2017 was a year of massive wildfire losses in California. The state experienced five of the 20 most destructive wildfires in state history (#1 Tubbs, #6 Nuns, #7 Thomas, #11 Atlas and #17 Redwood Valley Complex). Nearly 10,000 structures were destroyed, more than in the previous nine years combined and, at 43, the death toll from wildfires in 2017 was higher than the previous 10 years combined.
Last October ushered in what the LA Times dubbed the “Northern California Firestorm.” During this time, there were as many as 250 wildfires across northern California within just a few weeks. More than a score of these became major wildfires and consumed more than 245,000 acres across Napa, Lake, Solano, Sonoma, Mendocino, and Butte counties. When all was said and done, AccuWeather estimated that the total cost of the wildfires would exceed $180 billion and took the lives of 41 civilians and two firefighters while injuring more than 200 people.
A year later, what can the industry take away from these disasters to be better prepared to handle this occurrence in the future?
First and foremost, we learned that living in a suburban neighborhood doesn’t insulate you from wildfire risk, as the residents of Coffey Park discovered. This Santa Rosa neighborhood was south and west of the “wildfire hazard” area, though that didn’t stop hundreds of homes from being consumed as the Tubbs fire swept down upon them.
Freeways and vineyards as fire breaks
We also learned that freeways are not as effective as fire breaks as had previously been thought. The Tubbs fire jumped the 101 Freeway into Coffey Park, in December, the Skirball fire caused the 405 freeway to be closed south of Mulholland Drive, and only favorable winds kept that fire from crossing the freeway into the Bundy Canyon and Mandeville Canyon Park areas.
On the other hand, vineyards do make a fairly effective fire break, as several Napa and Sonoma Valley wineries unfortunately discovered. Due to the year-round maintenance in the vineyards, there is very little dry brush to fuel a wildfire, and the vines themselves contain quite a lot of moisture, making them resistant to burning. Despite these facts, some vineyards did burn, creating a three- to five-year recovery period for new vines to be planted and become established. Luckily, most varieties of wine grapes had already been harvested before the fires broke out.
Southern California didn’t escape from wildfire season in 2017 either. The Thomas fire — which started in early December near Thomas Aquinas College, north of Santa Paula — grew surprisingly fast, burning more than 280,000 acres and destroying nearly 1,100 structures. Additionally, heavy rains in early 2018 resulted in massive mudflows as the topsoil of the recently denuded hills around Montecito and surrounding areas washed away.
Sadly, we learned that the true impact of wildfires is not always known immediately after the flames are extinguished, as the losses can continue to pour in for weeks or even months afterward.
Fewer fires, larger size
It seems a bit counterintuitive, but CalFire reports that the number of fire ignitions each year is gradually declining over time, but the average size of the fires is gradually increasing.
Wildfires get their start in undeveloped or sparsely developed regions, but the increasing incursion of homes and other structures deeper and deeper into the wildlands gives these fires fuel to feed their growing appetites. When a series of wildfires breaks out over a short period of time, such as we saw in Northern California last October, firefighting resources can be quickly stretched beyond their ability to effectively operate. It can take hours or even days to bring in firefighting resources from other regions or states, and during these critical intervals, the wildfires can swell to unbelievable size and ferocity.
Mitigating wildfire risk in California and elsewhere is a complex problem and defies a simple solution. There are, however, some simple steps that people can take to improve the chances that their homes might survive a wildfire in their region.
1. Clear defensible space around your home. Although 100 feet is good, 200 feet is better.
2. When building or remodeling a home in the wildlands, consider the materials and design carefully. Attic vents, wooden eaves and overhangs, wooden decks and patio covers are all great fuel for wildfires. Metal siding is much more fire resistant than is wood siding, and there are some synthetic deck materials that may provide less fuel for the fire than dry wood. Work with a knowledgeable contractor to set your home up for success.
3. There are also some behavioral changes that can mitigate wildfire risk. Don’t mow dry grass on a hot, windy day. Lawn mower blades are usually steel, and if they hit a rock, sparks can ignite a fire in your wake. Keep brush and other flammable materials well away from your home.
4. Listen to evacuation recommendations and orders. Get out when instructed to do so, and let the firefighters do their work. They can be much more effective in preserving property if they don’t have to allocate resources to look for people who ignored the evacuation instructions.
Wildfires are a fact of life in California, and recent years have made it clear that the size and scope of the fires are not diminishing as development and construction increase. With some sound risk management in site selection, design and building materials — as well as some basic risk management on a daily basis — homeowners can protect themselves and help to make the next fire year less destructive than the last one.