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    • Protect the environment. Think before you print.

Beyond California blackouts, 6 ways to adapt to fire risk

November 6, 2019

Tick, Kincade and other fires show California blackouts aren’t a long-term solution. Here are six recommendations to help reduce losses from wildfires.

California wildfires

By Rachel Norton and Karen MacClune, ISET-International

As the one-year anniversary of the devastating Camp and Woolsey fires approached, Californians were once again faced with high winds and low humidity — dangerous conditions that ignited wildfires across the state. In response, utilities temporarily shut off power to millions of residents on different occasions during October.

The goal of the preemptive California blackouts was to reduce the likelihood of power lines sparking a wildfire, as happened with the Camp Fire, which nearly destroyed the town of Paradise in November 2018, and with 17 major fires that occurred in 2017 in California. This strategy of shutting off power is proving both insufficient and contentious, drawing outcries from residents all the way up to the governor.

In early October, communities far from wildfire hazard were subject to blackouts, weather did not live up to predictions, outages occurred on no set schedule, and the economic impacts to businesses were estimated at
$65 million to $2.5 billion. Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), California’s largest electric utility, implemented more shutdowns in late October as the Tick Fire in Los Angeles County and the Kincade Fire in Sonoma County made national headlines.

In all instances, it is impossible to say with certainty that cutting power is the reason a fire didn’t happen or grow even worse. What was clear was that negative impacts from the blackouts reverberated through communities and the state. To prevent preemptive blackouts from becoming the new normal, other transformative steps are needed to adapt to hotter, drier, windier conditions that favor wildfires in California and other wildfire-prone states.

Utilities are in a difficult position. Because high-power lines pose a significant risk, many officials agree that shutting off power in some areas can be a necessity during extreme fire conditions. Yet, as Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) noted in a Facebook post,
it’s not a sustainable, long-term solution for any community. While burying power lines is another option to reduce the likelihood of ignition, practically speaking, this is prohibitively expensive.

The power grid is an obvious area of vulnerability for societies living in fire-prone environments, but other elements of wildfire risk are what make it more problematic than ever. Continued development in the wildland-urban interface (WUI), insufficient action to “harden” homes and other structures against wildfires, gaps in insurance coverage, and the shared management and maintenance of land in the WUI all contribute to communities’ exposure to wildfires. Within each of these areas, there is space for reducing risk and building resilience.

An upcoming post-event report from Zurich North America, ISET-International and DuPont, titled “California fires: Building resilience from the ashes,” offers several recommendations for reducing wildfire risk and building resilience. The report is based on months of study of four major California wildfires in 2017 and 2018, involving over 50 interviews with community members, key stakeholders and public officials, as well as a review of over 100 secondary sources. Six recommendations are the result:

  1. Apply and enforce California’s Chapter 7A fire-resistant building standards more broadly. In many blazes, wind-driven embers have ignited structures beyond the boundaries of high fire hazard severity zones.
  2. Incentivize smart growth, particularly in the WUI. That can include using public lands, parks and playing fields to create buffer zones that slow the spread of fire.
  3. Plan for the unimaginable — consider fire behavior beyond the worst-case scenario. The Camp Fire, for example, led to the contamination of Paradise’s water system with benzene. Utilities should broaden their thinking about potential vulnerabilities as part of their planning.
  4. When structures burn, use the rebuilding process to integrate more resilient materials and building methods. Research shows that building to fire-resistant standards, such as by enclosing eaves and choosing composite decking over wood, doesn’t necessarily increase costs significantly.
  5. Develop a culture of wildfire mitigation to reduce collective fire risk. Property owners need to recognize that what they do or don’t do on their land, such as accumulating debris and dry brush around their property, can impact the safety of their neighbors.
  6. Actively learn from every event, even those in other states or counties. In addition to California, states including Montana, Colorado and New Mexico have an above-average percentage of households at high or extreme fire risk.

Most Californians recognize that fire risks are growing, but don’t always recognize they can impact their risk exposure. The upcoming “California fires” report helps quantify and qualify how fire hazard is intensifying, what is driving those changes, and the mitigation and adaptive actions that can be taken by individuals as well as communities and governments.

One goal of the “California fires” report is to help shift the mindset from response after a fire to resilience measures before. Research indicates that $1 invested in wildland-urban interface fire hazard mitigation measures can save from $3 to $4 in future costs — a sound return on investment.

The full “California fires” report will be shared on in coming weeks.

Rachel Norton is a research associate and Karen MacClune is executive director at the nonprofit Institute for Social and Environmental Transition–International. ISET-International is a member of the Zurich Flood Resilience Alliance and a frequent Zurich research partner in post-disaster reports using Zurich’s open-source, award-winning methodology, the Post Event Review Capability (PERC).