California fire officials have learned through hard experience to temper their optimism.
Having just endured more than a decade of rampaging fires — 14 of the 20 most destructive fires in state history have occurred since 2007 — fire bosses say this year the glass is half-full.
“We’ve got a few things going for us at the moment,” said Scott McLean, a spokesman for CalFire, the state firefighting agency. “We still have a snowpack. Our upper elevations haven’t dried out. Because of that, we are able to continue our fuel-reduction projects.”
Yes, this year featured a wet winter — usually good news for fire officials. But so did 2017, one of the state’s wettest winters in half a century and one of the most devastating years for wildfire. Clearing and cutting has helped eliminate some of the brush and trees that fuel the flames. But California’s forests are still clogged with 147 million dead trees, and counting. And the late-winter rains encouraged the growth of grasses and other highly combustible plants.
CalFire battled 164 fires across the state in the third week of August, many of them small. History shows that September and October, with their hot, fierce winds, are the worst months for fire. And “this week we have dry lightning predicted,” McLean said. That could spark fires in the state’s northern forests.
On the other hand, state officials have been showering CalFire with financial aid. The agency’s ranks are bolstered by an additional 400 seasonal firefighters and 13 new engines and crews to operate them. And the state is taking delivery of a new Sikorsky S-70i Firehawk helicopter next month, the first of 12 replacement firefighting helicopters.
“We’ve got everything out of maintenance; everything’s ready,” McLean said.
But don’t look for California’s biggest air tool to come to a rescue anytime soon. The converted 747 jet, which can carry 24,0000 gallons of water or retardant, is currently flying over the Amazon, fighting fires in Brazil.
CalFire is in the process of updating its map of wildfire-hazard zones, identifying areas of fire danger and assigning degrees of risk to those places. The California Public Utilities Commission is revising its fire map as well. So are the state’s power providers and insurance companies.
They’re all trying to better predict where and how wildfires may strike, as officials across the state seek to gain some advantage over fire’s growing menace.
In the case of CalFire, the mapmaking — painstaking and devilishly complex, combining detailed data about weather, topography, vegetation and the placement of roads and homes — was last undertaken about 12 years ago. Officials say that doesn’t mean the 2007 version is out of date.
“When you look at hazards by themselves, they are long-term factors that don’t often change,” said Daniel Berlant, CalFire assistant deputy director and chief of planning and risk analysis. “The slope of topography is not going to change in a decade.”
CalFire’s map is used largely by counties and local authorities in making decisions about construction in high-fire-hazard zones and fire-mitigation measures from homeowners.
Berlant said the document’s “major overhaul” will include the latest science, particularly sophisticated new models for where and how wind drives wildfires. It will be completed sometime next year, he said.
The utility commission’s map is somewhat different. It breaks the state into a grid of one-mile squares, focusing on power companies’ lines and equipment and assigning fire threats. The identification of risk areas dictates what prevention efforts the companies should undertake to safeguard their property from fire.
The map includes CalFire and utility-company data, updated yearly.
The analysis is intended for use by firefighters and utility companies but is only glanced at by insurers, which have been assembling their own risk assessments for decades. Many companies hire outside firms to provide them with satellite data as well as information from NASA and other federal institutions.
Verisk Analytics provides reports to insurers about risk but does not do forecasting. “We are not trying to predict where the next wildfire is going to happen; it’s too complex,” said Arindam Samanta, the company’s director of product management and innovation.
Although CalFire and the utilities commission publish their maps online, California residents may never hear about them.
“I didn’t know there was one,” said Curtis Simms, who lives in Paradise, which was devastated by a wildfire last year. “You don’t need a map to know you are in a high-risk area. You’re an idiot if you don’t.”
Meanwhile, state insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara laid out the dire news to legislators earlier this month: Insurers have declined to renew 350,000 homeowner policies in high-fire-risk areas in California since 2015, when the state began collecting data.
“I have heard from many local communities about how not being able to obtain insurance can create a domino effect for the local economy, affecting home sales and property taxes,” Lara said in a prepared statement.
“This data should be a wake-up call for state and local policymakers that without action to reduce the risk from extreme wildfires and preserve the insurance market we could see communities unraveling,” he said.
In the face of the dropped policies, there has been some legislative relief. A law passed last year requires insurers to offer a homeowner who lost a residence to disaster two renewal periods or two years of coverage, whichever is greater.
However, that law doesn’t prevent those whose homes were untouched or only damaged by fire from having their policies canceled.
Steven Nielsen’s story of frustration is all too familiar to many fire victims. The 52-year-old lost his Santa Rosa home in the October 2017 Tubbs fire in Sonoma County. Bureaucratic entanglements with his insurer of 25 years delayed the rebuilding process.
At the time, insurers were required by law to offer fire victims at least one policy renewal, which Nielsen received, taking him through 2018. But when renewal time came again a few months ago, he said, his insurer sent him a letter saying that because no home was built at his address, the company was dropping him.
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