Understanding the Atlas 2017 Wildfires

Written for an attorney dealing with wildfires.

Atlas Fire. Napa and Solano Counties. 

The rainy season was late, and on the evening of October 8th a hot winds swept through Napa Valley. A little before 10pm, a large tree branch at 4011 Atlas Peak Road made contact with a powerline owned by Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E), a second branch fell on the same line in a different location, so beginning the Atlas Fire which filled idyllic valleys with dystopian smoke and displaced thousands of people from their homes during the two weeks it raged. Daily, the headlines of the local newspapers recorded new evacuation notices, closures, cancellations, and updated death tolls as firefighters struggled to contain the fastmoving fires.

The Napa Valley Patch reported on October 18th that the Atlas fire was 84% contained. At that point it had burned 51,064 acres. It was fully contained Oct 27th. By the time the Atlas Wildfire was over, it had burned 51,624 acres and damaged 783 structures and destroyed 120. There were six civilian casualties, including an elderly couple who had been married 75 years.

The Weather Factor

California has been in the headlines for devastating wildfires much more than usual for the past few years. Is it just that we’re paying attention, or has something changed? As with most disasters, there are many factors and for California one major factor is the weather.

Oklahoma has tornado season, Florida has hurricane season, and California has wildfire season. But normally, California’s rainy season starts in October which brings some moderation to the fall burning of dry scrub. In 2017, the rainy season was off to a late and somewhat lackluster start. This gave fire season a longer and more brutal run than it would normally have.

There were other contributing conditions which had been building since at least the winter prior. Oddly enough, the winter of 2016-2017 had been the state’s second wettest winter, with near record precipitation re-stocking the anemic, drought drained, snowpack. The wet winter cause the deserts to bloom with wildflowers, pictures of Death Valley flooded with glorious color filled the internet two years in a row, hailing an exceptionally lush growing season throughout the region. Abundant verdant vegetation was then baked into tinder by the hottest summer on record.

The Santa Ana winds are strong winds, which blow typically May through September, from the Great Basin and Mojave Desert. High pressure systems move air down the coastal mountains of southern California; the mountains then funnel the winds into channels where they gather speed and lose moisture. Once there is a fire, the winds push and spread the fires so the spread with heart stopping speed through the vulnerable dry vegetation.

Due to fire-suppressing policies, which for decades have caused dry scrub to accumulate throughout arid regions, natural drought cycles, and the weather of global warming, California is unusually stocked with fast burning kindling. The accumulation is such that California and the rest of the US Southwest are likely to face long and devasting fire seasons as the century progresses.

According to the US National Climate Assessment, models project “up to a 74% increase in burned area in California, with northern California potentially experiencing a doubling under a high emissions scenario toward the end of century.”

In this box of dry underbrush, where any spark is an enormous risk, we string electrical lines pulsing with energy.

The Utility Equipment Factor

If California is so primed to burn, why is PG&E in trouble? Residents started lining up to sue PG&E before the fires were even contained, and over 150 lawsuits were filed in the months following the Fire Siege. However, it is because California is a tinderbox that PG&E’s responsibility to maintain the power lines and equipment and implement proactive policies is so enormous. One bad policy can lead to catastrophe. PG&E is the largest utility company in California, their policies and procedures on line and equipment maintenance have far reaching consequences. Most of the fires that started October 8th have been linked to power lines or other utility equipment. Mounting evidence suggests that the fires across California on October 8th are connected to a single system failure.

In the Atlas Fire that burned through Napa and Solano Counties, the powerlines belonged to PG&E. Tree branches came into contact with the wires and sparks caused them to catch fire. CALFire referred this instance to the appropriate district attorney due to evidence suggesting violation of state law.

There is a documented history of inadequate fire safety from PG&E and their aging infrastructure. PG&E possesses over 10 days are historical data about seasonal winds in the region. Should be proactive in coming up with solutions to prevent the loss of life and property caused by massive wildfires.

A device common to the utility industry may be responsible for the fires, and it’s called a “recloser.” Essentially, reclosers are like automated circuit breakers. They are programmed to shoot pulses of electricity through lines that have tripped off. The pulse finds if conditions on the line are normal, and if conditions do seem normal then the recloser will restart the power. The recloser device is intended to reduce blackouts, especially in remote and rural regions. Just like the lines in your house, sometimes circuits trip and simply need to be flipped again and restart safely. Reclosers are typically programmed to try 1 to 3 times to restart a tripped line.

If the line is touching branches or other dry kindling, the pulse could easily start a fire. In fact, reclosers have been implicated in wildfires before. Two of California’s three investor-owned utility companies, San Diego Gas & Electric Co., and Southern California Edison, have policies that reclosers should be reprogrammed and turned off during fire season so they do not try to restart downed power lines. PG&E has been experimenting with a similar policy, but on October 8th, not all of the reclosers in the North Bay were participating in the practice.

Wildfire Preparedness

CALFire provides resources for facing fire disasters as only an experienced agency can at http://www.readyforwildfire.org/ CALFire gives tips for long term preventative measures, including fire-resistant landscaping. They also give a guide for evacuation, emergency kits, preparing your family, and resources and information for returning home to rebuild.