California Fire Catastrophe

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Floods do not always leave you something, they can take it all.

The Mississippi River is a little more than a mile east of where I sit and it drains 2/3rds of the mainland US. Less than a decade ago we had a flooding event that brought the river to within about an inch or so of the historic 1927 and 1937 floods. The 1927 flood saw private levees fail and the water where I live would have been well over the roof of a 2 story home- in the modern flood we had a well maintained levee built by the Corps of Engineers and had at least 6 more feet of levee to go at that river level.

Early in my adulthood I served in the US Army as a photographer and we did all kinds of work. I have seen what fire can do to a home, to a car, to a helicopter and to a plane. I have also seen what a wildfire can do, having done the photography for the investigations of all after the fact. 

California is having a “come to Jesus” moment with ill advised development, building codes, zoning and other things. The reccomendations of the FireWise consortium needs to become code throughout many parts of the country and certainly in much of the Golden State. No more wooden framed buildings, no more landscaping that lacks defensible space, no more power poles in areas of high fire risk- they can be buried just like the ones that feed my home, no more planting trees and shrubs that are more volatile in a fire.

There is a way to live with nature and many ways to live in a fool’s paraidise by ignoring the environment where you live. Fire has always been a natural part of the climate of much of California and so has drought and so have the Santa Anna Winds. Knowing that, one should never buiild some of the structures in the way they were constructed and where they were located. That would be as crazy as me building a home on the river side of our levee unless you want the Mississippi River running through your hallway every couple of years. The home I will build for retirement is in a seismic zone (Cascadia) and it will be designed and built for resilience in a seismic event regardless of what the building codes require- I can always exceed the legal requirement.

Hopefully the new Governor and Leglislature will mandate tough new rules that can rebuild these communities in a more reslient way that allows for the natural fires to happen without becoming a firestorm that kills everything in its path.

I wish all out there well and some common sense when they rebuild. I am not blaming the people who are the victims, but now that they have seen what happens when you discount nature they can do something about it..

thc0655 wrote:

Astounding! The narrator/survivor says one of his neighbors died because she delayed evacuating SO SHE COULD PUT ON HER MAKEUP!!  People do all kinds of crazy stuff under extreme stress. The psychological and emotional capacity, under severe stress, to think clearly, control your emotions and act decisively are in my mind the most important factors in most situations for survival. Preparing plans, gathering equipment and supplies in advance is second. Training in your plans with your stuff is third. We are SOOO far ahead of 95+% of the rest of people. That’s true of wildfires, economic collapse, armed robbery and civil war. And all the rest.

The area where I live is subject to Tornadoes and if one comes you have to be ready to go. Make no mistake, higher category Tornadoes will kill you in a brand new luxury home unless you have a basement, in ground shelter or reinforced interior room- it is not just the mobile home owners that are in danger. I have seen a modern HS building destroyed and a modern Hospital- both steel framed masonry and they were destroyed by tornadoes. 

There are lots of things that can disrupt and endanger your life and security, from the gas explosion earler this year in the NE to a Hurricane that decides to sit over your area and just rain like Houston to wildfires like California to a Tornado that can drop out of the sky and scour the earth.

I went through Oklahoma City a couple of weeks after the Midwest City tornado outbreak. If you were not underground you were simply dead. That storm took everything and I mean everything. Those people likewise had little to no notice but had to act and have a plan in place.

No matter where you live you should have all essential documents backed up in a safe place- I have digital copies sitting in a Bank Vault as an off site backup of important documents. I have a “go bag” primarily in case I get called in to the Hospital where I work, but it also can function as something I can grab if fire, earthquake, flood or Tornado means I have to be gone yesterday.

There is simply no place I know of on this earth that does not present some collection of possible scenarios that could mean you have to go from your home now. Sadly, some people did not take it seriously and paid a very high price. There is no cure for dead.

suziegruber wrote:

Anyway, my colleagues and I created a resource to help folks recover from the emotional impact of any kind of disaster (hurricanes, floods, fires).  One of my colleagues is even using it to help people impacted by shooting sprees.

Great resource, thank you for creating and posting it here.

Along with THC0655’s comments, the emotional and psychological components are really the most critical to build and maintain.

This is why we’re going to begin testing ourselves with increasing vigor over the coming months.  

If you had to leave in 12 minutes, what would you do?  Ready, set….GO!

It’s easy shooting while at rest.  What if you sprinted hard for 30 seconds first, and then tried to draw, aim and fire?  How’s your accuracy?  Did you miss any of the critical safety steps like not triggering or removing the safety too early?

I usually find that I think I know how to do something, or use something, or have something until I actually test that out…then I discover what the truth of my readiness really is.

  • Tue, Nov 13, 2018 - 04:11pm



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    The perfect storm

I keep hearing (in other places) that California could have logged our way out of this new normal of catastrophic firestorms. 

The science says otherwise. What we are seeing is the culmination of many factors coming to a head. 

It is true, that less fuel helps: the fire triangle is composed of three sides: fuel, oxygen and heat.  You cannot control the oxygen or heat, but you can control the amount of fuel. But I have been to several lectures recently about how to make your home and property more fire safe and the sad truth is 1 in 3 Americans now lives in the WUE: woodland-Urban interface…we have provided alot of excellent fuel for devastating fires because we do not build homes in a way that minimizes becoming an ignition source.  And the CalFire rep at these talks said anyone who lives near an active fire is demanding their property be saved at all costs. Cal Fire can’t win, they get crucified if they let nature take its course, and they get flak for suppressing fires and allowing fuel buildup. 


This is an excellent podcast about how homes catch fire well in advance of the active fire from blowing embers.  Worth a listen. In it, they talk about how how you can survey burned homes and see them surrounded by green living trees.  I saw that after the Santa Rosa Fires, and watching news feed of the Paradise fire I saw the hospital, that lost a wing to the fire, still was surrounded by green shrubs, trees.  Someone somewhere in one of these threads mentioned that surely the homes in Paradise had defensible space, doesn’t the law require it? Yes, the law requires it, but no one enforces it.  If you go to Google Maps and click on the satellite view of Paradise it was clearly a very green and tree clogged city with homes surrounded by foundation plantings and little defensible space. Humans love a jungle/forest landscape.  The podcast  also talk about, how research done in forests by Jack Cohen, show that properly constructed and landscaped homes, can survive a forest fire burning 30 feet away.  But even homes with defensible space, can burn from teh inside out if some of the billions of blowing embers get sucked into their attic via undereave vents. 



The Native Californians encouraged fire to keep the forest floor clear and open. If you look at historical photos from the Sierra forests at the turn of the century you would see lots of open space between scattered trees.  When fires burned (which they did every 10-25 years) they were mostly ground fires with low intensity. Due to the suppression of fires for 100 years, forests now have way more fuel too: mostly  that has greatly increased the number of tress per acre plus dramatically increased the duff and shrub layer.  Plus, the health of the trees have declined, more trees competing for overall less rain stresses them and makes them susceptible to the bark beetle infestation. If you look at Yosemite Valley, close to half of the conifers have died in the last 5 or 6 years.  Which seems shocking to us now, but again, if you look at historical photos of the Valley from 100 years ago there were almost no trees in the Valley.  


Back to logging, I have been told by 2 different Cal Fire retirees that logged areas burn hot and fast.  Crews come and take the most desirable timber and leave  all the low growing vegetation which  then rebounds hugely with the new sunlight.  Those areas make for excellent bonfires they told me.  


Climate change is a factor too…..its messing with the jet stream and causing more diablo wind/Santa Ana  wind conditions.

I could not find any data (but barely looked) to confirm my suspicion we have more red flag warning days now than the past. I have lived in Sonoma county for 25 years and it seems like this year alone we have had more red flag days for diablo winds than the last ten years combined.  The wind (gusting sometimes up to 80 mph) provides the oxygen.  It also dries out the vegetation.   The third leg: heat is related to climate change too…California is getting hotter.  


Also, remarks are made that imply California controls it forests, which is not true.  Something like 60 percent of the forests belong to the federal government (BLM, National Forests, National Parks, etc. ) close to 30% is privately owned.  The remaining 10% is directly owned and managed by state and local governments.  




Solutions: Controlled burns and goat grazing are definitely helpful. Stop expanding housing into the woodlands. Seriously question rebuilding  in fire prone areas. Only do so if appropriate construction/home hardening  methods are followed and defensible space maintained. Enforce laws on the books already.  Educate people about being prepared for fire. We definitely can do a better job, Australia is years ahead of us.  Get PGE to maintain its infrastructure better . All that said, it is sad fact that even folks that do everything right, can lose their home or even life, while others who did nothing to prepare will survive. 


IF anyone needs a business idea and lives in areas prone to fire, staring a business that helps homeowners replace wood fencing, tile decks, retrofit eaves, vents, identify the fire weak links in their landscape is an excellent idea.  


greendoc wrote,

The Native Californians encouraged fire to keep the forest floor clear and open.

Same in Australia: over the centuries the Aboriginals had developed a highly sophisticated and successful regime of low-temperature burning to keep vegetation — trees, bushes, shrubs, low understorey— under control. Europeans arrive, assume that they know better, kick the indigenous people aside and make a wreck of the land in only 200 years.

Now we Europeans are starting to eat huge helpings of humble pie and are asking the first nations to teach us how to manage their land. (“Their” land? Yes; they never ceded it to us.)

California is getting hotter.

Same here!

  • Wed, Nov 14, 2018 - 04:55pm



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    Hands down best fire perimeter information, IMO

Three years ago when Lake county was experiencing a particularily bad fire, I finally got a twitter account, as it can be a really great source of real time information from folks with eyes on the unfolding situation tweeting out.  The same would be true for floods, hurricanes, etc.  Unfortunately as time goes on, lots of people from far away start using the fire hashtag (e.g. #campfire, #tubbsfire, #woolseyfire) to advertise political comments or sympathize with those who lost their homes, etc.  so it gets less useful, or at least you need to scroll through posts not directly fire related. 

I follow this gentleman  Joseph Elfelt @MappingSupport

Developer of GISsurfer, the replacement for Gmap4.


He posts updates of perimeters of important fires, usually twice a day based on most recent infrared satellite data.  It is not perfect, but pretty good. He posted this recently too…from a grateful follower who evacuated early due to information from these maps.


Mostly twitter is junk, I rarely spend anytime there…except for fires.  But worth checking out. It is pretty intuitive to use in my experience, but I am sure you can find tutorials online (or snag your kid or younger relative) to explain how it works.  

  • Fri, Nov 16, 2018 - 05:41am



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    sign up for Nixle

I also strongly recommend that people sign up for Nixle.  It’s a text alert system used to disseminate public safety information.  You can check with your city or county to see if they use Nixle to send alerts.  I received several very helpful texts during the peak of Ashland’s fire season this year letting me know about wildfires near Ashland, community meetings and road closures etc.

  • Thu, Nov 22, 2018 - 07:33pm



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    Effects on RE and Insurance markets

So, I’ve been wondering how this displacement of families and businesses will effect the real estate market. Exactly where do you house tens of thousands of newly houseless people and the supporting businesses? What has been the effect on prices of real estate in comparable- relatively low-cost and nearby- communities? What were these effects in the areas of the Tubbs fire in Sonoma and Napa Counties? Ten thousand structures lost- how does this effect insurance costs, and are payouts threatened by such a large event? Jus’ wonderin’….Happy Thanksgiving to all, and best wishes to the effected folks of Paradise….Aloha, Steve.

  • Fri, Nov 23, 2018 - 07:26pm



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    Fire effect on insurance

Well Thatchmo, coincidentally there was a NY TImes story about home owners insurance in California county  in our local Sonoma County paper…

I am not a real estate professional, but certainly alot of people effected by the wine country fires, who had good homeowners insurance, represented a  sudden influx of thousands of households needing rentals with their insurers picking up the tab for up to two years.  This drove the rental prices up, for sure. In some instances exhorbitantly. A few landlords are being prosecuted for price gouging.  I read of an airbnb vacation rental going for $12,000 a month.  My neighbors son was renting a 300 SF tiny house with no kitchen for $1200/month.

The North Bay was lucky to have alot of vacation rentals that got turned into long term rentals and within 3 months most displaced  households who choose to stay got adequately resettled. People with borderline housing security took the hardest hit.  Some Low income folks inadequately insured became homeless.  And some renting folks got kicked out by unscrupulous landlords who saw an opportunity.  

I seriously doubt  Butte County can meet the new demand.  Alot of those people will need to resettle elsewhere, especially is they do not need to stay in the area for their job.  It is not a great climate to be homeless.

Similarly, folks who decided to buy rather than rebuild, helped to extend the housing boom/inflated prices for another year, although it seems to have peaked and be on the downswing now.  I think come summer we may see some firming up of prices again, as many people who planned on rebuilding and have their settlement checks in hand, are finding bids to rebuild are coming back dramatically higher than originally quoted a year ago and decide to buy.  I know of at least three families in this category who are thinking about selling their lot and buying instead going through the rebuild process. 

I have not seen an increase in my home owners insurance (State Farm). Most people I know have increased their coverage though…which increases premiums, as they were underinsured. We bumped up from $300/SF to $400, but I understand that is now considered insufficient, as actual cost now more like $500 or higher/Sf.  Crazy. 

Our insurance agent pointed out our two primary cars were old enough now (2004s) that we could drop our auto collision coverage, and that basically covered our increased homeowners, so net the cost stayed the same.  

That NY Times article mentions getting your home hardened/certified to potentially qualify for lower rates, or even just get homeowners insurance at all. 

I think this is what needs to happen. Even after the traumatic fires here last year, very few people are taking steps to harden homes/create defensible space.  It is back to business as usual.  At a fire safe lecture I went to, the presenter said unfortunately most people respond better to the stick than the carrot.  Insurers need to price their product to reflect the real risk and offer discounts to folks who take steps to make their homes more safe.  

People lived in Paradise in part because they loved the forest ambience. Very few wanted to face the reality of fire and take steps to be more resilient. This is an excellent article about that very thing:

I really feel for those people. Even if they had good insurance, chances are they are still underinsured as you need to rebuild to code and code upgrades are expensive. But maybe this could be the beginning of repopulation of small farm towns in the midwest that are becoming ghost towns. Or some of the rust belt cities getting hollowed out like Detroit.  It seems we need to stop this unsustainable building in the WUE. How can we get the powers to be to start thinking outside of the box….


Viewing 9 posts - 11 through 19 (of 19 total)

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