Bob Roper | The fires of California: Past the tipping point?

Will wildfire impacts help us address the fire-preparedness backlog? A call to become “fire fit.”

February 11, 2020 – Looking at recent media articles about the California wildfires, I continue to see people banter about the electrical utility companies’ liability due to wildfire ignition starts and the Public Safety Power Shutoffs (PSPS). Seems that a large majority believes that if the utility companies did not contribute to the start of wildfires, our state and nation would not have the current wildfire problem.

Are they right? 

Advertisement

Public comments express that utility companies may put shareholder interests above general public safety by deferring system maintenance for years. But just think – if we did not witness the recent influx of devastating wildfires associated with utility companies, would the politicians and others change their priorities and aggressively address/fund wildfire issues?

This thought is not unlike you and I who may know that we need to lose weight, exercise and change some lifestyle habits so we don’t suffer a heart attack, but we don’t make the hard lifestyle choices until a major traumatic event hits us. While I don’t want to thank the utility companies for their liability or the damages and tragedies that resulted, the overall wildfire situation has disclosed a range of topical issues such as infrastructure maintenance, antiquated technology, social media generational differences, insurance coverage/rate issues, population growth outpacing first-responder system growth, and the public’s role in emergency preparation.

Here in California, the issues may not be different from elsewhere, but the scale of impact is perhaps nearing a tipping point as the impacts of fire touch nearly every sector, including:

  • INFRASTRUCTURE DESIGN AND MAINTENANCE has deferred the inevitable as first the occurrence of utility-line-ignited wildfires forced the issue of preventative PSPS in advance of strong winds and extreme fire conditions. Our technology infrastructure never thought that critical technology infrastructure would need backup electrical power for extended periods, nor defensible space to protect these mountaintop sites so they can provide reliable emergency alert notifications when they are needed the most. Restaurants, markets, manufacturing businesses and people dependent on medical devices found out that they too need a business/life continuity plan.
  • Our TECHNOLOGY has not kept up with speed of fire spread, and thus we have never overcome the “fog of war” for emergency commanders. We are just now recognizing the “digital divide” where each generation has different expectations about public notifications and how they access (and act upon) current emergency information.
  • Wildfires have recently SET RECORDS FOR STRUCTURE LOSSES and it has pointed out several key issues and public frustrations from insurance policy non-renewals and/or escalating rate increases for premiums. Most of us do not understand how insurance policies work or how much insurance coverage we should have so life can be rebuilt. Insurance companies’ financial books have taken a hit and has raised related questions being discussed today, i.e. effects of reinsurance, regulation by the state of rate structures, and how policy rate structures are established.
  • Our EMERGENCY RESPONSE SYSTEM is based on established deployment systems that have not kept pace with increased population growth, especially in the wildland fire prone areas. There is a public expectation that emergency response performance metrics today should be the same or better than the levels they were 20-30 years ago.
  • We are also dealing with OLDER, PRE-EXISTING PLANNING DEVELOPMENT CONDITIONS like narrow, dead end roads that greatly inhibit effective evacuation actions. This situation is further exacerbated by the public’s expectation that if they evacuate, they can or should be able to immediately return home.
  • Finally, we are witnessing a CONFLUENCE OF EXPECTATIONS where government response is not keeping up with the public’s expectations and government is still scratching their heads on how to effectively make the public an integral part of the wildfire solution.

Whether you acknowledge climate change impacts or not, if you are not happy with PSPS actions by utility companies, just recognize that the last three years of devastating wildfires have created an opportunity to aggressively address the wildfire problem.

The National Wildland Fire Cohesive Strategy clearly identifies that as a nation we must learn to live with wildfires by restoring our landscapes, building fire adapted-communities, and having a robust response system. We need to restore our landscapes by various means and the amount of acres burned over three years could never be accomplished by current fuel treatment practices due to bureaucratic and social-acceptance hurdles. We need to build fire-adapted communities, but this community effort has to be contiguous/continuous and not the checkerboard approach that is being done today. Our response system needs advanced technology that is available today and emergency response resources must be bolstered to meet the public’s performance expectations.

As noted by a Headwaters Economics report – “Full Community Costs of Wildfire” – as a country, we need to decide if we will ever address and sizably invest in the wildfire problem before a fire, or will we simply pay for damages and subsequent post fire issues (i.e. flooding, loss of water sources, etc.) (https://headwaterseconomics.org/wildfire/homes-risk/full-community-costs-of-wildfire/).

In other words, when it comes to wildland fire we must go on a diet, exercise and change lifestyle habits before our heart attack – because someday we may not be there to pay for damages. The recent history of devastating wildfires should be the traumatic event that wakes us up to effectively address today’s wildfire problem.

And in a strange way, we should acknowledge that those fires and subsequent PSPS issues have helped to focus political efforts. Yet political will and action relies on social will, which is ultimately an individual decision.

Have you seen the fires? Have you tried to adapt to smoke and lived without power? Are we ready, as individuals and communities, to get fire-fit?

Bob Roper spent 40 years in the fire service focusing on wildland fire topics. He is the retired Fire Chief from Ventura County, CA, retired State Forester of Nevada, and currently Western Fire Chief’s Association Policy Advisor. He served as the FIRESCOPE Chair and participated in the development of the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Strategy development. He was a member of Governor Schwarzenegger’s Blue Ribbon Commission following the CA 2003 Firestorms. He wrote “Wildfire – The Answer,” a reflection and call to action after the 2017 California fire season, in February 2018 Wildfire.

Reprinted with permission from Wildfire Magazine (www.wildfiremagazine.org), published by the International Association of Wildland Fire (www.iawfonline.org).