We Californians faced disaster in 2017. What’s in store could be worse

The Rincon Ridge area of Sonoma County lies devastated after the wine country fire in October 2017. PG&E, facing billions in wildfire claims, is watching closely the latest “red flag” fire warning from the National Weather Service.
The Rincon Ridge area of Sonoma County lies devastated after the wine country fire in October 2017. PG&E, facing billions in wildfire claims, is watching closely the latest “red flag” fire warning from the National Weather Service. pkitagaki@sacbee.com

Living atop ever-shifting tectonic plates, we know the Earth can shift with deadly force at any time, though we don’t dwell on it. But as 2017 nears its end, let’s reflect on the disasters we endured, and what they portend for next year and years ahead.

In the last rainy season, more rain and snow fell on our valleys and mountains than in any year recorded, this after five years of drought. Eroded by the force of millions of gallons water cascading out of Lake Oroville, the concrete spillway at the massive Oroville Dam crumbled in February, and the Butte County sheriff wisely erred on the side of safety by ordering 188,000 people to evacuate.

You can be forgiven if the Oroville Dam scare seems to have happened in the distant past, although in this time of climate change, such anomalous events could well be part of our future. That became evident on the terrible night of Oct. 8 and early morning of Oct. 9.

Fire crews suppressed many of the 21 fires that erupted that night, but not the monster Tubbs Fire. An unusually hot dry wind akin to the brutal Santa Anas that afflict Southern California propelled the Sonoma County fire at astonishing speeds, essentially the length of a football field every 60 seconds. It leaped across Highway 101 in Santa Rosa and destroyed entire blocks in Coffey Park, a neighborhood that had been on no map depicting high fire danger zones.

By the time the flames died, more than 8,000 structures from Sonoma to Yuba counties were lost. Last weekend, the death toll rose to 44 when Michel Azarian succumbed at UC Davis Medical Center, including 24 in Sonoma County. Friends described Azarian, an engineer, as an avid outdoorsman. He was 41. The average age of people who died in the October fire storms was closer to 70. Older people simply cannot move as quickly.

As if we needed it, here is more evidence that the environment is changing: As of this past week, Cal Fire confronted 6,719 wildfires on the 31 million acres under its jurisdiction. The average number of fires in the five preceding years was 4,719.

As the California Public Utilities Commission contemplates its response to the wine country fires, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection presented new maps to the CPUC showing that 74,756 square miles within California have an elevated or extreme level of fire danger.

That’s more than twice the acreage previously listed as fire prone, and represents more than 40 percent of California’s land mass. Population growth in the foothills adds to the risk. It’s a reality we in the Sacramento region must confront, before what happened in Sonoma and Napa counties occurs here.

More than 4,600 homes in Sacramento-area cities stand in neighborhoods where fire officials say there is a high or very high wildfire threat, The Sacramento Bee’s Ryan Lillis recently reported. An estimated 365,000 people living in urban and suburban areas in the region face at least a moderate threat of wildfire, including 44,000 in Folsom, The Bee’s analysis found.

Individuals must take responsibility for their own protection. But knowing that fire follows familiar paths, state and local authorities must restrict building in certain areas. Where buildings exist in fire zones, authorities must insist on greater protections, including requiring wider clearance between electric wires and structures, and trees and other fuel.

In some areas, utility lines ought to be buried, costly though that would be. People who choose to live in fire-prone areas ought to be prepared to pay for the bulk of the cost.

The 44 people who died as a result of the October firestorm clearly didn’t receive adequate warning. On Monday, the Legislature will hold a hearing focusing on how to go about warning residents of impending disaster. Because fewer of us have land lines, and cell phones can be unreliable in disasters, perhaps we should look for low-tech solutions, like sirens.

On that night, hot wind, the sort associated with Southern California, gusted up to 70 miles an hour. Whether fallen power lines or something else provided the spark igniting dry vegetation remains to be determined.

But as The LA Times reported recently, San Diego Gas & Electric Co. invested a modest $1.7 million to install 170 weather observation stations on backcountry poles, creating one of the country’s densest weather monitoring networks.

When the Santa Anas start blowing, the Times wrote, meteorologists constantly monitor the network, crews are dispatched to areas where the strongest winds are forecast, and SDG&E turns off power to portions of its distribution system before fires start. That model ought to be replicated.

In 2017, Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature took forward-looking steps, earmarking $225 million in cap-and-trade revenue for forest restoration. As climate scientists have explained, 2013 Rim Fire at Yosemite emitted 12.06 million tons of carbon dioxide, three times more than all the greenhouse gas reductions achieved that year in all other sectors in California.

In 2018, voters will have their say. Lawmakers approved legislation by Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León placing a $4 billion bond on the November ballot, with much of the money earmarked for flood control and projects intended to improve forest health.

If voters approve it, the state would spend $142 million to begin restoring forestland, including projects intended to reduce fire risk. The proposal also earmarks $443 million for climate adaptation and resiliency projects, and $550 million for flood protection and infrastructure repair, with $350 million of that to be spent in the Central Valley. As the Oroville Dam spillway shows, California must reinvest in infrastructure.

We who make our homes in the Golden State know that the Big One can hit at any time, and we build structures to withstand earthquakes. As the fire and rain of 2017 made clear, we will have no choice but to adjust to the reality of changing climate, now and in years to come.

Related stories from Sacramento Bee