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The worst fire in California history illuminates fire preparation needs

Reposted from the UCANR Green Blog

Four months have passed since the Camp Four months have passed since the Camp Fire, the worst wildfire in California history, ravaged bucolic communities in the Butte County foothills, including Paradise, Concow, Butte Creek Canyon, Cherokee, Yankee Hill and Magalia. Eighty-five people died, many of them elderly and unable to safely evacuate from an area where a wind-driven fire raced from home to home.

Fire resilient forests have the benefit of offering greater access for recreation. (Photo: Butte County Fire Safe Council)

The unspeakable loss of human life and the serious challenges being faced by survivors has dominated the Camp Fire conversation. Now, UC Cooperative Extension is beginning a dialog with many agencies involved to understand how such tragedies can be prevented in the future.

UC Cooperative Extension fire scientists and representatives of many California organizations conduct fire behavior research, study forest treatments – such as prescribed burns, timber harvest and mastication – and share best practices for home and community preparation. In the Butte County area where the Camp Fire took place, cooperating agencies include CalFIRE, the U.S. Forest Service, the Butte County Fire Safe Council, the Yankee Hill Fire Safe Council, Sacramento River Watershed Program, the Sierra Nevada Conservancy, the Bureau of Land Management, and others.

While the Camp Fire was devastating, it could have been far worse. Working together for decades, the partner agencies have improved community safety and resilience.

They have educated the public about defensible space, fire resistant homes, and evacuation plans. They have coordinated fuels treatments along evacuation routes and around the communities. Through their actions, they saved many lives and structures, protected the town's drinking water supply, and in some cases, provided access for hiking in areas that had been overgrown by brush.

“When you drive for miles through blackened, burned trees and then arrive in a thinning project area full of green tree tops, you know that these efforts are worth it, we are having success and we can make a difference together,” said Calli-Jane DeAnda, executive director of the Butte County Fire Safe Council

Because of the Camp Fire tragedy, the partner agencies learned many lessons that can inform future maintenance and treatments to improve fire resilience in Butte County and other wildland areas. Kate Wilkin, the UC Cooperative Extension fire advisor for Sutter, Yuba, Butte, and Nevada counties, is able to point to projects implemented in the Camp Fire zone that saved lives and structures.

For example, one family in Paradise was featured by the news media for their successful advance fire planning, which even included the installation of sprinklers on top of the house.

“When I think about what saves a house, a sprinkler is a cherry on top of the cake,” Wilkin said. “If a house is constructed with a combustible roof and siding, if unprotected vents allow embers to get into the attic, or the landscape is not maintained, a sprinkler isn't going to save the house. The sprinkler's power from the grid or a generator will likely fail. High winds may even prevent the sprinkler's mist from hitting the house.”

Rather, passive resistance to fires through better building design, materials and maintenance greatly reduce structure loss.

“Maintenance is an unsung hero of fire resilience,” Wilkin said. “Individual actions at our homes matter.”

First 5 feet around a structure

State law requires homeowners in wildfire areas to clear 100 feet of defensible space around their structures. Most towns in wildfire-prone areas also have their own defensible space codes. Wilkin said where she lives in Grass Valley, anyone with less than an acre of land must maintain their entire property as defensible space.

This guideline is a start, but there is more that people who live in wildfire-prone areas can do to make their homes resilient to fire. UC Cooperative Extension scientists recommend creating a five-foot buffer immediately surrounding the home almost completely devoid of plants and anything that can burn - including wooden fences, firewood, deck chairs and pillows, brooms and other wooden tools.

This extra precaution is important as embers from a distant wildfire can land on or adjacent to a house and ignite combustible items which in turn ignite the home. It was evident in the Camp Fire that the first five feet around homes was a critical factor in the survivability of structures.

The zone can include noncombustible materials such as rock mulch, stone pavers, cement, bare earth, gravel or sand. Low combustibility materials, such as irrigated and maintained lawn or herbaceous plants less than five inches high, are okay. All leaves, needles or other vegetation that falls in this five-foot zone must be removed during the fire season.

“The non-combustible space adjoining the house may be the difference between losing it and all the contents to a wildfire versus returning to the property with the home unscathed,” Wilkin said.

Community fire resilience

Fire survival measures can also be taken at the community level.

In Paradise, the Butte County Fire Safe Council funded CalFIRE crews to thin a number of areas in the watershed below Paradise Lake in 2013 and 2014. Taking these actions allowed an area for firefighters to start a defense and start putting out the flame front, Wilkin said.

“A CalFIRE chief told residents, ‘You provide the offense, we provide the defense.' Homeowners and communities need to get everything set up for successful firefighting,” she said.

Forest thinning has the added benefit of improving recreational opportunities. Near Magalia Pine Ridge School, an 11-acre mastication project in 2018 funded with $30,000 from the Butte County Fire Safe Council cleared overgrown vegetation around the school. This helped strengthen the area's public assembly location, which was identified on the community's evacuation map, and opened up access to a forest hiking trail that was blocked by tangled brush.

The open space dramatically slowed the raging Camp Fire when it approached the school, which is now one of the only schools open in the Paradise Ridge community.

Note the No. 9 marker in the lower left corner of each photo. (Click the photo to see a higher resolution version.) The the image on the right was taken after mastication, which opened up the forest for recreation and made the forest more resilient before the Camp Fire. (Photos: Butte County Fire Safe Council)
 

Forest thinning also protected the drinking water for the town of Paradise. A combination of projects undertaken by U.S. Forest Service, Sierra Pacific Industries and the Butte County Fire Safe Council aligned to allow fire fighters to combat the fire and ensure that the source of drinking water was protected.

Concow wildfire safety zone

In 2013 and 2014, the Butte County Fire Safe Council and Yankee Hill Fire Safe Council created a wildfire public assembly safety zone in Concow. The work was completed by inmate crews. During the Camp Fire, dozens of lives were saved when sheriff deputies, firefighters and citizens were able to shelter in the area.

“Wildfire safety zones are pretty uncommon and we may want to create more in wildfire prone areas,” Wilkin said. “But there is a hitch.”

CalFIRE is reluctant to designate temporary refuges because they don't want people to rely on them in place of evacuation. During a quick-moving firestorm, it could be an area where people can shelter if they cannot get out.

“It's a complex and dangerous puzzle,” Wilkin said. “In Australia, they had a similar idea and some places where people sheltered in a fire caused them to die.”

Wilkin is working with Paradise parks to identify areas ahead of time with enough space to meet new national firefighter standards to protect people's lungs from superheated air.

“Historically, we thought sufficient space was four times as great as the flame heights. If you have a Ponderosa pine that's torching 150 feet high, you would need 800 feet around the people,” Wilkin said. “New research has found that the safety zone calculation must also consider potential wind speed and slope. Significantly more space may be needed.”

A wildfire safety zone at Camelot Meadow. (Photo: Butte County Fire Safe Council)
 
Posted on Thursday, April 4, 2019 at 11:00 AM
  • Author: jeannette warnert

What can we learn from the 14,000 homes lost during the Camp Fire?

Shades of brown and grey cast over bricks, cement, remnants of metal roofs and steel beams from manufactured and modular homes, collapsed stucco walls, BBQs, shells of washers and driers, along with an occasional tea pot—that is what you can see in and amongst living, but singed Ponderosa pine and California black oak trees where the Camp Fire burned. How did California's most deadly fire happen and what might be done differently to ensure a better outcome? These are difficult questions that California will wrestle with for a long time to come.

 

Surviving home with recently upgraded roofing, vents, and combustible materials separated from the house. Every home surrounding this house was lost to the Camp Fire.

Last week I was able to tour some of the burned area in Paradise and Magalia to evaluate why some homes survived and others did not. This gave me a chance to look at homes that survived largely on their material selection, design details, the owner's maintenance efforts, and not necessarily with the aid of a fire crew or resident that stayed. Many of the buildings that were burned were lost on the first day or two of the fire while emergency response was focused on evacuating the communities. It will take months to make sense of this mess and tragedy, but during my tour some conditions rang true to me.

  • Wildfire is not uniform. Not all fires are the same and not all houses experience the same type of fire. When you are looking at home losses and survivors, keep in mind that each home may not have had the same fire exposure. Some homes experienced significant ember exposure, while others ignited because their neighbor's home succumbed to fire and the heat of their neighbor's house caught their house on fire, while others were protected from the wind and its deadly embers. Paradise and Magalia have blocks and blocks of nothing but foundations, but amongst these bleak conditions are a few intact or partially damaged homes that have a story to tell.
    Remnants of a burned trailer park in Paradise.
  • We saw homes that survived that had upgraded attic and foundation vents that meet the California building code for construction in wildfire prone areas. Some of these houses also included some extra efforts where vegetation and combustible mulch was virtually eliminated in the area immediately adjacent to the home. Our inspection team included UC's Dr. Steve Quarles, a national expert in fire-safe construction, who interpreted this to mean that meeting the 2008 Chapter 7 A standards, coupled with the enhanced defensible space, likely made the difference to ward off the assault of the ember-driven Camp Fire. We found evidence that burned homes in Paradise had ¼” mesh foundation and under-eave vent screens. Research has shown that these larger size screens let embers penetrate the attic and ignite the house from within. The 2008 California building code standards specify screen mesh size between 1/8” and 1/16”-inch, or vents that demonstrate their ability to resist embers and flames.
    A homeowner holds a foundation vent found in the rubble of her home. Her home was built before the 2008 construction standards and had the larger ¼ inch mesh screen size that may have allowed embers to enter her home.
  • Our tour also confirmed that landscaping plants and wood mulch placed right next to the house creates vulnerability. While looking at the rubble of a home, it can be difficult to tell what happened; however, we saw several surviving houses with broken glass or otherwise damaged dual-pane windows that experienced heat exposures sufficient to crack glass in the windows, but the home still survived during these first two days when fire crews were rightly focused on community evacuation and not structure protection. For the houses that did not survive, we can interpret that in addition to the vulnerabilities in vents or a roof, heat can easily break glass in windows, especially if those windows are single pane, and can likely created a pathway for fire to enter the houses.
    Wood mulch and landscape plants burned adjacent to this newly constructed home. Several windows were broken from the heat from this fire. The home met the new construction standards and survived, but likely would not have been damaged if there had been a 5-foot zone around the home that did not contain combustible plants or other materials.
  • Home placement makes a difference. A home at the top of a canyon or gulch can easily be overwhelmed by wildfire by taking on additional heat as the fire approaches and being blasted with embers. This is not a new concept, but the homes in the broader Paradise region were especially vulnerable when they were located above these gulches and canyons. Enhanced vegetation management is highly recommended that includes a 5-foot non-combustible zone immediately adjacent to the home. 

Our team, which also included Dr. Eric Knapp from the USDA Forest Service Pacific Southwest Research Station, has been able to do a quick analysis of home losses by year of construction in Paradise. This cursory analysis shows that many homes built after the 2008 wildfire standards were adopted were lost during this fire, however, without knowing the specific details of each home (e.g., maintenance practices, proximity to other building, etc.), these statistics can be misleading. We will continue to work through the available data to try to look for patterns, however, in the meantime, it seems clear to me that the new construction standards can reduce the probability of ember intrusion and may have helped for some homes in Paradise. This week a new study reported that complying with these standards was not considerably more expensive. Additionally, the codes that help guide construction in California's wildfire-prone areas are dynamic and will be informed by the 2017 and 2018 wildfire seasons.

Remnant charred materials called “embers” found in a lawn were the drivers of the Camp Fire. The larger size shown in this fire suggests that these were embers generated from burning buildings and not from vegetation.

For me thinking about Paradise in the abstraction was easy. Visiting it was different. The name says it all. After my visit I could understand why someone would choose Paradise or Magalia; the views are awesome, the air is clear, the forest and woodlands are amazing. I can only imagine that the community was (almost) perfect. Rebuilding a more resilient community will take considerable thought, effort, and some radical new ideas.

A well-maintained forested area in Paradise that had minimal tree mortality from the Camp Fire.

Posted on Friday, December 21, 2018 at 3:09 PM
  • Author: Yana Valachovic
 
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