Amid a record-breaking fire year, a new report out Thursday says the state lacks a grasp on the true costs of wildfires. The report is from the California Council on Science and Technology, an independent nonprofit organization established to offer state leaders objective advice from scientists and research institutions.
After months of devastating wildfires and waiting desperately for the upcoming wet winter season to bring relief, some communities in California are now at high risk of potentially deadly mudslides.
The fires burned thousands of square miles of land and left scorched and barren hillsides vulnerable to an especially dangerous fast-moving type of landslide that scientists call “debris flow.” Known less formally as mudslides, these flows are typically triggered by short, intense storms and can send tides of soil, ash, vegetation, rocks and even cars and homes careening downhill, destroying everything in their path.
Hot, dry conditions and intense winds across California are threatening to reinvigorate what has already been the worst fire season in state history, officials warned on Tuesday. Gusty winds in California’s north and extreme heat in its south are creating conditions that could fan wildfires that began earlier in the summer as well as spark new ones, leading state and federal authorities to urge residents to prepare.
The Sweetwater Authority and the Otay Water District collaborated with multiple agencies during the recent Valley Fire in San Diego County. Water infrastructure played a key role in the firefighting effort.
Cooperation and collaboration are critical elements during wildfires. Both water agencies worked with multiple responders, including U.S. Forest Service firefighters, CALFIRE and SDG&E, to ensure the safety of crews and keep a safe, reliable water supply flowing for their customers.
The Valley Fire started September 5, southeast of Alpine in the Cleveland National Forest. Before it was fully contained on September 24, the wildfire burned 16,390 acres and destroyed at least 30 homes, according to officials with the Cleveland National Forest.
Loveland Reservoir plays key role in firefighting efforts
Water agency infrastructure, employees and the public were directly threatened. The fire started in Alpine near the Sweetwater Authority Loveland Reservoir. Employees and anglers at the reservoir had to be evacuated.
Reservoir water was used throughout the firefighting efforts. Designated as critical infrastructure, Loveland was protected by fire crews, who used bulldozers on the property to create fire breaks.
Sweetwater Authority also made water tankers available to provide drinking water to crews and other agencies working the fire.
Infrastructure at Loveland Reservoir to protect water quality and provide for recreation was protected and did not sustain damage during the fire.
“We are grateful to the firefighters who worked tirelessly to protect Loveland Reservoir,” said Sweetwater Authority General Manager Tish Berge. “This reservoir is crucial in providing local water and keeping water rates low for our customers.”
The region was in the early stages of a prolonged heatwave when the fire started. The San Diego Union-Tribune reporters covering the fire wrote on September 5:
El Cajon hit 114 degrees and Alpine reached 113 — the highest temperatures ever recorded in those communities — while Ramona got to 112 and San Diego State University topped out at 105, according to the National Weather Service.
By Saturday night, fire fighters were working to control a wildfire that grew to more than 1,500 acres in the rural Japatul Valley area of East County, threatening homes and forcing evacuations.
“We’re throwing everything at it,” said Cal Fire spokesman Kendal Bortisser, as teams used helicopters and air tankers to make water drops. “It is going to be an extreme-attack fire. It is nothing we are putting out tonight.”
Otay Water District urges energy conservation
The Otay Water District safely curtailed electric power at its facilities during the Valley Fire as requested by SDG&E to help alleviate fire and weather concerns.
In addition to the prolonged heatwave and the Valley Fire, SDG&E continued to monitor potential high fire risk weather conditions. Those conditions may have forced SDG&E to shut off power to reduce the risk of a wildfire. Prior to the Valley Fire, Otay encouraged customers in its service area to safely conserve energy.
“We believe that any actions a local water agency like the Otay Water District can take to help SDG&E during heatwaves and the fires contributes to the region’s safety as a community,” said Otay Water District General Manager Jose Martinez.
Fighting wildfires involves cooperation from many agencies. The Valley Fire is another example of how water agencies, and water infrastructure, are key parts of those efforts. The cause of the fire remains under investigation.
With record-breaking temperatures, an increasing number of wildfires and drought conditions in most parts of the state, the water district’s ability to be ready and resilient is critical.
As Marin County’s largest water provider, it is the Marin Municipal Water District’s responsibility to provide customers with a safe, reliable supply of water, even under these challenging conditions. Emergency preparedness, a strategically managed water supply and the creation of water conservation programs to help customers use water wisely are all part of that effort.
The devastating wildfires raging across the western United States are a wake-up call for anyone who continues to doubt the financial and economic implications of climate change.
Last month, the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission published a comprehensive report on the risks climate change poses to U.S. financial markets, stating in clear terms that “a world wracked by frequent and devastating shocks from climate change cannot sustain the fundamental conditions supporting our financial system.”
State and local officials are sounding the alarm on water pollution and potential long-term impacts to water caused by ongoing wildfires. As wildfires rage, vegetation and soil are scorched and ash is pushed into Colorado rivers and streams.
“A lot of that ash will get into the water and can change the pH levels,” said Jason Clay with Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
The National Weather Service says that conditions are in place for a La Niña weather pattern in the fall and winter of 2020-21. That could bring warmer, drier than usual weather to San Diego over the next few months.
By definition, La Niña happens when the water along the equator is colder than usual. That pushes the jet stream farther north and directs storms away from the Pacific Southwest region of the United States.
After a wildfire ripped through central California last month, residents in the Riverside Grove neighborhood in the Santa Cruz Mountains discovered another danger: contaminated water coursing through their pipes.
Benzene, a chemical tied to cancer, leukemia and anemia, was detected in the town’s drinking water after 7 miles of plastic water piping was torched in the CZU Lightning Complex Fire south of San Francisco. Plastic pipes are used for their flexibility in earthquake-prone California. Today, about 450 homes there remain under a “do not drink” advisory.
The CZU Lightning Complex Fire’s threat to water quality in Santa Cruz came into sharper focus Tuesday as a Cal Fire emergency watershed response team neared completion of a damage study.
The most pressing risk is debris that could clog the San Lorenzo River near River Street and Highway 1 where water enters the city’s system, said Santa Cruz Water Director Rosemary Menard. The San Lorenzo River is the city’s largest water source. It represents about 45% of the water supply.