Tag Archives: Wildfires

Watchdog: California Wildfire Victims Personal Data Wrongly Released By FEMA

By Christine Weicher

(CBS News) — The Federal Emergency Management Agency, charged with providing support to victims of disasters, unwittingly released private personal information of 2.3 people affected by the 2017 California wildfires and hurricanes Harvey in Texas, Irma in Florida and Maria in Puerto Rico. The agency has acknowledged it is a “major privacy incident”

An investigation by the Office of Inspector General (OIG) and stamped “for official use only” criticized, saying “FEMA did not take steps to ensure it only provided only required data” to transitional shelters, including hotels. “Without corrective action, the disaster survivors involved in the primacy incident are at increased risk of identity theft and fraud,” the report read.

An unnamed private contractor was charged with administering the Transitional Shelter Assistance (TSA) program and had access to social security numbers, bank accounts and bank transfer numbers. Part of the OIG’s report is redacted.

“FEMA provided much more information than was necessary,” FEMA Press Secretary Lizzie Litzow is quoted as saying.

FEMA reported it has complied with the OIG’s recommendations to “safeguard both Personally Identifiable Information and Sensitive Personally Identifiable Information of disaster survivors.

Read Office of Inspector General’s Report

Rebuilding Ramps Up In Santa Rosa’s Coffey Park 17 Months After Wildfire

SANTA ROSA (CBS SF / AP) — An official says that 17 months after a massive wildfire destroyed hundreds of homes in a Wine Country neighborhood, 70 percent of the properties are under construction or have been rebuilt.

Gabe Osburn, Santa Rosa’s deputy director of development services, tells the Press Democrat reconstruction in Coffey Park has ramped up in recent months.

Coffey Park Rebuilding

A house being rebuilt in Santa Rosa’s Coffey Park neighborhood after the deadly North Bay wildfires. (CBS)

An October 2017 fire destroyed 1,422 homes in the working-class community in Santa Rosa.

By October 2018, a year after the fire, only 21 houses had been rebuilt and 520 were under construction. Today, 191 homes in Coffey Park have been completed, while another 689 are under construction.

Jeff Okrepkie, president and founder of neighborhood support group Coffey Strong, says he expects some 700 rebuilt homes to be occupied by midsummer.

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

416 Fire: Wildfire Investigation Taking ‘Longer Than Expected’

DURANGO, Colo. (AP) – Federal officials say an investigation into a wildfire that torched land in southwest Colorado is taking “longer than expected.” The Durango Herald reports that San Juan National Forest spokeswoman Denise Alonzo said Tuesday that the complexity of the 416 Fire investigation, as well as the 35-day government shutdown earlier this year, has delayed Forest Service officials from releasing a final determination.

Smoke from the 416 Fire on June 12, 2018 near Durango (credit: Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

The U.S. Forest Service had previously said a cause would be released in late fall or early winter.

The wildfire broke out June 1 and burned about 84 square miles north of Durango, forced thousands of evacuations and caused economic loss to some business and government sectors of southwest Colorado.

Wildfire Resources

– Visit CBSDenver.com’s Colorado Wildfire section.

Wildfire Photo Galleries

– See images from the most destructive wildfires (Black Forest, Waldo Canyon, High Park and Fourmile), the deadliest (Storm King) and largest wildfire (Hayman) in Colorado history.

(© Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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.

ALSO READ: Newsom Calls Trump Border Policy ‘Comedy,’ Signs Order To Redeploy Guard Troops

“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.

FEMA Extends Housing Program For 2017 Wine Country Fire Survivors

WASHINGTON (CBS SF) — California representatives Mike Thompson (D-CA District 5) and Jared Huffman (D-CA District 2) announced Tuesday that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has granted an extension for the Direct Temporary Housing Program.

The program provides affordable housing for owners and renters whose homes were destroyed in the October 2017 wildfires. The two representatives asked FEMA for an extension earlier in March.

The Direct Temporary Housing Program has been extended to July 10, 2019 for pre-disaster homeowners and to May 10, 2019 for pre-disaster renters. The extension covers all survivors of the fires that occurred between October 8 and October 31, 2017.

ALSO READ: 

“Affordable and available housing was already a problem across our region before the tragic October 2017 fires and the destruction of homes and property has exacerbated that shortage,” said Thompson in a statement. “I will continue fighting to deliver every federal dollar and resource throughout our recovery process.”

“I’m glad to see that FEMA acted swiftly to extend this needed housing assistance,” said Huffman.

“While this progress on the ground is encouraging, we still have a long way to go to achieve security for our fire survivors. I will keep fighting with my colleagues in Congress for services and funding until full recovery is achieved for our community.”

DA: No Criminal Charges Filed Against PG&E For 2017 Wine Country Wildfires

SANTA ROSA (CBS SF) – Beleaguered utility company PG&E will not face criminal charges related to the deadly wildfires that devastated Northern California’s wine country in October 2017.

Sonoma County District Attorney Jill Ravitch, along with the District Attorneys for Napa, Humboldt and Lake Counties made the announcement Tuesday.

Cal Fire has determined that PG&E’s equipment caused many of the fires that scorched at least 245,000 acres in Napa, Lake, Sonoma, Mendocino, Butte, and Solano Counties. There are billions of dollars in civil lawsuits pending against the utility, which filed for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy in January.

After an investigation, the District Attorneys agreed there was not sufficient evidence the utility “acted with a reckless regard for human life,” the criteria to sustain charges of criminal negligence. If there were, PG&E could have faced murder charges.

Prosecutors said it could not be proven beyond a reasonable doubt that “PG&E acted with criminal negligence in failing to remove dead and dying trees.”

“Proving PG&E failed in their duty to remove trees was made particularly difficult in this context as the locations where the fires occurred, and where physical evidence could have been located, were decimated by the fires,” they said in a statement.

Even in the absence of criminal negligence, PG&E is facing up to $30 billion in damages if their equipment is to blame.

The October 2017 firestorm was the deadliest, most destructive wildfire in California history. At least 86 people died and 15,000 homes were destroyed.

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.

ALSO READ: 

“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.”