10 percent and 3 percent contained, respectively.

These fires, more intense and spreading faster than many have ever seen, worked their ways through neighborhoods, leveling homes and melting cars still in driveways. Newman’s home survived through the week, although nearby family members were not as
lucky. Upon returning to his neighborhood, Newman could hardly recognize the hills surrounding his neighborhood.

“It was pretty shocking,” he said. “When I first went out to the schoolyard and looked up at this fire advancing on us […] and the embers coming down — it really pulls the rug from under your sense of well-being. All of a sudden you feel very mortal and fragile. Human life becomes fragile and precious.”

Early on Tuesday morning, Newman and hundreds of others left their homes, packed up their vehicles and pets and waited. Eventually, Newman returned to his home, only to find his house once again in the line of fire.

In response to the fires, Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency in the affected counties on Monday. A state of emergency was also declared in areas of Southern California, including Orange County and areas surrounding the Anaheim Hills, where the Canyon Fire 2 has been burning since Oct. 9.

Brown’s declaration mandated, among other things, the mobilization of the National Guard and the temporary suspension of some state statutes, including those regulating the disposal of solid waste and debris resulting from a fire. The Governor’s Office of Emergency Services (OES) also received a Fire Management Assistance Grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, after Vice President Mike Pence approved a “major disaster declaration” for California.

“This is a significant and appreciated action,” OES director Mark Ghilarducci said. “It will greatly assist the state of California, it’ll assist the victims and survivors who have been impacted by this disaster and it will assist the community as we work to rebuild.”

The annual amount of acres burned and property destroyed trends upward over the past 30 years. Despite this, the annual number of fires trends downward over the same time frame, according to Cal Fire records. Property damage from wildfires also increased sharply in recent years, spiking from about $20 million in damages in 2014 to over $3 billion in 2015. About 60 percent of that $3 billion in damages occurred in Napa and Sonoma counties. Figures for wildfire property damage in 2016 have not yet been released.

While many variables, such as increasing human development, make it difficult to project future fire patterns, UCSC Earth and planetary sciences professor Patrick Chuang said there’s reason to believe subtropical California may be in store for worsening fire seasons.

“In a world warmed by greenhouse gases, some regions will receive more rainfall and some will receive less,” Chuang said. “The simplest story is that subtropical regions, because they receive less rainfall, will receive less soil moisture […]That will cause the fire season to start earlier and the fire season will be longer.”

Chuang also said increased rainfall can create a much larger volume of plant matter to be dried out and burned during fire season, causing more and worse fires in the dry season.

The current firestorm owes some of its ferocity to a combination of these factors and other environmental conditions, said Santa Cruz Fire Marshal Jim Frawley.

“When you have alignment in terms of wind, temperature, topography […] If you get those things in alignment, there isn’t going to be anything that you’re going to be able to do to stop [the fire],” Frawley said of the current Northern California fires. “That’s why it’s burning through and burning up the Kmart, burning up the Hilton hotel, burning up Trader Joe’s and totally devastating entire neighborhoods.”

Some evacuees, including John Newman, reported receiving little to no evacuation notice despite having been in an evacuation zone. The Los Angeles Times reported many evacuees complained of not receiving an emergency notification, even those who had their phones registered to receive such alerts.

“There was no official warning. Nobody called us. There was no system in place to alert us. No cops came by,” Newman said. “If my wife’s sister hadn’t come to this door, I could’ve slept through the whole thing.”

Fire departments attributed some of these difficulties in coordinating an effective response to heavy disruptions in cell phone service, which many public alert systems depend on.

“There are roughly 77 cell sites that were damaged or destroyed,” said OES director Mark Ghilarducci in a press conference. “Communications systems are absolutely critical for people to be able to get information and messages and also to reach out and talk to their families.”

Measures are being put in place to support the damaged communications network. These steps include the use of a National Guard asset known as Joint Incident Site Communication units, which provide a strong satellite signal to bolster communications. Despite this, the damage to cell sites still significantly impedes evacuation efforts.

“Really, there’s no other way to get out a notice,” said Santa Cruz Fire

Marshal Jim Frawley. “You basically have to go door to door with sirens and PA systems telling people to evacuate. […] You’re relegated to a very labor-intensive, arduous notification process. Street by street, home by home.”

The city of Santa Cruz employs a similar, cellular-based notification system to those used in counties caught in the firestorm. The reverse 911 system, called Code Red, propagates evacuation orders through a regional dispatch center that covers the entirety of Santa Cruz County. Messages can be specified to certain populations within the county via geotag. In truly catastrophic circumstances, officials have access to an emergency advisory alert via the weather service.

While the current conditions create high statewide fire risk and UC Santa Cruz is vulnerable to fire in some locations such as areas around north campus, officials say the actual risk of a wildfire on campus is fairly low.

“What we do is we meet with grounds. We’ll identify those risk areas and create different fire lines and barriers. We’ll also look at trees that are either dried out or in bad condition,” said UCSC Fire Marshal Nick Otis. “We basically work to create defensible space.”

If an emergency like a wildfire were to occur on campus, students, faculty and staff would be contacted through CruzAlert. CruzAlert is UCSC’s emergency notification system, and it relays those notifications to registered cell phone numbers over text and voice call. An automated email is also delivered to all UCSC email addresses. This service is just as vulnerable to damaged cell sites.

Otis stressed that campus and city fire departments are in frequent communication with each other and Cal Fire with regard to strategizing fire prevention and that inspections of risk areas are done annually per legal mandate.

More broadly, the coastal side of the Santa Cruz Mountains benefits from the marine layer, which naturally mitigates dry conditions.

Despite the many risk-mitigating factors present on campus and in the Santa Cruz area, Cal Fire gave Santa Cruz County a red-flag warning, the highest grade of fire risk, because of conditions across the state.

“This is a problem in every area. You don’t think of what the consequences might be until something like this happens to you,” John Newman said. “The takeaway here is to think about your own situation and what could happen — an earthquake, a fire — believe me, nature can throw you a curveball that you have no idea is coming.”

*To sign up for CruzAlert, go to your my.ucsc.edu account and update your phone number.