California is Burning in its December Rainy Season to Bookend a Disastrous Year
It’s supposed to be the rainy season in the Sunshine State but another historic fire is roasting California instead, bookending a banner year of stress on the built-environment.
The BL blog recently noted that 2017 was “a year when the flood waters came.” But it was much more. Our built-environment was tested seemingly everywhere in a running string of disasters that hit us in a comprehensive fashion unlike anything anyone can remember. The continuous stream of large scale calamities pushed the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to its limits and beyond.
It’s been a big year for Uncle Sam’s emergency managers. FEMA is beat up and stretched across disaster zones in California, Florida, Puerto Rico, Texas and the Virgin Islands.
This month another historic fire burned through California, again, during what’s supposed to be one of the state’s wet months. It seems as though 2017 will offer no break. The huge Thomas fire, driven by ongoing drought and wicked high winds, became the third largest wildfire in state history even though it's not supposed to be burning at all so late in the year. Today, December 21, the Thomas fire was finally contained and all evacuation orders lifted.
FEMA is back in California after only just being there for survivors of the deadly wildfires that devoured California’s wine country this October and ripped through the American West on Labor Day. This year “[FEMA] got hammered,” Mark Ghilarducci, director of the California Governor's Office of Emergency Services told the Associated Press. “Between Irma, Harvey, Puerto Rico—those are all big events. They leveraged everyone they have.” And yet they were still shorthanded. So much so, FEMA asked California’s emergency management agency for help staffing its FEMA centers.
“I’ve been doing this for 30 years and I can’t remember that ever happening before,” Ghilarducci continued. “Every piece of everything we have in the toolbox has been leveraged this year.”
Under Extreme Pressure
On Twitter, FEMA recently tweeted out a “moment” to commemorate 2017 and the long, rolling emergency that it was. FEMA had to call up its reservists, who are on-call for disasters much like the National Guard. It also had to call up 3,800 extra workers in the Department of Homeland Security’s “Surge Capacity Force.” And when FEMA needed still more labor resources, it took the unusual step to try recruiting workers from other federal departments.
But even these additional workers would not be enough. So, FEMA sent out emails to retirees. It also made official requests for resources pursuant to the Emergency Management Assistance Compact, or EMAC, a mutual aid agreement with states to share resources in emergencies. In the past six years, FEMA has recruited an average of 1,700 state workers per year through the EMAC agreement. In 2017 FEMA requested 17,790 EMAC workers.
George Haddow, a former FEMA official who received one of those invitation's to return to the agency on a 30 day assignment, told the Associated Press that the Trump administration had been good at quickly declaring federal disasters to unlock money and resources, but as the disasters continued to pile up, FEMA’s personnel was simply overwhelmed: “They just didn’t have enough bodies.”
2017 broke the disaster record books, led by the three major hurricanes reaching U.S. shores causing an ~$370 billion in damages and ~250 fatalities—or perhaps more if we’re under-counting the death toll in Puerto Rico (by as much as 1,000). Harvey, Irma and Maria combined to impact 26 million people or 8% of the entire U.S. population. By mid-October, more than 4 million survivors registered for FEMA assistance—greater than the number of people who registered for Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Wilma and Sandy combined, according to FEMA.
2017 was the costliest U.S. hurricane season on record by far. But fires and flood events throughout the year put FEMA and emergency response personnel under continual stress.
Flood me once, shame on you. Flood me twice, shame on me. Flood me thrice...
There are great people at FEMA. Heroes. And many more heroes were born this year when they answered the call to step into difficult, short-term and high stress assigments for FEMA (sometimes from other agencies, with useful skills but little training). But how did FEMA get into such a tight spot in the first place? 2017 was a big test and we aren't bringing home our best marks on the report card, heroic as our very impressive scramble(s) proved to when called upon.
Houston, Texas is soldiering on after enduring back-to-back-to-back 500 year floods in the last three years. In the aftermath of Harvey, the ongoing conversation about what to do to harden Houston's resilience—which has dragged on for years—seems to finally be turning towards a "roll our sleeves up" mode.
If 2017 is a taste of a larger intensification in the battle between nature and our built-environment, then we might all do well to consider a stronger defense now. Scrambling just doesn't win every game. And in this game, when we lose it could cost us a city, or an island and people will die. It also costs an absolute fortune to remediate and rebuild.
Unfortunately, FEMA is chronically under-resourced. This year the agency had a mere $2 billion in hand when hurricane Harvey hit on August 17. Since then, Congress has passed two emergency disaster relief bills totaling more than $50 billion but it isn’t enough. Puerto Rico Governor Rosselló has estimated damages to the big island are nearly $100 billion. Today Congress included an $81 billion allotment for disaster relief nationwide (including P.R.) in a bill to avert a government shutdown. This is helpful and welcome, but might not cover the real cost to catch up from these events.
And if an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, then continually playing catchup is not a recipe for success. As Harvey, Irma and Maria evidence, we’re losing the battle for resilience today. And we’re not even close to the surge we need to get ahead of a "new normal" featuring a nastier Mother Nature. As the AP reported:
Long gave his testimony (watch it all here) the same October that 44 people died and more than 6,000 homes were destroyed by the fires that wrecked much of Sonoma County and California’s beloved wine country. In the month prior to that, the La Tuna wildfire—the largest in Los Angeles history—was only one of the 18 large wildfires burning across California over Labor Day. And California was not alone. As Houston recovered from Harvey and Irma was powering up to punch southern Florida, a heat wave beat down on western states causing multiple wildfires to burn parts of Yosemite National Park and dangerous fast-movers to rip through parts of Washington and Oregon states so fast the Governor of Washington declared a state of emergency.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, late season wildfires in Portugal killed dozens more while Sonoma burned and Houston flooded. And across its border, in neighboring Spain, there were more deadly wildfires fanned by winds from Hurricane Ophelia. Iberia's deadly late-season fires arrived in Portugal four months after a summer blaze claimed 64 lives in a single night. 2017 is Portugal’s deadliest year on record for wildfires in the country's history by far.
Portugal suffers widespread wildfires every summer. The Iberian Peninsula has been heating up and drying out for decades. But an extra long drought has made conditions for wildfire much worse. One day this October, emergency services in Portugal recorded 523 wildfires on a single Sunday. "You don't see that in any other country in the world," said Civil Protection Agency spokeswoman Patricia Gaspar the Associated Press reported. That Monday, more than 5,300 firefighters with ~1,600 vehicles were in the forest fighting the Portuguese wildfires cutting through its dense pine and eucalyptus woodlands.
"We have all our firefighters out there doing everything they can," said Home Affairs Minister Constanca Urbano de Sousa. That sounds familiar.
Torching the Grid
The unprecedented damage wrought by California’s September and October wildfires also severely tested the resilience of the electric grid. California, Pacific Gas & Electric Co. (PG&E), had to restore power to more than 350,000 customers and 42,000 more that had their natural gas deactivated—notwithstanding the precautionary investments the company makes to prevent just such calamity.
PG&E maintains its transmission lines with active programs to trim vegetative growth and reduce the risk of wildfire. PG&E manages ~123 million trees on ~2 million properties over 70,000 square miles, according to the company. In 2016, PG&E removed about 236,000 dead or dying trees, in addition to pruning or removing about 1.2 million other trees under its the annual program to prevent contact with power lines. That's about seven times more trees removed than PG&E’s pre-drought three-year average.
So, it was busy working ahead of this year's historic fires, but still took a big hit. Like FEMA surged in response by deploying more than 2,000 PG&E contract and mutual aid employees. In addition, extra workers from energy companies in Southern California, Nevada, Arizona, Washington and New Mexico all pitched in to assist PG&E's efforts in Northern Calfornia.
The company's year-round management programs employs a variety of tools, including the latest aerial drones equipped with remote sensing technology that can inspect PG&E’s transmission lines remotely. The company specifically deploys Light-detecting and Ranging (LiDAR) technology, which can identify trees to be worked. But the company still deploys regular boots-on-the-ground inspections too. And it’s not trying to fight alone. PG&E has awarded millions of dollars to local California Fire Safe Councils to help combat the threat of wildfire through better managed forest growth.
PG&E and other experts are growing increasingly concerned about the resiliency of the electric grid. An increase in extreme weather events is already challenging the utilities industry, with the promise of greater stress to come in the future.
In many parts of the world, like Portugal and California, hotter weather, stronger winds and drought conditions are contributing to the growing risk for wildfires. This year, Northern California wildfires were fed by winds gusts to 100 mph at higher elevations. Santa Rosa, which was devastated in October, experienced sustained winds of 85 mph—above hurricane force winds. PG&E highlighted in a release that:
While burying power lines underground is considerably safer and more reliable in wildfire-prone areas, PG&E and other utility companies often cite the cost as being unrealistic. Underground lines cost $1.16 million per mile, which is more than double the cost of overhead lines. In cities, the costs to bury anything are even greater and take much longer. A 2015 report found that moving power lines underground in California cost between $2.8–$5.9 million per mile, after examining project costs in the city of San Diego and some Bay Area cities from the recent past ($2.8M in Oakland, $4.6M in San Jose). PG&E has estimated a new underground distribution line across most of PG&E’s territory costs about $1.16 million per mile, according to data filed with state regulators during the utility’s most recent general rate case. Whatever the true cost in millions of dollars per mile, with more than 134,000 miles of lines across Northern and Central California, PG&E would presumably need to spend 100+ billion dollars to move all of its power lines underground.
Rebuilding after the Fire Roars
The usual above-ground transmission lines have been repaired in Sonoma and electricity service restored. But amid the largest debris-removal campaign in California history, about 13,000 claims have been submitted by Sonoma County residents for Federal Emergency Management Agency assistance of some kind, officials reported to the Los Angeles Times. After being burned up many Santa Rosa fire evacuees fear they can't afford to return. Santa Rosa and Sonoma County officials are creating temporary housing options for seniors on fixed incomes and others, but the vast scale of the destruction has left them grappling with questions about how they can afford to recruit, house and pay for an army of laborers to expedite construction of permanent homes without deep cuts in funding for basic services.
"We've lost a major source of revenue, property taxes, which account for roughly a third of our budget," Shirlee Zane told the LA Times, chairwoman of the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors. "That means every single person who lives and works here is going to be affected," Zane continued. "We don't want teachers, police officers, firefighters and county workers who lost their homes to move elsewhere with their insurance checks."
For many homeowners a fire can reveal that they are uninsured or underinsured from contaminants that result. The most common ISO homeowners policy form HO3 excludes "others to test for, monitor, clean up, remove, contain, treat, detoxify or neutralize, or in any way respond to, or assess the effects of, pollutants in or on any covered building or other structure" under the ordinance and law exclusion. Homeowners who went with the Pollutant Clean Up and Removal Endorsement Form 207 have a $10,000 sublimit for pollutant clean up.
Commercial and industrial properties also tend to be uninsured or underinsured for this kind of contamination clean-up and have limited coverage for personal injury arising from heat, smoke or fumes from the fire that causes the release. Yet, fires are one of the most risks and one of the easiest ways to cause substantial chemical reactions and contaminant releases.
Clear and Present Health Hazard
When Dr. Karen Relucio, chief public health officer in Napa County (one of the hardest-hit places in October), heard people were digging into the ashes of their burned homes in recent days without gloves, wearing only shorts and T-shirts, her office issued a notice urging them to stop immediately.
“Just think of all the hazardous materials in your house,” she said in an interview with the New York Times. “Your chemicals, your pesticides, propane, gasoline, plastic and paint—it all burns down into the ash. It concentrates in the ash, and it’s toxic,” Dr. Relucio warned.
Whole neighborhoods in California have been covered by a thick layer of ash. Winds can whip the ash into the air. Rain will eventually wash everything into streams and down watersheds, carrying contaminants with it to properties that were completely untouched by the fires.The process of cleaning it all up will be a long, costly and complicated effort sure to raise liability questions and a number of other difficult issues, some of which may end up in court. The more immediate problem after disaster of this scale, however, is getting thousands of properties directly affected remediated, repaired and restored.
“In modern times this has got be an unprecedented event, and a major hazard for the public and for property owners,” Dr. Alan Lockwood, a retired neurologist who has written widely about public health told the New York Times. An apt comparison might be the environmental cleanup after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, in New York, as debris and dust swirled through Lower Manhattan, Dr. Lockwood said.
Residential neighborhoods are built with different components than the Twin Towers, but could pose just as great a risk to human health. Most homes are made with treated wood, which can contain copper, chromium and arsenic and many older homes still have asbestos in shingles, insulation and flooring. And practically every home today has electronics that contain metals like lead, mercury and cadmium and do not react well to fire from a human health standpoint.
And when such large areas burn, some bad places can become worse. There's entombed waste pockmarking the entire country from coast to coast and across the world. After a fire in Slave Lake, Alberta, destroyed about 400 homes in 2011, the city landfill was found to be leaching toxins. In Missouri, a radioactive landfill has been burning underground for years.
In California, the road to cleanup will be long. The sheer number of communities affected and properties destroyed is a larger scale challenge than any the state has faced in recent history. But at least our first responders were able to rally and beat back the fires in time for Christmas. For them, 2018 probably can’t come soon enough.