What to know as California’s peak fire months loom

In Summary

History shows that September and October, with their hot, fierce winds, are the state’s worst times for fire.

California fire officials have learned through hard experience to temper their optimism.

Having just endured more than a decade of rampaging fires — 14 of the 20 most destructive fires in state history have occurred since 2007 — fire bosses say this year the glass is half-full. 

“We’ve got a few things going for us at the moment,” said Scott McLean, a spokesman for Cal Fire, the state firefighting agency. “We still have a snowpack. Our upper elevations haven’t dried out. Because of that, we are able to continue our fuel-reduction projects.”

Yes, this year featured a wet winter — usually good news for fire officials. But so did 2017, one of the state’s wettest winters in half a century and one of the most devastating years for wildfire.

Clearing and cutting has helped eliminate some of the brush and trees that fuel the flames. But California’s forests are still clogged with 147 million dead trees, and counting. And the late-winter rains encouraged the growth of grasses and other highly combustible plants.

Cal Fire battled 164 fires across the state in the third week of August, many of them small. History shows that September and October, with their hot, fierce winds, are the worst months for fire. And “this week we have dry lightning predicted,” McLean said. That could spark fires in the state’s northern forests.

On the other hand, state officials have been showering Cal Fire with financial aid. The agency’s ranks are bolstered by an additional 400 seasonal firefighters and 13 new engines and crews to operate them. And the state is taking delivery of a new Sikorsky S-70i Firehawk helicopter next month, the first of 12 replacement firefighting helicopters.

“We’ve got everything out of maintenance; everything’s ready,” McLean said.

But don’t look for California’s biggest air tool to come to a rescue anytime soon. The converted 747 jet, which can carry 24,0000 gallons of water or retardant, is currently flying over the Amazon, fighting fires in Brazil.

Mapping the fire threat

Cal Fire is in the process of updating its map of wildfire-hazard zones, identifying areas of fire danger and assigning degrees of risk to those places. The California Public Utilities Commission is revising its fire map as well. So are the state’s power providers and insurance companies.

They’re all trying to better predict where and how wildfires may strike, as officials across the state seek to gain some advantage over fire’s growing menace.

In the case of Cal Fire, the mapmaking — painstaking and devilishly complex, combining detailed data about weather, topography, vegetation and the placement of roads and homes — was last undertaken about 12 years ago. Officials say that doesn’t mean the 2007 version is out of date.

“When you look at hazards by themselves, they are long-term factors that don’t often change,” said Daniel Berlant, Cal Fire assistant deputy director and chief of planning and risk analysis. “The slope of topography is not going to change in a decade.”

But much else has changed. A debilitating drought has come and gone. That and widespread insect infestation wiped out trees in especially fire-prone regions of the state. And more and more Californians are living in the very landscapes that are most flammable.

Cal Fire’s map is used largely by counties and local authorities in making decisions about construction in high-fire-hazard zones and fire-mitigation measures from homeowners. 

Berlant said the document’s “major overhaul” will include the latest science, particularly sophisticated new models for where and how wind drives wildfires. It will be completed sometime next year, he said.

The utility commission’s map is somewhat different. It breaks the state into a grid of one-mile squares, focusing on power companies’ lines and equipment and assigning fire threats. The identification of risk areas dictates what prevention efforts the companies should undertake to safeguard their property from fire.

The map includes Cal Fire and utility-company data, updated yearly.

Mason Withers, who helps run San Diego Gas & Electric’s risk-management group, said his company assumes the worst-case scenario in all of its 4,000-square-mile service territory and assigns its own fire-potential index.

“If vegetation could be dry, we assume it is dry. We assume winds will get as bad as they can get,” he said.

The analysis is intended for use by firefighters and utility companies but is only glanced at by insurers, which have been assembling their own risk assessments for decades. Many companies hire outside firms to provide them with satellite data as well as information from NASA and other federal institutions.

Verisk Analytics provides reports to insurers about risk but does not do forecasting. “We are not trying to predict where the next wildfire is going to happen; it’s too complex,” said Arindam Samanta, the company’s director of product management and innovation.  

Although Cal Fire and the utilities commission publish their maps online, California residents may never hear about them.

“I didn’t know there was one,” said Curtis Simms, who lives in Paradise, which was devastated by a wildfire last year. “You don’t need a map to know you are in a high-risk area. You’re an idiot if you don’t.”

The risk in power shutoffs  

Utilities call it “de-energizing” or Public Safety Power Shutoffs. To consumers, it’s what happens when a power company cuts electricity as a precaution during times of high wildfire risk. 

Officials say the practice is a prudent fire-mitigation strategy, and it’s about to become a widespread tool, whether customers like it or not.

Officials say one in 10 wildfires in California is related to energy equipment. Even as California’s utilities do more to fireproof their lines and transformers, state officials say, the safest course during periods of high heat, dryness and winds may be to turn off power to some lines.

San Diego Gas & Electric has been proactively shutting off power ahead of high-fire-risk periods since 2013, but the state Public Utilities Commission adopted a policy on such cuts only last year. Customers around the rest of the state are still adjusting to the prospect of blackouts.

“Some customers are not particularly enthusiastic about the program when they first hear about it,” said Jeff Smith, a spokesman for Pacific Gas and Electric. “They are frustrated that their power will be turned off but understand it once we tell customers that it’s to reduce fire risk.”

The company experienced that kind of frustration earlier this month when it made public its plan for emergency shutdowns, involving four times as many power lines as in the previous year. Even though PG&E stressed that it doesn’t envision cutting power along every line it operates at once, residents reacted with trepidation.

Smith said the company has hosted dozens of events to describe the program, which is still new to PG&E’s 5 million electricity customers. The utility cut power only once in 2018, during high-fire-risk conditions, and twice this year, he said. The company has established a website for customers to check for shutoff forecasts, as have SDG&E and Southern California Edison.

Companies are loath to curtail power, for reasons that go far beyond spoiled food and other inconveniences. A representative of the city of Malibu testified at a Public Utilities Commission hearing last year that a power outage during a 2018 fire there cut off internet access and made it difficult for residents to keep abreast of emergency information and other public-safety announcements.

“We understand that there are risks on both sides,” Smith said. “There are impacts on first responders, impacts on traffic, on folks that have life-saving equipment they rely on. And there is risk with keeping power on during those high-threat periods.”

Technology has made the shutdowns less expansive. The San Diego utility has adopted a sophisticated system enabling it to curtail power to a single neighborhood or street.

Utilities have been meeting with local officials to discuss emergency power options that cities and counties may use to protect vulnerable people. Some residents are preparing for electrical outages by buying gasoline-powered generators.

Under new state rules, utilities are required to ramp up efforts to inform the public before outages, giving 24 to 48 hours of advance notice, or more, depending on the nature of the fire threat.

Fire-insurance angst

State Insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara laid out the dire news to legislators earlier this month: Insurers have declined to renew 350,000 homeowner policies in high-fire-risk areas in California since 2015, when the state began collecting data.

“I have heard from many local communities about how not being able to obtain insurance can create a domino effect for the local economy, affecting home sales and property taxes,” Lara said in a prepared statement.

“This data should be a wake-up call for state and local policymakers that without action to reduce the risk from extreme wildfires and preserve the insurance market we could see communities unraveling,” he said.

Lara’s news, which did not reflect those who were able to obtain replacement policies, reiterates that for insurers, California remains an expensive place to do business, and for homeowners, a costly place to buy insurance.

The data firm CoreLogic, in a report due out in September, estimates that about 640,000 homes in California are in areas of high or extreme fire risk. The cost to replace those homes: nearly $280 billion.

A RAND Corp. report, prepared for the state last year, estimated that the insurance industry’s underwriting profits of $12 billion from 2001 through 2016, “were almost completely wiped out” by catastrophic wildfires in 2017. Residential insurance claims from the 2017-2018 fires, the worst fire period on record for California, totaled $26 billion.

Mark Sektnan, a lobbyist for the American Property Casualty Insurance Association, a trade group, said that for every dollar taken in via premiums, companies have been paying out $2 for fire claims.

“Things have been changing quickly,” he said, noting that the 1991 Oakland Hills fire, which killed 25 people, was long thought to be the worst-case scenario for loss of life and property. Those once-in-a-generation events are happening with greater frequency, he said.

In the face of the dropped policies, there has been some legislative relief. A law passed last year requires insurers to offer a homeowner who lost a residence to disaster two renewal periods or two years of coverage, whichever is greater.

However, that law doesn’t prevent those whose homes were untouched or only damaged by fire from having their policies cancelled.

Steven Nielsen’s story of frustration is all too familiar to many fire victims. The 52-year-old lost his Santa Rosa home in the October 2017 Tubbs fire in Sonoma County. Bureaucratic entanglements with his insurer of 25 years delayed the rebuilding process.

At the time, insurers were required by law to offer fire victims at least one policy renewal, which Nielsen received, taking him through 2018. But when renewal time came again a few months ago, he said, his insurer sent him a letter saying that because no home was built at his address, the company was dropping him.

Still, he counts himself lucky to have found a company to cover the rebuilt residence when it’s ready. He expects his premium will go up 60-80%.

For California homeowners who cannot find or afford new insurance, there is the FAIR Plan, a bare-bones fire policy created by the state and operated by insurance companies.

Legislation: what’s next

After spending some of this year promising to roll out comprehensive fire legislation, lawmakers hustled a single mega-bill out in July, on a tight schedule, days before their month-long summer recess.

Many in Sacramento and elsewhere are still arguing over the bona fides of the bill, which was brokered by the governor: Is it a reprieve for Pacific Gas and Electric, which filed for bankruptcy because of fire-related liabilities, or substantive improvement in how California addresses wildfire? 

The law does help the state’s largest utility pay fire victims by establishing a $21 billion compensation fund that it and other companies can tap under certain circumstances. It also requires California’s three biggest utilities to spend $5 billion to fireproof their equipment. They had already pledged to spend $3 billion in that effort, replacing wooden poles with steel ones and insulating lines and other equipment.

And for the first time, the state is requiring utilities to obtain a safety certification, setting a standard for safe and responsible operation.

Now comes the legislative mop-up. Pieces of earlier proposals were swept into the mega-bill or reconstituted into new bills.

“We made a lot of progress, but there’s a lot more work to be done,” said state Sen. Bill Dodd, a Democrat from Napa whose district has been beset by wildfires.  

Don’t look for blockbusters; the bills still on the table are more modest, addressing discrete pieces of a complex problem. “None of these things are a be-all, end-all,” Dodd said.

There are bills to fund education programs and brush-clearing projects, beef up enforcement of “defensible space” ordinances and conduct independent audits of the utilities’ fire-mitigation work. Another proposal would establish a state wildfire warning center.

Additional legislation would expand notification periods before power companies shut off electricity to customers, especially to health care facilities and first responders, during times of high fire risk. Another bill would help low-income customers with back-up service or financial aid  during power cutoffs.

And legislators are not finished with PG&E. One proposal would allow the state to sell billions in bonds that would help the company pay off wildfire liabilities exceeding its insurance limits.

Most of the proposals have been put on hold; it’s not clear which, if any, will pass the Legislature before it adjourns in two weeks.

Want to learn more? Check out our comprehensive card deck, California’s worsening wildfires, explained.

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