The wildfire liabilities that sent investor-owned Pacific Gas & Electric into Chapter 11 are beginning to have a rating impact on California’s public electric utilities. PG&E filed for bankruptcy in January, facing billions of dollars in claims for property damage and loss of life from wildfires in its service area. Rating agencies have also downgraded California’s two other large investor-owned utilities because of similar risks they face from operations in high-risk wildfire areas and California’s inverse condemnation law.
Congressional leaders reached a short-term spending deal Wednesday that effectively punts most of the contentious funding decisions into the new year. That includes the question of whether to extend a federal law designed to deliver more Northern California water south, which has become a factor in the Delta water-sharing agreement reached earlier this month. Congressional aides said federal wildfire recovery funding will have to wait until the new year. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced Wednesday morning that the Senate would vote on a “simple measure that will continue government funding into February.” More precisely, the spending bill will fund the government through Feb. 8.
More than three months after the Carr Fire was contained, the burned out hillsides the deadly blaze left behind continue to pose a threat to water quality in western Shasta County.
The barren fire-scarred hillsides could cause drinking water quality problems for communities that rely on water from Whiskeytown Lake, according to a report written for the Shasta County Public Works Department.
The second major storm of December dropped far more rain than expected in San Diego County, greatly reducing a wildfire threat that was dangerously high barely a month ago. University Heights received 3.23’’ of rain and Oceanside got 2.82” Both figures are more than twice as high as precipitation projected by the National Weather Service. During a 12 minute period on Thursday night, San Diego International Airport got 0.84”. The airport has now received 4.18” since the rainy season began on October 1st. The average for this time of year is 1.79”.
When residents in De Luz were forced to evacuate about 100 homes during the Rock Fire in July, an emergency generator installed by the Fallbrook Public Utility District proved its value by providing water to help firefighters extinguish the blaze.
The generator was installed about a year ago at the Donnil Pump Station at a cost of about $140,000. Since then, several fires have sparked in the hilly backcountry community north of Fallbrook.
The quick-burning Rock Fire broke out mid-afternoon on July 28 near Sandia Creek and Rock Mountain just south of the Riverside County line. The blaze grew quickly to 74 acres within two hours. Nearby residents were advised to evacuate, affecting about 100 homes.
San Diego Gas & Electric shut off the power for safety to 530 residents in the area at 4:12 p.m., according to information on the SDG&E outage website. The outage cut power to the pump station. FPUD kept water running thanks to the new generator, which is among several recent district projects and upgrades designed to maintain water service during emergencies.
The fire grew to 225 acres, but by 7:30 p.m. the forward spread was stopped. Power was restored gradually through the night, and the evacuation order was lifted the next morning.
Important community safeguard now in place
“Now, we can cover nearly all of the De Luz area during a power outage,” said FPUD General Manager Jack Bebee. “Fire has the potential to quickly spread, so this is a very important safeguard to have in place.”
The Donnil Pump Station conveys water from the San Diego County Water Authority’s aqueduct to the high-pressure zone in De Luz. The station was built before FPUD merged with De Luz Heights Municipal Water District in 1990, and it serves as the principal pump station in that area.
The pump station was upgraded as part of the district’s capital improvement plan. Without an emergency generator, water supply to the area could be cut off during a power outage. If that occurs during a wildfire, it could reduce flows for firefighters when they need it most to protect the community.
During the record-breaking 2018 fire season, the typically clear waters of Cameron Falls in Waterton Lakes National Park in southern Alberta flowed black. But it had nothing to do with the extensive fires that torched much of British Columbia and a small part of Waterton. The carbon came from the remnants of another wildfire that had raced 26 kilometres — from one end of the park to the other — in less than eight hours the year before. Heavy rain from a violent thunderstorm in July 2018 flushed the ash, soot and blackened debris that lay on the forest floor into the Cameron River.
While the peak wind speeds are in the past with the season’s first Santa Ana wind event, gusty winds and a heightened fire threat will persist into Wednesday across Southern California. Santa Ana winds are dry, gusty winds that blow towards the shore from inland desert regions, typically across Southern California during the autumn months. While travel disruptions, flight delays and the risk of property damage and power outages will diminish on Wednesday, the dry air and a breeze will continue to cause some problems.
Encinitas, CA—Olivenhain Municipal Water District invites local residents to attend a workshop that will cover the fundamentals of landscaping for fire protection. This free event will be held on Thursday, October 18, from 5:00 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. at Elfin Forest Recreational Reserve’s Interpretive Center Honoring Susan J. Varty.
Wildfire is a real and constant threat in San Diego County year-round, but particularly in the late summer and fall months. This is especially true in wildland interface areas where homes are right next to the backcountry. Landscape design, plant selection, and maintenance must be done in accordance with fire-safe guidelines.
Wildfire is a real and consistent threat
Plan your landscaping according to principles governing three different zones:
Zone 1: Through smart design elements and plant selection, landscapes should resist ignition and provide 35 feet of actively maintained defensible space around structures and access areas. This maximizes fire prevention and allows access by crews to protect your property from fire, if necessary.
Zone 2: Your landscape should reduce the chances of airborne embers from catching fire through a careful thinning of native vegetation for at least 65 additional feet — a total of 100 feet of defensible space.
Zone 3: Many of San Diego County’s native plant communities including chaparral can survive and recover from infrequent wildfires. Some plants use fire as a signal to begin growth and start the germination process after a fire.
When fires occur too frequently, the ability to survive is disrupted for even the most well-adapted plants. Invasive, non-native plant species have made fires more frequent, of longer duration, and hotter. It is critical to remove invasive plants in fire-prone areas.
Use plants that resist ignition
Some native plants have the ability to prevent airborne plant embers. They have a high salt or water content and low volatile oil content in their leaves. For instance, agaves, aloes, crassulas, and other succulents store extra water in their fleshy leaves.
Five firefighting plant choices include:
- Daylily hybrids
- Coral Aloe
- Indian Mallow
- Bush Morning Glory
- California Sycamore trees
Avoid plants that can fuel wildfires
Messy, oily trees and shrubs, such as eucalyptus and junipers, do the opposite. They ignite quickly, burning hot and long, releasing embers into the air and contributing to the spread of wildfire.
Preventative maintenance includes regularly removing dry grass, thatch, brush, weeds, litter, waste, and dead and dying vegetation. Trees should be properly pruned. Shrubs should be thinned, with dead branches and leaves routinely removed. Leave root structures intact to avoid erosion. Dead leaves and branches are especially flammable on evergreen shrubs and vines such as bougainvillea. Avoid planting these close to homes or other structures.
This article was inspired by the 71-page Sustainable Landscapes Program guidebook available at SustainableLandscapesSD.org. The Water Authority and its partners also offer other great resources for landscaping upgrades, including free WaterSmart classes at WaterSmartSD.org.