Category Archives: California Wildfires

PG&E Objects To Judge’s Proposals To Prevent Wildfires

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Pacific Gas & Electric Co. pushed back Friday on a U.S. judge’s revised proposals to prevent the utility’s equipment from causing more wildfires, saying it could not “monitor every tree at every moment of every day” to ensure they don’t pose a threat to its electric lines in violation of California laws.

Judge William Alsup earlier this month proposed requiring the company to fully comply with all vegetation management and clearance laws as part of its probation in a criminal case. Alsup called the utility’s efforts to prevent trees from hitting its power lines and starting wildfires dismal.

That requirement would likely result in probation violations because tree conditions are constantly changing, PG&E said in a court filing.

“A tree that was compliant at the time of a prior inspection might become a non-compliant hazard tree one day later when it is damaged by a natural or man-made event or three months later after a bark beetle infestation has taken hold,” attorneys for the company said.

Alsup should also leave assessments of PG&E’s compliance with vegetation management laws to state law enforcement officials and regulators, the attorneys said.

PG&E also objected to Alsup’s proposal to ban it from paying dividends to shareholders until it meets his vegetation management requirements. The company said that requirement would substantially hamper its ability to raise money from investors, which in turn would affect its safety efforts.

The company has already suspended dividends and said it will not pay any at least until it emerges from bankruptcy.

The company sought bankruptcy protection in January in the face of billions of dollars in potential liability from recent wildfires.

Alsup is overseeing a criminal conviction against PG&E stemming from a 2010 gas line explosion that killed eight people in the San Francisco Bay Area. The judge’s proposals follow devastating wildfires in California in 2017 and 2018 — some of which investigators have blamed on PG&E equipment. Alsup has said his goal is to prevent PG&E equipment from causing any wildfires during the 2019 fire season.

He initially proposed ordering PG&E to undertake more drastic measures, including removing or trimming all trees that could fall on its power lines and cutting off power during certain wind conditions.

Watchdog: FEMA Wrongly Released Personal Data Of Victims

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Federal Emergency Management Agency wrongly released to a contractor the personal information of 2.3 million survivors of devastating 2017 hurricanes and wildfires, potentially exposing the victims to identity fraud and theft, a government watchdog reported Friday.

The Homeland Security Department’s Office of Inspector General found the breach occurred when FEMA was working with a contractor that helps provide temporary housing to those affected by disasters. FEMA is one of Homeland Security’s many agencies; the sprawling 240,000-person department also includes immigration enforcement, and the U.S. Secret Service.

FEMA officials said that since the discovery of the issue, the agency was no longer sharing unnecessary data with the contractor and has conducted a detailed review of the contractor’s information system and has found no indication to suggest data has been compromised.

The agency said in a statement it is working with the contractor to remove the data from its system and has instructed staff to complete additional privacy training.

“FEMA’s goal remains protecting and strengthening the integrity, effectiveness, and security of our disaster programs that help people before, during, and after disasters,” FEMA Press Secretary Lizzie Litzow said in a statement.

Some information, like names, last four digits of a Social Security number and how many people live in a household are required to confirm eligibility and locate housing for victims. But FEMA also provided the contractor with bank names electronic funds transfer numbers and bank transit numbers that were not required by the contractor.

The 2.3 million people lived through California wildfires and Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria.

The watchdog said that FEMA violated both federal privacy laws and also Homeland Security policy by giving the extra data to the contractor, whose name was redacted in the report made public Friday.

The contractor also knew that FEMA was providing too much personal data but didn’t inform the disaster relief agency.

The 2017 hurricane season was particularly brutal. Harvey slammed ashore in Texas on Aug. 25, 2017, as a powerful Category 4 storm. It killed 68 people and deluged much of the Houston metropolitan area — home to more than 6 million people — with 3 to 4 feet of water. Flooding damaged more than 300,000 structures and caused an estimated $125 billion in damage, according to a report from the National Hurricane Center . Irma struck Florida Sept. 10 and battered Georgia and North Carolina, killing 129 and devastating the Florida Keys. Maria made landfall Sept. 20, devastating Puerto Rico and plunging much of the island into darkness for months after, causing major damage and leaving nearly 3,000 people dead.

Wildfires in California in 2017 burned some 1.2 million acres of land, destroyed more than 10,800 structures and killed at least 46, and insurance claims topped $3.3 billion.


Associated Press writer Adam Kealoha Causey in Oklahoma City contributed to this report.

California To Waive Environmental Rules For Fire Season Prep

SACRAMENTO (AP) – California Gov. Gavin Newsom will allow state fire officials to bypass some environmental regulations to clear dead trees and other vegetation ahead of the next wildfire season.

His order will come Friday as he declares a state of emergency, saying the number of dead trees across the state is “creating extremely dangerous fire risk.” California experienced two of its most destructive and deadly wildfire seasons in 2017 and 2018 and experts say climate change is increasing the risks.

“The increasing wildfire risks we face as a state mean we simply can’t wait until a fire starts in order to start deploying emergency resources,” Newsom plans to say, according to excerpts released by his office.

But some environmental groups say Newsom, a Democrat, is taking the wrong approach by waiving environmental rules designed to protect California’s water, wildlife and people. Clearing trees, for example, could hurt the stability of soil and lead to more natural disasters, said Kathryn Phillips, director of the Sierra Club California.

“For some suspension of oversight now, what’s the consequence going to be later?” she said. “Are we going to end up having huge silt floods and mudslides?”

Newsom’s order will cover 35 projects across nearly 141 square miles (365 square kilometers) of land identified by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection as critical to guard against fire threats. The projects are targeted at disadvantaged communities, such as those with high poverty levels and language barriers. They include work around the city of Redding and in Butte County, the sites of major 2018 wildfires. Newsom has directed National Guard troops to help.

The order suspends state rules and regulations for the rest of the calendar year that fall under the California Environmental Protection Agency and the California Natural Resources Agency. That would include requirements under the California Environmental Quality Act, the backbone of the state’s environmental law.

Fire officials would need to get approval from either state agency before moving ahead on the project. It also allows people with timber operator and tree service contractor licenses to do additional work.

Beyond waiving regulations, Newsom is spending $50 million on public outreach efforts around disaster preparedness and response. He’s also issued a request for innovative proposals from the private sector to deal with wildfires.

Copyright 2019 The Associated Press.

Firefighters Looking To Artificial Intelligence Technology To Help Fight Wildfires

SACRAMENTO (CBS13) — Putting a wildfire out quickly is great, preventing one from starting in the first place is even better. How to do that was a hot topic at the Wildfire Technology Innovation Summit Wednesday at Sacramento State.

It turns out, the future of firefighting includes a whole lot of artificial intelligence.

Enview’s artificial intelligence system warns utilities about threats that could cause wildfires. It can identify issues such as trees that are too close to power lines.

UC San Diego’s “Wi-Fire” lab created a 3D model showing how smoke from the Camp Fire affected Butte County.

Firefighters used the tool to predict how quickly a wildfire will spread and which neighborhoods are most at risk.

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The system can be used as a weather forecast, but for fire instead of rain. And speaking of weather, a remote automated weather station measures wind speed, air temperature, humidity, and more.

Firefighters then get updates about the changing conditions on their radios. It doesn’t take long to set the weather stations up near areas that are burning. Experts said they can probably be installed in 10 minutes.

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Keep in mind, all the new technology and gadgets are just tools to keep the firefighters on the ground.

“We still depend on humans, firefighters on the ground physically putting out fires,” said Mike Wilson, Cal Fire Division Chief.When they’re out there we need to get them the best tools possible to make the best decisions to keep them safe and allow them to do their jobs the best.”

The Wildfire Technology Innovation Summit wraps up Thursday at Sacramento State.

California National Guard Troops To Leave Border, Assist In Wildfire Prevention

SACRAMENTO (CBS SF / AP) — California is calling in the National Guard for the first time next month to help protect communities from devastating fires like the Camp Fire that largely destroyed the city of Paradise last fall.

It’s pulling the troops away from President Donald Trump’s border protection efforts and devoting them to fire protection, another area where Trump has been critical of California’s Democratic officials — even repeatedly threatening to cut off federal disaster funding.

Starting in April, 110 California National Guard troops will receive 11 days of training in using shovels, rakes and chain saws to help thin trees and brush, California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection spokesman Mike Mohler said.

They will be divided into five teams that will travel around the state working on forest management projects, mainly clearing or reducing trees and vegetation in an effort to deprive flames of fuel.

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“They will be boots on the ground doing fuels projects alongside Cal Fire crews,” Mohler said. “We’ve had them out for flood fighting, several different operations, but this would be the first time their mission would be fuels thinning and forest management.”

They have helped fight fires before, however.

Former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger was the first in recent decades to deploy California National Guard troops as firefighters. That occurred on July 4, 2008, after lightning storms sparked hundreds of fires, Guard Lt. Col. Jonathan Shiroma said.

He referred questions about the latest effort to Cal Fire, which is directing the Guard’s new assignment.

The training is similar for firefighting and fire protection. Mohler said the troops also will receive some training in forest management, “so they’re not just out there cutting brush” but understand why they’re doing what they’re doing.

For instance, firefighting crews generally cut fire lines down to mineral earth during active wildfires, while fuels management crews often do less-intensive thinning of trees and chaparral to slow advancing flames.

That often involves creating fuel breaks. They can range from stripping away all woody vegetation on wide strips of land to thinning larger trees and removing shorter trees, brush and debris to discourage fires from climbing into treetops and jumping from tree to tree.

Critics say the work damages forests and can be useless against wind-driven fires, like the one that jumped a river to rain embers on the Sierra Nevada foothills community of Paradise last year, killing 85 people in and around the Northern California city of 27,000 people.

“Cal Fire is taking the Trump approach, logging the forest and weakening critical environmental protections, and that’s the exact opposite of what we need to be doing,” Center for Biological Diversity scientist Shaye Wolf said.

She said the better approach is to make homes more fire resistant while pruning vegetation immediately surrounding homes.

Cal Fire this month listed 35 fuel-reduction projects it wants to start immediately, covering more than 140 square miles (362 square kilometers) — double the acreage in previous years. But state officials estimate 23,438 square miles (60,704 square kilometers) of California forestland need thinning or other restoration.

“It’s not a problem that’s going to get fixed overnight,” Mohler said.

Such thinning operations are getting more attention in recent years, with the U.S. Forest Service estimating last month that 18 million trees died in California over the last year.

The agency estimated that more than 147 million trees have died across nearly 15,625 square miles (40,469 square kilometers) during a drought that began in 2010, while about 1.5 million dead trees have been cut down.

Moreover, investigations have often blamed recent wildfires on utilities not doing a good enough job of clearing vegetation around power lines and equipment. Democratic state Sen. Bill Dodd of Napa has proposed legislation that would require CalFire to tell utilities which trees and brush to remove and then inspect the work.

Aside from Guard troops, Cal Fire also is creating 10 civilian fuels management crews this year. The 10-member crews could help with initial fire suppression if need be but will primarily reduce fuels, Mohler said.

“It’s going to be a pretty amazing sight to see as these crews get out there on the ground,” he said. “There’s hundreds of, unfortunately, Paradises cross the state, (so) the public needs to understand this.”

© Copyright 2019 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.

DAs Will Not File Criminal Charges Against PG&E For Oct. 2017 NorCal Wildfires

SANTA ROSA (CBS13) — The District Attorneys for Sonoma, Napa, Humboldt, and Lake Counties announced that no criminal charges will be filed against PG&E for the October 2017 Northern California wildfires.

After reviewing the fires, each office said they determined insufficient evidence exists to prove PG&E “acted with a reckless disregard for human life in causing the fires,” which is the standard necessary to sustain criminal charges.

Cal Fire investigations determined that the utility’s equipment caused numerous fires in four counties, but it did not cause the Nuns Fire, Thirty Seven Fire, or the Tubbs Fire.

PG&E remains on federal criminal probation and is a defendant in many private civil cases arising out of the wildfires seeking, among other remedies, financial compensation. Sonoma County is a party to one of the civil lawsuits.

The utility recently filed for bankruptcy and is said their equipment may have ignited the Camp Fire in Butte County.

East Bay Fire Districts Propose Critical 14-Mile Fire-Break To Protect 500K+ Residents

ORINDA (KPIX 5) — There’s a new plan to protect some of the hillside communities in the East Bay from future wildfires.

Emergency managers with the Moraga Orinda and Contra Costa Fire Protection Districts want to create a fire-break on the north side of Highway 24.

According to Dennis Rein, Moraga Orinda Fire’s Emergency Preparedness Coordinator, the fire-break would stretch from San Pablo Dam Road and move east across Inspiration Point, then parallel Highway 24 to the north before ending near Pleasant Hill Road in Lafayette.

“We’re trying to protect residential areas from a large ‘mega fire,’ if you will, coming out of the north being blown by those high winds into residential areas,” said Rein.

The Fire Protection Districts submitted the proposal for the 14-mile-long, 200-to-500-foot-wide fire-break to CalFire.

It was ranked number 9 out of 35 critical fire prevention projects statewide. All of the projects involve clearing brush and vegetation in high fire danger areas.

All of the plans require approval for state funding before they can start. If the plan is approved for the Lamorinda area, the fire-break would protect 30 East Bay communities and more than half a million people.

“Everybody thinks that, ‘Oh, well that will never happen here,’ but now that we’ve had some bad history of fires here in California, people are starting to look at the facts that, well, it could happen here,” said Rein.

“It’s dangerous. I know it is. I always wonder when is it our time, and hopefully never,” said Maite Gallagher, who has lived in Orinda for more than 16 years.

Residents in these hillside towns said they see similarities to the community of Paradise–the Northern California city was devastated last year by the fast moving Camp Fire, which killed 85 people. Both communities have an older population living in a heavily forested area with limited evacuation routes.

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“In this area, there’s really only two roads in and out: Moraga Road and Moraga Way. It backs up a lot, so if there’s something real serious, it would be tough to get through it,” said David Dickstein, who has lived in Orinda for 10 years.

“No one wants to cut down trees. It’s beautiful to live around here, but I think it’s a necessity if we want to try to prevent those disasters, like what happened to those poor folks up in Paradise. That could happen elsewhere in California,” said resident Joel Compton.

The plan for the fire-break does not involve clear cutting trees. Emergency managers want to remove any dead trees, trim the lower branches of remaining trees and clear all the brush and undergrowth from the fire-break area.

The East Bay Municipal Utility District and the East Bay Regional Parks own the majority of the land for the proposed fire-break. The idea calls for using the National Guard or even inmate fire crews to do the necessary work.

The preliminary estimates put the cost of the fire-break between $2-5 million. Emergency managers hope to get the funding approved within the next few months so the project can start before the summer fire season.

Warming Climate Brings Summers So Dry Even Wet Winters Won’t Dampen Fire Danger

SANTA ROSA (KPIX) — For years, California firefighters have been describing a fire season with no end. A new study from a team of climate scientists and forest experts suggests this is, in fact, the new reality.

With forests packed with fuel and a warming climate making that fuel more likely to burn, even wet winters are no longer protecting California from devastating fire seasons.

Like a lot of people who lost their home in the Tubbs Fire, Scott Dennis is still trying to wrap his head around what happened in the North Bay in October, 2017.

“The night of the fire, for us, was kind of crazy,” Dennis said, standing on the Fountaingrove lot where his house once was.

The Tubbs Fire and the entire fire siege of 2017 was just the first in a series of destructive fires in California.

“Now there’s been what? Maybe three major fires for big communities? You just didn’t think it could happen,” Dennis said.

The Tubbs Fire wasn’t just historic in size and cost. It also defied the notion that a devastating fire season was unlikely after a wet winter.

“Historically it would have been a year where you would not have expected a big fire season,” said Penn State University professor Alan Taylor.

Taylor is part of a team that has been studying California wildfires and they’ve found that what happened in Santa Rosa may be just the beginning.

“All of a sudden it looks like 2017 is a window into the future,” said Dr. Eugene Wahl, a paleo-climate scientist with the the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The team focused on the link between California winters (the amount of rain and snowfall in a given year) and the severity of the fire seasons that follow.

What they found is that a century of fire suppression has created an abundance of fuel in Sierra forests. And, even with a wet winter like the one that preceded the fires of 2017, increasingly warmer, drier summers are simply overwhelming that moisture.

“Now we have a situation where there’s more fuel and it’s really dry — even in wet years,” Taylor explained. “And we get the opportunity for really large fires to occur.”

“It’s not just the warmer summers,” added Wahl. “It’s the warmer winters too. More of the precipitation will fall as rain instead of snow and you see this already. That’s part of what happened with the Oroville Dam two years ago.”

So now there is more hard science behind that “new abnormal” Californians have been talking about and living with.

Wahl says the findings suggest extreme fire conditions are what California is going to be faced with for the foreseeable future.

“It’s the kind of thing that suggests that, more and more, we’re just going to have to get used to it.”