Santa Rosa fires spark controversy and reaction

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There is little doubt about the devastation caused by the Santa Rosa fires in Northern California last month (see “Former FSC president loses home in Santa Rosa fires” in the Nov. 9 issue of the Town Crier). The Tubbs Fire, one of several in Napa and Sonoma counties, burned through Santa Rosa with estimated damage costs exceeding $1.2 billion.

Since then, commentary about the blazes and subsequent actions has been prompt and occasionally controversial.

The California Chaparral Institute of Escondido has openly pleaded with the media to correct accounts that have been printed in the West about the native fuels feeding the fire. Last week, the California Public Utilities Commission imposed new regulations on utilities in an effort to reduce the risk of wildfires caused by faulty transmission lines.

Richard Halsey, president of the Chaparral Institute, was concerned about an article that appeared in the High Country News (www.hcn.org/articles/wildfire-what-role-did-wildlands-play-in-californias-wine-country-fires).

After interviewing a Cal Fire official and professors at both the University of California, Berkeley, and Humboldt State, the author not only described the topography and vegetation in the burned area, but wrote the following: “And both forests and shrublands were overgrown, choked with underbrush and small trees that provided a continuous source of fuel as the fires moved across the hilly terrain.”

In Halsey’s email to Southern California media, “A plea to journalists,” Halsey wrote, “Portraying the ecology of the region as ‘choked’ by native shrublands not only demonizes California’s richly biodiverse, characteristic habitat, the chaparral, but fails to come close to explaining why and how the fires occurred. … the article simply repeated hackneyed phrases over-used to describe fires in the western US.”

Halsey’s point was that building housing developments in areas that are naturally prone to fires is poor planning. And inadequate fuel abatement exacerbates the potential threat. He provided a map comparing the Tubbs Fire with the 1964 Hanley Fire. Their boundaries are nearly identical.

Halsey continues with the comparison and argues that the local planning commission erred in permitting a housing development in such a fire-vulnerable area. Further, although the High Country article, based on interviews shortly after the fire, said it started well into the wildland, more recent investigations appear to locate the ignition near a local highway.

Litigation has been filed against Pacific Gas and Electric Co. blaming its power lines, but last week PGE responded with a counter claim that a private power line in Napa County may have started the fire.

While this tragedy cannot be denied, it clearly re-enforces the multiple and annual encouragement from local fire officials — federal, state and local — to Hill residents that fire abatement is a necessary, not optional, tool to reduce fire threat and protect homes.

This also was one of the conclusions of the High Country News article: “Experts say that it’s already clear that to protect communities in the future, fighting fires will not be enough. Communities near forests and shrublands need to cut down some trees and remove the underbrush or use controlled burns.”

Consistent with this approach, the CPUC recently proposed new regulations for utilities to improve protection of power lines in high fire-threat areas. One new step is the decision to employ the state and federal fire-threat maps.

Based on the fire-threat map, the new regulation will expand utilities’ responsibilities in high-fire areas. Among the new requirements are to increase clearances between vegetation and power lines throughout the High Fire-Threat District; to create more stringent wire-to-wire clearances for new and reconstructed facilities in Tier 3; and to conduct annual patrol inspections of their overhead distribution facilities in rural areas of Tier 2 and Tier 3.

A Tier 3 area is defined as “areas on the CPUC Fire-Threat Map where there is an extreme risk for destructive utility-associated wildfires.”

The whole proposal and all requirements can be found at the CPUC site or online at the Town Crier.

The CPUC will consider and vote on the new requirements at its Dec. 14 meeting in San Francisco.

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