Saturday, June 3, 2023

Life in a Tinder Box—Mendocino County Residents Must Practice Disaster Preparedness to Survive This Era of Wildfire

McKinney Fire from a bridge at Walker Rd and the 96 looking S. (Inciweb/Los Angeles County Fire/Kristian Litz)

As the last long days of July slipped into August, a series of record high temperatures were set in Yreka and Montague, twin jewels of Shasta County that sit astride I-5 very near the Oregon border. Each day for three consecutive days the temperature reached over 110°. And each day eclipsed the old high-temperature record for that day by more than 12°. Humidity was in the low teens.

The magnitude and intensity of the heat, and the fire loading of dry brush and timber surrounding it generated conditions perfect for a fire that could catastrophically spread out of control and covered over 60,000 acres.  And that is exactly what happened. 

Officials report the McKinney Fire’s cause as still undetermined, but affected residents are suing PacificCorp, an electric utility company, claiming the ignition source was sparks from high-voltage transmission lines.

Veteran firefighters with decades of experience on the lines said the rate of flame spread was unprecedented.  The remains of four human beings incinerated in the firestorm were recovered within the devastated area just days after the outbreak.  It came to be known as the McKinney Fire. 

And then on August 2nd, just as quickly and as unexpectedly as it exploded out of control, the fire was substantially quelled by three inches of rain dropped at its eastern edge.  The scale and scope and pace of the storms seemed biblical.  However, even the torrential rainfall was only a temporary wet blanket on the McKinney Fire.  It was never fully doused and reanimated within hours. Firefighters, however, have brought it near containment as this goes to press.

A firefighter surveys his surroundings as 2020’s August Complex Fire raged around him [Picture from the Mendocino National Forest Facebook page]

Welcome to Fire Season 2022.  It is a time of high alert, and it seems an opportune moment to update three topics obsessively on the minds of everyone in the county: 

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  1. Drought and Climate; 
  2. Water Status (that’s reservoir impoundment and well status), and of course 
  3. Fire Outlook and Strategic Update 

Experts we spoke with sounded two clarion calls in common: fire season is getting longer, and more dangerous and personal survival in the coming days will depend on an active partnership between each citizen and emergency responders.  

Each of them said that those people who have not prepared in advance, those who passively wait for rescue risk their lives and are neglecting the essential principles of disaster preparation.  Each expert interviewed drove home the message that surviving the coming test – and it will come – will depend on each person having a survival mindset, and understanding the primary importance of personal responsibility and preparedness.  Residents depending exclusively on government assistance will likely not fare well.

We begin with a drought and water availability update, provided by Mendocino County Supervisor Glenn McGourty, who is also a retired UC Farm Extension Service veteran with 32 years of experience in Mendocino County climate and water issues. McGourty provided some helpful background by pointing out that Mendocino County is about half of the normal rainfall for this point in the year.  That is 50% below average.  And the weather is trending hotter each year.  McGourty noted that water storage in Lake Mendocino is considerably above the same date last year, primarily because a large amount of rain early in the season – last October and November – generated good runoff into impoundment areas.  However, McGourty said that “Improvements to water storage infrastructure are critically needed throughout Mendocino County”, but particularly in Lake Mendocino and smaller communities like Boonville and Fort Bragg.  This will require a considerable and immediate investment of resources if we are to meet the challenge.  

He said that flow rates for wells around the county vary greatly from neighbor to neighbor depending on elevation, the direction of the water table, and other factors. In general, most wells in Mendocino County seem to be on par or better than last year. 

Bob Dass took this photograph of a pyrocumulonimbus rising over Cow Mountain as the Mendocino Complex Fires burned in late July 2018 [Photograph from Bob Dass’s Flickr account]

UC Extension Fire Advisor Lenya Quinn-Davidson studies the intersection of the human population, climate, and fire in Northern California. Quinn Davidson told us that human activity is not only definitely linked to climate change, but it’s also profoundly affecting and perhaps stoking the catastrophic firestorms we are seeing each year. 

She pointed to a short-sighted and misguided fire prevention and firefighting tactics, including “fire exclusion”- attempting to fight every fire and not letting potentially beneficial smaller fires burn through regularly- as being primary drivers in the worsening conflagrations that were seeing right now.

Quinn-Davidson said that in the long term, we will have to change the way we think about fire and human habitation in fire-prone environments. In the era of megafires, it behooves us to recognize that there are definite limits to protecting those who have chosen to locate themselves ever further “beyond the ramparts” of defense perimeters, the protection offered by defined settlements.

From Gold Rush times onward, people have pushed the envelope toward the edges of California’s frontier. But, the choice to build on the edge of the wildland carries risk. An analysis by the Norman B. Leventhal Center for Advanced Urbanism found that nearly 25%, or 11 million of California’s residents, live in the “wildland-urban interface”.

The Little Tujunga Hotshots conducted a firing operation at Kibbey Peak the night of Aug. 8 in the midst of the August Complex Fires [Image from here]

Cal Fire Mendocino Unit Chief Luke Kendall assured us his unit is ready, but that each citizen must be ready individually as well.  Chief Kendall commands a considerable amount of people and equipment – a small army that helps defend against fire including 16 engine companies throughout the county, four bulldozer crews, and an aerial attack squadron based in Ukiah.  That unit, often seen in operation by county residents, consists of two large tanker aircraft that drop water and flame retardant and a third plane, the forward air controller.  This third plane is responsible for planning and directing the other two tanker aircraft, ensuring that they don’t run into each other, and coordinating the big picture.  

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Like McGourty and Davidson, Kendall said that survival for each Mendocino County citizen will depend on preparedness before the disaster strikes.  Key points he emphasized include: creating a zone of defensible space surrounding residences and structures and hardening ourselves mentally and physically to prepare for and meet the challenge of the next disaster when it strikes.   

Chief Kendall was very clear about personal responsibility.  “I have to make triage decisions every day,” he said.  The reality is that if a citizen has failed to harden his home, has failed to clear defensible space, and has failed to prepare evacuation routes in advance, that citizen’s chances of rescue are compromised.  “We will make decisions to defend structures that can be saved, where we have a reasonable chance of success.”  The clear implication is that little if any outside help can be expected if you haven’t done your part to prepare yourself and your property.

The acting head of the Mendocino County Office of Emergency Services Garrett James also emphasized that each citizen must make decisions today to defend their lives and property successfully when the inevitable disaster strikes. Fortunately, he pointed out that his organization provides quite a lot of detail and helpful planning tools for citizens to prepare on Mendoready.org.

In planning for your family’s safety, James said it is key to understand evacuation zones and routes for your area in advance. These are available on the website for Mendocino County residents and will be designated by authorities depending on the nature and location of the emergency.  James emphasized the importance of each resident knowing which zone his home is located within in advance. These zones were established so emergency personnel could target specific areas affected by a disaster. area now, in advance. You will probably not have time to prepare an evacuation plan and route once a disaster strikes. Have a to-go kit in each car and in your home containing critical medication documents, keys, cash, phones, batteries, water, and food.  Details are available on the website.

James said it’s important to stay flexible, have a plan which is discussed and prepared and drilled with friends and family, and then get ready. 

Despite the dire nature of the threats posed by a lengthening and worsening fire season and hotter and drier days, each expert interviewed said that every resident can make choices and decisions today to increase their chance of survival. 

Partnering with fire and emergency response personnel, accepting responsibility to prepare in advance, and hardening our structures and defensive perimeters, are the basic ingredients for a survival plan in the current time of fire.

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    I have a question: With heat being the operative problem, how do we successfully store plastic bottles of water, batteries etc in our vehicles? I have seen certain things swell, and burst making for a royal problem. I’ve seen hand sanitizer bottles look like they were left near a flame… information about this would be gratefully accepted.

    • Thank you for asking that question. Hopefully someone can give a good answer because none of those items are safe to store in a hot vehicle.

  2. Our house was completely defensible according to recommendations, a cattle grazed ranch was between us and the fire. It totally still burned and we barely got out. If you live some amount of rural here’s my 2 cents:

    -know where your keys are
    -keep gas in your tank
    -have a family plan for what car you’re taking.(go together for the love of C$#@!^)
    -keep your car parked facing out
    -keep drinking water and cash in your car.
    -if you dont have time to grab important papers FORGET THEM. They are remarkably easy to get back. Your life or the life of your loved ones is not.
    -keep fire suits and blankets if you live up a possibly inescapable driveway, and keep that driveway free of trees that could fall blocking your escape.
    -keep a wide area cleared of vegetation you can huddle in should you not be able to escape by car.
    -do you know your neighbors? Have you ever met them?
    -does your community have night watch towers, look outs, posts or rounds for a real life human community watch system for the worst nights of the season? Does your community have a giant alarm that works?
    Do you have a shovel to dig yourself into the ground if you are stuck? A mask so you can breathe?

    This goes beyond not dragging chains and clearing the forest a precise footage from your home. Indeed as this article reminds us we are on our own, they’re not comming to rescue us. Go on youtube and listen to the authorities argue over the dispatch in 2017 about where the fire was (potter ?or redwood valley? ) and argue about whether or not they should evacuate people. until it was too late. There wasn’t even enough resources to help if they could. Whats that word that gets thrown around? Unprecedented. We are on our own.

    • I had no problem surviving a similar situation during the Mendocino complex/river fire. In fact I chose to stay near my home & simply waited for an area to burn, after which I moved myself into the previously burned area. This was the exact same thing the fire crews did. Unfortunately they were not able to save our homes but survival was never a problem. Perhaps that is just because I am the type of person who likes danger.
      I did get extremely tired of the smell of smoke & we were trapped there for 5 days because of fallen trees, all the time without any food, clean clothes or showers, but no big deal really.

  3. We lived in Paradise,California at the time of the Campfire. The town had a meeting once a year with fire officials to discuss the precautions to take before a fire and during one. We were given a map designating which area we lived in so that if there was a fire, we could be released one area at a time to avoid congestion and showing us which route to take. There was a limited amount of roads out of town. There was a problem with the emergency alert that morning and the only warning we got was for everyone to get out at once. Thanks to our neighbors calling to wake us up we saw all the smoke and got moving. We had our to-go-kit already to go and the car packed when the first alert went out, We grabbed our 3 dogs and cat and headed out. The traffic was already backed up even though we were probably some of the early ones to leave.
    Our house was one of the few that survived. We lived on a dead end street with 6 other houses. The 4 that had made their houses fire safe survived with a little damage. We were told by a fire captain, who looked at our place after the fire, that had we not prepared our yard by removing trees and brush, the fire would have burned the house. We also didn’t have lawn, we had decorative rock all the way around. A neighbor, who stayed behind, knocked down our fences that connected to our house, which helped a lot.
    Sadly, Paradise is a good example of what can go wrong even if you think you have everything in control. Be safe!

  4. “Yreka and Montague, twin jewels of Shasta County that sit astride I-5”

    Correction, they are in Siskiyou County not Shasta County.

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Andrew Scully
Andrew Scullyhttps://mendocinoundercurrent.com
Wise beyond his years, Scully was a Reporter for his college paper, the UCLA Daily Bruin. He is thrilled to be working with Matt and Mendo Fever.

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