Experts call for changes in wake of deadly Calif. wildfires
By last week, fire officials confirmed 42 people had died and 7,700 structures were destroyed
By Cheri Carlson
Ventura County Star
SANTA ROSA, Calif. — Santa Rosa Fire Chief Tony Gossner stood in the middle of dense smoke as a fire barreled into the city.
The wind was intense, he could hear explosions, and flames were everywhere.
“I had fire behind me. I had fire to the left. I had fire in front of me,” he said. “It was like that until the sun came up.”
The Tubbs Fire broke out just before 10 p.m. on Oct. 8, one in a series of blazes that ignited in Sonoma and Napa counties. Within hours, it had reached Santa Rosa.
More than a dozen large fires were burning in eight counties in Northern California that morning, a number that increased to 21 in the following days.
By last week, officials confirmed 42 people had died and 7,700 structures were destroyed.
It’s becoming more of the norm now to have multiple large, damaging fires burning at the same time, Cal Fire Chief Ken Pimlott said at a recent news conference.
So far this year, the state reported 37 percent more fires than at the same time last year and nearly twice as much land has burned.
Under severe wind conditions, they become unstoppable, making some experts call for more attention to improving fallback plans.
They say agencies throughout the state need to prepare for those rare, but catastrophic circumstances.
California is ahead of a lot of the country with respect to preparing to handle wildfire, said Max Moritz, a wildfire specialist with the University of California Cooperative Extension.
“But we still have a lot to learn,” he said.
Do the building codes already in place work under such severe conditions, and how do you get people out in time?
“That’s what we’re going to be asking ourselves as we pick up the pieces and look at what happened here,” Moritz said.
An 'unstoppable’ fire
The night the Tubbs Fire started, winds were blowing 50 mph with gusts up to 70 mph.
“The fire burned with such intensity that it was literally going miles per hour,” said Cal Fire Battalion Chief Jonathan Cox. "It was unstoppable."
It “was going quicker than we could keep up with,” throwing embers a mile or more ahead of itself. "People had such little time to get out of the way of it. A lot of people were literally running for their lives," he said.
Gossner said alerts went out in Santa Rosa, but evacuations couldn’t keep pace with the flames.
With phone lines down and other problems, it was firefighters knocking on doors and police blaring car sirens and calling out through loudspeakers telling people to get out.
“I think there needs to be a lot of thought and a lot of discussion,” Gossner said about the best way to notify people in such a fast-moving, destructive fire.
He wondered if more traditional methods like sirens in neighborhoods could work better in some situations.
Moritz also suggested communities could look at creating fire-resistant shelters in neighborhoods.
Identifying those locations before a fire breaks out could help people reach safety when they can’t get very far away.
“You wouldn’t have to necessarily get into your car and get all the way out of the area,” Moritz said.
These extreme events have happened relatively infrequently.
“But when they do happen,” Moritz said, “I think it reveals how important it is to actually have some kind of fallback plan for those kinds of circumstances.”
Mother Nature decides
Years of drought worsened wildfire conditions. While last winter was a wet one, the bounty of green grass has since dried out.
“Especially with these wind-driven fires, Mother Nature pretty much determines when we’re going to gain control over the fires,” said Ventura County Fire Chief Mark Lorenzen.
On May 2, 2013, winds were blowing about 40 mph with gusts in the 60s and 70s when the Springs Fire started near Camarillo.
The blaze ignited around 6 a.m. off Highway 101. Within 15 minutes, officials said, they knew they wouldn’t be able to stop it.
The fire ran all the way to the ocean, about eight miles away. It swept up against communities and a university, but no houses or lives were lost.
Engines and firefighters were able to leapfrog from place to place, getting ahead of the flames, Lorenzen said.
“We were fortunate that it hit small pockets of communities initially,” he said.
The county has a few things in its favor, Lorenzen said.
A longstanding brush clearance program helps firefighters safely get between homes and burning vegetation.
Large neighboring fire departments in Los Angeles and others in the county also can respond quickly when needed.
Locally, the county can issue wireless alerts to cellphones, as well as send notifications to any phone or email signed up with VC Alert.
Some counties had those same abilities up north but still ran into problems getting the word out quickly.
With every tool, there’s usually some gap, said Kevin McGowan, manager of Ventura County Sheriff’s Office of Emergency Services.
That’s why the county tries to use several different tools to reach as many people as possible.
The county does have one siren on a fire station in Piru in its notification plans, he said. But it’s there to alert the town in case of a dam failure, not wildfires.
‘Gives us a chance’
The state adopted fire hazard maps about 10 years ago, linking building codes to level of risk. In fire-prone areas, new construction had to be built with features like vent screens and fire-resistant roofing materials.
Early on Oct. 9, fire tore through homes inside and outside of Santa Rosa's hazard zones.
Every house in the Fountaingrove neighborhood was built to those standards, Chief Gossner said. Still, they burned.
“There are very few houses left anymore. Most of them are gone,” he said. “When you get an established fire with that much wind, as soon as one of those houses catches on fire that becomes its own fuel model."
The maps were a big step forward, but had some missing pieces, including that they don't yet incorporate information about severe wind patterns, Moritz said.
The state needs to understand more about ignition vulnerability and what building codes would provide enough protection in circumstances like these, he said.
But also the building codes generally only applied to new development, leaving older homes without the upgrades.
Moritz would like to see public funding to support retrofitting efforts. He called it one of the most important policy changes that could happen.
But even if every community were built to standards required in fire-prone areas, it might not have stopped a fire like Tubbs.
“We want the fire-wise communities, so if a fire starts, we can jump on it and put it out,” Gossner said.
If there’s enough wind, it might not be enough.
“That gives us a chance,” he said. “It doesn’t mean it’s going to prevent it. It gives us a chance.”
Copyright 2017 Ventura County Star